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Unis 'demanding' foreign students be passed

Reporter: Heather Ewart

KERRY O'BRIEN: Universities around Australia start the year with a contentious issue already on
their plates, the bitter debate raging among academics over a report prepared by Monash University
demographer, Professor Bob Birrell, about the standard of English in tertiary institutions. The
report contends that many foreign students are being accepted into universities even though their
English is below an acceptable standard. Academics supporting the Birrell report say that
university hierarchies are demanding that some students be passed even though their English is
barely intelligible. Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART: It's a time honoured ritual. What's known as Orientation Week, to introduce new
students to the joys of university life, is now in full swing at campuses around the country. But
as they party, debate rages in academic and political circles about the English language skills of
a growing influx of overseas students. Are our tertiary institutions dumbing down to grab the extra
revenue these students offer?

PROF MILES LEWIS, ARCHITECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE: They don't want to admit it on paper
because it would be embarrassing. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we need the money, we can't afford to
maintain the standards.

PETER MCPHEE, DEP VICE-CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE: Certainly we have seen overseas
students as important in terms of part of the revenue base of the university.

HEATHER EWART: Around one million students have enrolled at Australian universities this year; a
quarter are from overseas. To get the necessary visa, they must pass an international English
language test to show they have competent English. It's this report from Professor Bob Birrell at
Melbourne's Monash University that questions whether that's good enough. His findings that a third
of overseas graduates given permanent residency in 2005-06 couldn't demonstrate English competency
in standard Immigration Department tests have rocked the academic community.

PROF BOB BIRRELL, POPULATION RESEARCH, MONASH UNIVERSITY: It seems pretty obvious from the results
at the end of the line, when they actually complete their education at the higher level, that many
of them did not have good English or modest English when they started.

DR CAROL WILLIAMS, MONASH UNIVERSITY: There is a great sense of frustration when you see before you
work that makes little sense.

PETER MCPHEE: Of course universities get together and discuss these sorts of issues, but it's very
important that when someone like Professor Birrell issues a report like that, that universities
don't simply say we're ignoring it.

JULIE BISHOP, EDUCATION MINISTER: I'm happy to work with universities if there's a widespread
problem but, to date, it's just accusations and allegations. I want to see some evidence.

HEATHER EWART: University of Melbourne architecture professor Miles Lewis claims to have the
evidence to back the Birrell findings. He's complied bloopers from exam papers submitted by first
year overseas students and here's one example of an answer to the question on the origins of
European architecture.

MILES LEWIS: "The later churches, developed from the original basilica, is usually enter what a
narthex and there two transepes found on north and south for dormitoned the cherry."

HEATHER EWART: What did you make of that?

MILES LEWIS: I couldn't make anything of it.

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I don't know who that student was, but obviously that is not a proficient use
of English, but it's incumbent upon our universities to maintain standards.

PETER MCPHEE: We cannot have students who graduate from the University of Melbourne who continue to
express themselves in that way. We mustn't, it's not fair to them, it's not fair to the reputation
of this university.

MILES LEWIS: Well, I have a list of about 30 such answers in a class of maybe 180 and, in the end,
some of these students not only passed but got Honours, because the standards were pushed up so far
to achieve an overall pass rate.

PETER MCPHEE: About half the students in question did fail; it's not a question of people who
express themselves so poorly simply being pushed through.

HEATHER EWART: But Professor Miles wasn't satisfied. He wrote a letter of complaint to the
Vice-Chancellor last year, claiming there was pressure to lower standards to accommodate overseas
students.

MILES LEWIS: Under extreme pressure. We're supposed to confirm to a sort of average profile of
marks and, indeed, the faculty can override you and change the marks. There is an internal
committee run by the Dean, who has the final option of adjusting the marks however he or she wishes
to do.

HEATHER EWART: Is that fair?

MILES LEWIS: I don't think it's unfair in the sense it prejudices any particular student, but it's
certainly corrupt and unacceptable.

PETER MCPHEE: If a senior academic expresses those concerns then plainly they have to be taken
seriously, and they were.

HEATHER EWART: The university strongly denies any wrongdoing, and says a thorough investigation
showed no rampant grade inflation.

PETER MCPHEE: But any academic institution, whether it's a school or a university, or a TAFE
college, obviously has to have processes that look at student outcomes and whether they seem to be
reasonably consistent.

HEATHER EWART: Does an internal committee of the faculty headed by the Dean have the option of
adjusting marks?

PETER MCPHEE: Once there's been the right level of consultation. I mean, it's not simply a question
of an individual saying these marks are being altered.

CAROL WILLIAMS: There's no directive to pass international students. There's no encouragement for
us to deal with soft marking, but there is a strong sense that we should walk the extra mile to
assist these students in getting to where we need them to be to make the grade. That confection, I
think, ultimately speaks of lower standards.

HEATHER EWART: Does this mean that it may not be a spoken pressure, but there is a subtle pressure,
to pass these overseas students even if they're not really up to the mark?

CAROL WILLIAMS: I don't think anybody would deny that.

HEATHER EWART: Scratch the surface of academia and you find this is an issue that has clearly been
simmering for some time. At other campuses there is talk of directives to pass overseas students,
as research on 10 universities by senior lecturer Tracey Bretag revealed.

TRACEY BRETAG, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: The issue came out loud and clear from everybody that
there were various directives to overturn grades. In some cases heads of schools or deans had
actually changed the grades without the knowledge or consent of the academic. In other cases staff
were given directives to aim towards a particular pass rate, up to even 90 per cent.

HEATHER EWART: Several professors and lecturers at universities around Australia refused our
request to be interviewed because, they said, they were worried it could damage their careers, or
they might appear racist. All privately voiced concerns about English standards. The boom in
overseas students is greatest in universities specialising in IT, accounting and commerce, because
a change in immigration rules enables them to apply for permanent residency once they graduate.
Regional universities like the University of Central Queensland are setting up campuses in the
heart of Melbourne and Sydney to cater for thousands of them. They're known as shop-front unis.

BOB BIRRELL: They actually they simply take leases of established office buildings and convert them
for academic purposes by providing classroom, banks of computers, tiny libraries, and I think
that's the main point of entry for students whose English is relatively weak.

HEATHER EWART: The University of Central Queensland insists it has high standards, and argues
perfect grammar is an outdated concept.

DR ALLISON OWENS, CENTRAL QUEENSLAND UNIVERSITY: If you don't get your grammar quite right but if
you know your subject and if you can solve a problem in IT or if you can provide a profit and loss
report for a business person, what does it matter that you managed in the wrong tense at that point
or that you've got the article where you shouldn't have it, you know?

HEATHER EWART: At present the minimum standard for English required by overseas students is level
6, meaning competent English, but for those who don't pass the test first off, they can try the
back door by studying English at Australian institutions, or do their final year of secondary
schooling here. There's a lot of variation.

PETER MCPHEE: We need to be confident that we have the right processes and standards in place,
because all of us are affected by this.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Heather Ewart with that report.