Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing quite a lot of IELTS examining. For those who don’t know, this is how I earn most of my dough these days. IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System, and it’s the language test that people do if they want to immigrate to or study in Australia.
The exam often comes under criticism from people who think that international students, and their generally low level of English, are degrading the prestige of our colleges and universities. To an extent this is true, but it’s not the fault of the exam, it’s the fault of the universities, who set the entry requirements to their courses.
In my opinion, and also that of many others, an IELTS 7 (candidates get a band score out of 1 and 9) indicates a sufficient language level to undertake tertiary study. Basically it’s someone who can communicate and understand without any difficulties, but they still aren’t fully confident, make some grammatical and vocabulary errors and their accent is noticeable. If all international students at Australian universities were an IELTS 7, we’d have nothing to worry about.
But the universities, through a number of channels, allow students with much weaker language skills onto campus. For some courses, they drastically lower the entry requirements. The University of Ballarat appears to be the worst, with students able to enter some diploma and degree programs with an IELTS 5.5. A person communicating at this level is hard enough for me to understand, let alone a person with minimal exposure to overseas students.
Most of the major universities are now running tertiary preparation (I call them ‘back-door’) programs, through which the students are ‘promised’ that after a 10-12 week preparation course they will be able to get the right score to get into university. They have deals with their campuses to let students into some degree programs straight from the course. The courses have varying degrees of success. The Sydney University preparation course was so unsuccessful at increasing their students’s language ability to even the reduced entry requirement that the university created it’s own test, the e-test, to give their students another leg-up into campus.
The prime reason for all of this is money. The Australian government wound back public funding of universities and demanded that universities became financially accountable. The money had to come from somewhere, and full fee-paying international students fill the void. If the students aren’t up to scratch, just lower the entry requirements, we need their money.
And the consequences of this are not just the devaluing of our education system, which is serious enough for left-leaning tanks like me. Two years ago, ACU (Australian Catholic University) lost its accreditation with the NSW Nursing Board, because they were relaeasing ‘registered nurses’ into Australian hospitals who, due to poor language skills, were making mistakes which threatened both the health and lives of patients.
The Australian Nursing Registration Board currently requires all international nursing graduates to achieve an IELTS 7 before they can work as a registered nurse in Australia. The process has come full circle, with the universities making a lot of money in-between. Education is now one of Australia’s largest export industries. Good to know that the economy is benefitting from the decline in our education standards.