Universities ignoring own English standards to admit more high-paying international students

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Universities Australia says the system for admitting international students is working.

Australian universities have been waiving their own English entry standards in a bid to admit more high-paying international students.

Key points

  • Some universities have waived English requirements for international students
  • The body representing education agents in India says international students should take an independent English test
  • Academics at some universities say they are seeing increasing numbers of academic misconduct cases in some courses

It comes as academics have told the ABC’s Four Corners program that they are seeing record numbers of academic misconduct cases and increasing numbers of international students who are struggling.

Academics have shared stories of foreign students using phone apps to translate university lectures and students in postgraduate IT courses who were unsure how to use a computer or a USB drive.

Under changes to streamline the student visa system in 2016, the Federal Government gave universities greater responsibility to determine whether students from some countries were genuine temporary entrants to Australia and ensure their English ability was satisfactory.

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Instead of having to provide evidence directly to the Education Department, streamlined students instead had to satisfy the university they were capable of completing the course.

Universities set and maintain their own English entry standards and are allowed to waive them at their discretion.

Four Corners has found some universities have been admitting international students below the university’s own published English standards, or are granted entry through other means without taking an independent English test.

Universities are also accepting “medium of instruction” (MOI) letters for postgraduate students from India and Nepal which state that students previously studied in English.

However the Home Affairs Department said an MOI letter “will not meet the legislative requirements” for visa applicants if the student is asked to provide evidence.

Visa applications approved ‘in minutes’

Andrew Durston worked for the Immigration Department for nearly 30 years.

He told Four Corners that under the new visa system, streamlined student visa applications coming from reputable universities can be automatically granted.

“You could be assessed within minutes,” he said.

“They don’t have to provide their visa application, financial capacity documents or English capability test results.” he said.

Mr Durston now works as a private consultant at Probitas Quad, which helps universities verify student applications.

“I think there’s evidence to show that there are students who are being granted visas who haven’t actually undertaken an English language test,” he said.

“The tolerance level is too low in my opinion.” 

International students worth billions 

Infograpihic: China, India and Nepal are the top 3 countries of origin. China alone makes up 152,712 students and $11,006 mill

After billions of dollars in Federal Government funding cuts, recruiting international students has become a valuable source of income for cash-strapped universities.

International education is Australia’s third largest export industry, worth $34 billion a year to the Australian economy.

A single university can earn hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from international students.

Four Corners has obtained emails from several universities advertising “English waivers” to the agents who recruit international students.

One email from a staff member at the University of Tasmania reads: “As a part of our last mile efforts to encourage acceptances for July 2018, the university will be waiving the English condition in order to assist the students who are yet to meet their English conditions”.

The email then details that students can provide documents to the university showing work experience in English, or two English tests combined where one fails to reach the admission standard in an attempt to get an English waiver.

A separate email relating to Southern Cross University said “We are happy to inform you that SCU is now providing IELTS waiver for their Lismore and Gold Coast campuses”.

‘No university today can say that they’re not aware’

The president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, Ravi Lochan Singh, told Four Corners that universities had been warned about waiving English language requirements.

“We told the universities way back in August… that the practice that is being followed by universities will land universities in trouble later on,” he said.

Mr Singh said some students are manipulating the process.

“They have come into Australia using a university which had lower checks — lower GTE (Genuine Temporary Entrant) check, I’m talking about — which did not require an English test, and have managed to come here on a visa” he said.

“In recent years, we’ve had students with very poor English landing up in Australia, which wouldn’t have happened earlier had there been a human element in the visa process.

“I think there’s a loophole here, and that loophole is known to all parties. No university today can say that they’re not aware of what’s happening.”

Infographic: International education is worth $34 billion and is Australia's biggest export.

Universities Australia says system is working

In a statement the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which regulates universities, said: “There is little evidence to suggest that there is a systemic failure regarding compliance with English language entry requirements”.

Professor Margaret Gardner, Chair of Universities Australia, said there is good evidence that the system is working.

“The overall statistics say, international students … pass successfully at about the same rate as domestic students,” she said.

“We have high standards about who we admit and on what basis we admit them. And those standards are clear and they are set down as our admission requirements.

“The Government is ultimately responsible for the issuing of visas and visas being held or withheld, or in fact taken away.”

In a statement the Department of Home Affairs said: “Universities are responsible for ensuring the students they enrol have the language skills to participate fully in their education”.

“All student visa applications are assessed against visa regulations to ensure visa requirements are met before a visa can be granted. This ensures the integrity of our visa system.”

The University of Tasmania’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global) Rob Atkinson said students must meet the university’s English language requirements.

“We do not waive English language requirements for any of our students; rather, we consider a range of evidence in line with our policy,” he said.

“In a small number of cases, we will consider multiple forms of evidence in combination, such as previous work experience, Medium of Instruction and the results of an English language test.”

Southern Cross University responded to questions from Four Corners by saying that questions about English waivers “refers to sector policy and is probably best addressed to either Universities Australia or the Regional Universities Network”.