The flap over the fluency gap

As schools turn to international students to fill chairs and coffers, concerns grow about English proficiency

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Tim Krochak

Tim Krochak

At 23, Dalhousie University student Ishika Sharma speaks with such self-assurance and optimism, it’s hard to imagine how lost she felt in September 2012, when she arrived in Halifax from New Delhi. She recalls those early weeks in the YMCA’s international-student residence as a bleak period of culture shock and loneliness. “Oh my god, the international student housing was a weepfest for the first two months,” she says. Gradually, the closed doors of her neighbours would open, if only to share late-night hot chocolate and a bit of sympathy.

Sharma was more fortunate than most. While she grew up speaking Hindi and Punjabi, she arrived with a solid command of English, the language she used in most of the undergraduate courses in physiotherapy she studied in India. “Many of the students who joined the university with me were not well-versed in English,” she says. “They had trouble getting along with people in English. They had trouble asking for help, and that was a big reason why they did not socialize enough.”

The adjustment to university life is tough enough for Canadians, but imagine the difficulty of the growing cohort of international students who must cope with a new country, a different culture and high-level studies in a foreign language. It’s a challenge that post-secondary institutions are working to meet—with mixed results—as foreign enrolment surges to unprecedented levels. More than 100,000 international students enrolled in Canadian schools in 2012 alone, a 60 per cent increase from 2004. Last year, a federal advisory panel on international-education strategy, headed by University of Western Ontario President Amit Chakma, proposed doubling the total population of 239,000 “quality international students” studying here in the next decade.

Aside from the admirable aim of adding a global perspective to Canadian classrooms, international students are a compelling economic windfall and a potential addition to the skilled workforce. They represent an $8-billion annual boost to the Canadian economy, and a bonanza for universities who ding them with tuition fees that can be three times higher than those paid by domestic students.

But students who arrive at Canadian universities with a poor grasp of English or French flounder, and domestic students worry that a large student cohort with limited language proficiency lowers the quality of instruction and hinders classroom discourse.

The matters of some international students’ academic readiness, and of the support universities offer once the tuition cheques are cashed, are often given short shrift, or attacked as too unworthy, small-minded or xenophobic to broach. A rare few academics have stirred up a hornet’s nest by warning that an influx of international students struggling with the language of instruction can carry a heavy price.

This April, Cameron Louis, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Regina, asked the university’s council to examine the standardized fluency tests students complete online in their home countries and that universities use to determine acceptance. He urged the university to determine if the test results are “free of abuse,” if proficiency criteria are rigorous enough, and asked that more of the tuition paid by international students be used for tutoring, support and transition programs. “The university must face up to the fact that admission of linguistically underqualified students has consequences for both the students and the university, such as the incursion of large expenditures and debts by many families, some of them from the Third World, without [an academic] return,” stated his motion, tabled at a meeting of the university council.

The issue has resulted in “increasing instances of academic misconduct by desperate students, who are convinced that, for lack of language skills, their only chance of success is through cheating,” it reads. And faculty are frustrated at attempting a task “that was doomed to failure from the beginning; and [at] an inevitable long-term erosion of academic standards.” Louis declined to comment further. “I feel we are well on the way to resolving the issue within the university, especially after my discussions with the president about it,” he replied to emailed questions.

The sensitivity is highlighted by the outrage generated by a blunt opinion piece, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus: ESL students and the Erosion of Higher Education,” published in August on the website of University Affairs, the magazine of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Written by Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney, the article describes their experiences at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., where they have “both taught graduate courses where a significant portion of the class consists of ESL (English as a second language) students.”

“There is no sugar-coated way to say this: Many of those [international students] who are welcomed at our universities are simply unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom,” they wrote.

Not only was there pressure on faculty to “adjust their expectations,” but “layers of common cultural and historical understanding that serve as a foundation for graduate discussion disappear from beneath one’s feet.” In extreme cases, they wrote, “one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers,” using class time for basic vocabulary and grammar. “Qualified students can hardly be blamed if they slouch in their seats and study their shoelaces as the professor iterates, yet again, something they learned in grade school.”

The article lit up the comments section of the magazine’s website with academics extolling the virtues of international students and accusing the authors of, to put it kindly, cultural insensitivity. But neither Keeney, now an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, nor Friesen, now an associate professor at Boise State University, is backing down. Both professors have studied, lectured and taught in languages other than English and French, and appreciate the benefits of an international campus, they said in a written response to their critics. Both have taught “exemplary” international students whose experiences enrich overall scholarship, but their concern is that ill-prepared students lower classroom standards, particularly in language-dependant humanities programs—a problem “that has gone little noticed and discussed,” they said. “One of our frustrations is the lack of institutional support for international graduate students.”

Some universities are responding with improved language, academic and cultural instruction, and with innovative programs. The University of Toronto has an intensive three-month summer “Green Path” program to give high-achieving Chinese students, hosted at the Scarborough campus, a head start on language and cultural integration before starting first-year studies. Depending on their summer marks, the students assume a full or partial course load in the fall or, with a failing grade, can be denied enrolment.

In August, the University of British Columbia opens its new Vantage College, aimed at “exceptional graduates,” primarily from Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries where students’ school systems and language of instruction leave them at a disadvantage. The year-long program will include additional English-language and cultural instruction. “Our students must meet the same academic requirements as other undergraduates,” Vantage Principal James Ridge said in announcing the new school, “but their year with us will allow them to improve their academic English transition to a major Canadian university, and complete their first year of studies.” The program won’t affect the number of domestic students accepted, currently 84 per cent of UBC’s undergrad population.

There is much self-interest in ensuring the success of international students. Nowhere is that truer than in the Maritimes, where the health and, perhaps, survival of some universities depend on attracting out-of-region and out-of-country students to buffer a drop in enrolment. The number of international undergraduate students has increased 138 per cent, and graduate students by 101 per cent, in the 10 years to 2011. They now account for more than one in 10 students, says the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. The largest enrolment is from China, followed by Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and India, but includes students from more than 160 countries.

An extensive study on the impact and needs of international students was recently completed by the advocacy group StudentsNS (Nova Scotia). “We’re projecting that, by 2031, if we want to have the same-sized university system we have now in Nova Scotia, we’re going to have to have twice as many international students,” says Jonathan Williams, executive director and author of the study. “You’re going to be looking at almost a third of the student population coming from overseas.”

The students represent “an incredible opportunity to attract immigrants to our province,” Williams said in an interview. But the report, based on consultation with international and domestic students, identified serious concerns, including “very limited” language programs and too many students graduating “without attaining fluency in the language of instruction.” The report called a lack of fluency “perhaps the key consideration for professors in adapting their teaching and marking to preserve fairness.” Said Williams: “Addressing the language concern is an important step, not just for international students, but for domestic students.”

At Dalhousie, Sharma serves on the executive of the International Students Association. She sees the isolation of some fellow international students ruining their experience both on campus and off, at least in the early months. Although they met the university’s language proficiency scores, “when they got here and it came to talking amongst people, it wasn’t the same.” Some feel they were sold false promises by third-party recruiters in their home countries, and others feel they are exploited for their premium tuition fees, she said.

While Sharma wants more of those fees invested in support programs, the student association has also upped its game by increasing orientation and advocacy programs. It is also reaching out to other students. Nova Scotia native Hannah Horne-Robinson, a 24-year-old psychology student, volunteers her services, offering advice on social, practical and cultural issues—everything from where to buy winter clothes to limiting alcohol consumption: “Don’t try to keep up with the Canadians.”

She’s bonded with several foreign students and isn’t reticent to break into a clique to draw them into an English conversation. “Both sides need to step up and introduce themselves and make the effort,” she said. The reward is an openness to different cultures and viewpoints, she said. “And isn’t that the point of university?”