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Do international students in Britain need better English skills?

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Do international students in Britain need better English skills?

The start of the academic year is fast approaching, with new students from across the UK looking forward to starting university with a mix of trepidation and excitement.

The UK is also a popular place for international students to study, given that it has some of the best universities in the world. This means that many UK students studying at a British university will be joined in their lectures by students from around the world.

The latest UK Council for International Student Affairs report shows that Chinese students studying at UK universities have far exceeded any other nationality since 2013. The same report also reveals that China is the only country showing significant increases compared with other non-EU countries where recruitment is virtually stagnant.

For many of these students from China, this may be the first time they are educated in only English. And there is the expectation that these students will be able to fully understand and keep up with other students.

Language ability

Having adequate English language skills is important to international students, as there’s no point in them turning up on their first day only to realise they don’t understand the curriculum. In the same way, this proficiency is also important to native English speakers – given that many courses require an element of group work and seminar discussions. Universities don’t want to accept students who will ultimately fail their course either.

International students are offered a place at UK universities on the condition that they have a certain level of English language proficiency. This is checked through a UK Home Office approved test known as the Secured English Language Test.

International students can sometimes struggle with the language. Shutterstock

In theory, students sit the test, pass and then look forward to starting their new life in a new country. But things get problematic when students do not achieve the required score. In this case, universities may then offer an additional pre-sessional programme of English language study at an extra cost to the student. If completed successfully, this allows these students onto their chosen course.

So far, so good. But the the problem here is that many students do not actually take the Secured English Language Test at the end of their pre-sessional programme. This means that it’s never categorically known if, by the end of the summer course, a student’s language proficiency is at the level originally required by the university.

Testing times

That said, it’s not in the interest of universities to set a student up for failure. But surely if the entry requirement of a university course is a certain grade in the Home Office exam, then the same exam should be given at the end of these programmes. This would help to maintain a level playing field for all students on the course.

As someone who works on these pre-sessional programmes as an assistant professor, I believe there is clearly a value in teaching English for academic purposes. These sessions are also a time when nonnative learners can get a sense of the UK’s academic culture along with the conventions they will be expected to follow – something some UK students would also benefit from, too.

International students need to be made to feel welcome. Shutterstock

But of course, the point of the programmes is about getting students up to a certain standard of English. Perhaps then the answer is for the Home Office approved tests to be changed to better reflect what is being covered in university pre-sessional programmes.

What this all boils down to is that universities must make sure they are doing enough to support international students. And this support is particularly important given the outcome of the EU referendum and the UK’s apparent fixation with immigration. In this way, the numbers speak for themselves – international students wanting to come and study in the UK is no longer something universities can simply take for granted.