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How to recruit the world’s best international students

A curious feeling of dismay is exhibited by many educators when PISA scores are released that show Australia’s seemingly intractable steady decline against the OECD average, and against other countries in our region. A similar feeling of dismay is also exhibited by many educators when they describe a sense of falling academic standards in our tertiary education institutions because of the addition of so many international students.

Australia’s PISA scores have been declining ever since we first participated in the global sampling study in 2000 (in Reading since 2000, in Mathematics since 2003 and in Science since 2012). Conversely, whereas 10 per cent of Australian students achieved Level 5 in mathematics or higher, the percentage of students who achieved this level in our near neighbours include Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China) (44 per cent), Singapore (37 per cent), Hong Kong (China) (29 per cent), Macao (China) (28 per cent), Chinese Taipei (23 per cent) and Korea (21 per cent). Despite these amazing scores from the countries in which we recruit international students, there is still a prevailing sense that somehow our international students put downward pressure on our academic quality.

How could these contradictory results or feelings be reconciled? Could it be that there is a simple solution? Could it be that we are taking in incredibly bright students from our Asian neighbours and then making them study in English?

It is a sad but true reality that the world’s brightest students are not primed for Australia. The marketing parlance of the student decision-making tree is useful if you think about the soil in which these decision-making trees are grown. Cultural priming starts at an early age when the former colonial glory of the UK and the former cultural significance of the great American dream loomed large on the TV sets and imported merchandise worn on the streets of developing countries.

Australia is almost always a second destination and we do not top the world rankings for prestigious research-based universities. Given the fact that there can only be 100 universities in the Top 100 universities, we all know that shunting every spare teaching dollar into research in order to move up theses rankings has been a Sisyphean task.

Sispyhus was given his boulder to lug uphill in Hades for all time because he had ticked off Zeus with his hubris too many times. Australian universities have voluntarily taken on this Sispyhean task because of a lack of hubris – we feel the cultural cringe that our research, our theorising, our discoveries, are not perhaps really as good as those of the UK and US. This is, quite simply, a sad hangover of our colonial past. Our second-preference status works in our favour when the dollar is low compared to Asian currencies and right at the moment, when a pandemic is not under control in our major competitor markets of the US and the UK. But it won’t last.

We have very low English language requirements for the courses for which there is international demand. We try to use global examples (McDonalds, for example, in a commerce tutorial), and if you’ve ever had to mark written work in business, humanities and the social sciences from students with an IELTS of 6.0, I don’t have to explain to you why we are not giving these students an excellent education.

Because of the accommodations we make to take in large numbers of students with low English levels, we don’t give a good student experience to our domestic students either. All we get out of this is money – we certainly don’t get quality, enhanced reputation or a system we can be proud of.

There is a way to have better students – students able to wow us with the critical thinking skills and disciplinary knowledge we are teaching them. It is a solution long overdue and of which TEQSA maintains an anachronistic stance, but if there was ever time for change, surely it is now.

As a young teaching assistant and sessional lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, I could teach in English or French, but not both and students could submit their work in either, but not both. We would hold additional ‘free’ tutorials for Francophone students who had trouble expressing themselves fluently and understanding the more complex ideas in English. But this bilingualism was about nationalism, not academic excellence and the time has come to move beyond indefensible notions of the English language as somehow intrinsic to being Australian or delivering a better education outcome.

There is absolutely no correlation between a student’s intelligence and readiness for university study, and their level of English. PISA results show us how gifted students are in neighbouring countries and yet we don’t deem them good enough to study with us because they can’t express themselves well in English. The result is that we miss out on the world’s largest potential student recruitment markets and instead take students who are trying to write in what may be their third, fourth or fifth language.

Why on earth do we continue to only teach in English? What argument could possibly be made to suggest that we cannot create equivalent learning outcomes in any language?

The world has moved on from the fractious days of English versus French nationalist tensions in Quebec and it is time Australia moved on as well. AI, translation and analytics make multilingual teaching eminently feasible. Even the United Nations has adopted real-time translation for its meetings.

Multilingual policies and practices occur in Europe in areas where there are significant students with different mother tongues because they are living in an officially bilingual country or because they come to study from nearby regions that speak other languages.

For example, at the University of Helsinki, instruction is in Swedish and Finnish and students have a right to service in English, Swedish and Finnish. The University of Lleida keeps alive the Catalan language by having instruction in Catalan, Spanish and English. The list is long but these world-ranked universities have very long established policies, procedures and best practice codes for learning, teaching and examining in multiple languages. The ability to continue Indigenous and migrant languages of Australia is another obvious important reason to teach in more languages than the language of British colonisation.

If Australian universities deem English to be a requirement for graduation, separate tests can be taken upon graduation but it is hard to see an objective argument that could be raised for such a requirement outside the politics of the culture wars and a particular view of Australian nationalism that has little relevance in the geopolitical situation of the contemporary nation.

We speak about international destinations being “scholarship destinations”. This means that only a small upper class can afford Australian international fees. If we taught in Bahasa, for example, and in Spanish, and in Arabic, Malay, and Hindi, we could teach in other countries, partially in other countries, online, and we could even have universities specialise in their languages of instruction. Imagine if Southern Cross University taught in English and Bahasa, Griffith University taught in English in Spanish, and Charles Sturt University taught in English and Hindi.

Teaching in multiple languages allows us to teach in other countries, to decrease recruitment costs, to diversify, to recruit the best students, to continue to go for growth but not at the expense of student experience. No amount of academic quality assurance mumbo jumbo can be evinced that careful design of equivalent learning outcomes cannot conquer. It’s a no-brainer and its time has come.

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Monique Skidmore has been a deputy vice-chancellor international at several Australian universities.

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One comment

  1. Kanagaratnam Baskaran

    Another aspect to consider here would be the quality of international students admitted to Australian universities. The bright students from those countries mentioned in this article are not prepared to pay such high fees and study in Australia. They are looking for institutions that are willing to offer full scholarship. Let us look at the international PhD students who are coming to Australia with scholarships. Similar situation is applicable in America or UK. The selection of international students into Australian higher education is based upon meeting minimum entry standards and their ability to pay such higher fees. Let us select our international students based on merit with a quota system for each course rather than admitting everyone who met the minimum entry requirements. I am sure there is plenty of evidence that students from those countries in South, South East and East Asia have performed extremely well in studying in English.

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