Do international students need better English skills?

Why some on campus are calling for more language help
International students at the University of Winnipeg (Marianne Helm for Maclean's)

Professors at the University of Regina, which has doubled its international student population from 730 in 2009 to 1,448 in 2013, say students are being admitted without good enough English.

English professor Susan Johnston told CBC that some don’t have the listening skills to understand what’s going on in classes and they also appear to be crafting papers in one language and converting them to English, “through some kind of Google Translator or BabelFish program.”

The discussion isn’t limited to Saskatchewan. The international student population grew by 60 per cent nationwide between 2004 and 2012.

While universities are happy to have the extra tuition, funding and diversity that foreign students bring, schools face pressure to make sure these new recruits can read, write and speak well enough to succeed.

Students Nova Scotia, an advocacy group, recently studied international students. After consulting government, professors and students (both foreign and domestic) they concluded that, “language fluency is possibly the most important academic challenge affecting international students.”

The extensive report says that the usefulness of English tests used to admit students may be part of the problem. The report cites a study from the University of Western Ontario that showed the widely-used Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a poor predictor of academic performance, possibly because the tests are written while much of what goes on in classes is oral.

Fraudulent tests are also a problem, at least in the U.S. The University of Denver noticed many international students were failing, so they decided recently to re-test them upon arrival. Marjorie Smith, director of Denver’s Office of International Student Admission, told Inside Higher Education that 23 out of 120 students (all from China) failed. The same article points out that businesses have opened in China to combat fraud by helping vet students through video recordings.

Students Nova Scotia supports the economic and cultural advantages that international students provide, but they want the government to make sure all students who graduate have good enough English. They propose, among other things, making sure some of the provincial funding for international students (estimated at $30 million) is earmarked for English language instruction.

Not everyone sees a problem, however. Rafael Garcia, the international student representative to the University of Regina’s Student Union, says he thinks students are getting all the language help they need. He says the concerns he hears from foreign students aren’t about academic trouble but are instead things like finding housing or, for Muslim students, spaces to pray.

Garcia left Venezuela for Canada six years ago and took nearly two years of English as a Second Language courses before starting his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Even after the two years of ESL, it was a difficult transition, he says, but the University of Regina was there to help.

“In first year, I had to put in maybe two to three times as much work as I’m doing now,” he says. “I’m sure every international student goes through that phase,”  he adds. He says the UR International office was very supportive and pointed him to the campus writing centre where tutors help students like him improve their essays. Heading into year four, he still uses the freely-provided service.

Deirdre Flynn, who teaches English Literature at the University of Toronto, says international students struggle. “As one who has written articles in a second language (French), I know they have to work ten-times as hard as native speakers when it comes to articulating complex, linguistically and logically sophisticated arguments in a second language.” She adds, “I know how frustrating it can be for them to stumble on basic language issues when they are thinking at very high levels.”

But are Flynn’s students passable? “It is not fun or easy for them to write in English,” she says, “but they do it well enough to earn their marks and, ultimately, their degrees.”

Still, it’s easy to understand the concern. If large numbers of graduates can’t conduct themselves well enough in English, Canada will lose out. Either the course standards will fall and students will be graduate with lower-quality degrees or more of them will fail and head back to their homelands bitter about Canadian education. Either way, Canada’s reputation for high-quality universities would suffer and we would miss out on the cultural and economic rewards international students bring.