Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Postgraduates - what is REALLY the issue?

Following Alderman's rage this morning about grade inflation, this afternoon we get an anonymous academic from a "leading UK university" commenting that international students with limited English are being awarded postgraduate degrees.

Now here's the thing.

In all the coverage of this afternoon's story especially, there has been far more focus on the headline of 'students having insufficient English language skills' than there has been on the reasons why these students are at UK universities in the first place. More detailed reading of the BBC story gets some of this across but you would be hard pushed to pinpoint that the problem lay elsewhere than at the students' doors.
More than 60% of higher degree students are now from outside the UK.

Overseas students have been seen as a lucrative source of revenue - with the Higher Education Policy Institute calculating payments to universities of almost £1.5bn per year in fees plus £2.2bn in living costs.
I'm not denying the quality of education available in this country, nor the desirable aditional reasons why people may come to the UK (I'm pro-immigration). But the thing is that universities have caught themselves on a never-ending hook of needing to recruit and make money.

I'm almost inclined to say this is not the student's fault - they have, in all honesty, come to another country to obtain a qualification. This is surely made in good faith - 'you recruited me, so I must be up to the task'.* Many, but by no means all, are funded by their governments and/or with high expectations from their families for them to achieve. Universities can - and must - justify their recruitment policies by either being far more rigorous in checking language skills in advance or they must be prepared to support students through the consequences: provision of proper language support to get them up to speed once they arrive.

The latter is - just - feasible for undergraduates; for postgraduates, I'm not sure it is or should be. There simply is not time to acquire the level of language skills necessary AND for them to adjust to the acquisition of subject knowledge.

I'd have been happier with something that put the headline on university recruitment - with some limited emphasis with what tutors are expected to do in terms of assessments once the poor students are in through the door. The headlines we actually got instead seemed to see the students coming here as the problem, rather than the universities' own policies and procedures. Because the people at the sharp end - the tutors faced with the students in the class - cannot be pushed into the firing line on this: they're merely following what they are demanded to do. I even have sympathy with those staff who get lumbered with recruitment posts (they often don't stick around for long - you may travel the globe but you never get to see any of it and you have to toe and maintain the party line regardless. It's a soulless task.) What drives them are the targets, the expectations to keep bumping the income stream, to maintain that international profile at all costs. In the end of course, all this will inevitably backfire, especially as 'anonymous' stories like this one come forward. Pity the poor students...

* Oh, that this were even just restricted to the recruitment of international students..


JoeinVegas said...

Same problem here, need to keep enrollment up, especially with those big fees from out of state students.

Jane Henry said...

Lisa, I haven't really been following this story, but I reckon the rot set in at the end of the Thatcher years. I had a job at the end of my final year (1987) looking after foreign students who laughably had three months to perfect their English to the standard required to be able to take degrees. Many of them were high achievers but through no fault of their own their language was not up to standard. It was a money making exercise and the Universities were crying out for cash so they opened their arms wide. I suspect that the seeds for alot of the campus extremism via Islam started then as well, because the majority of the students I came across were from Arab states and while most were pretty normal and nice, there were some who were scarily radical even then. Oh, and those ones tended to be the ones studying nuclear physics and chemical engineering, which always reminds me of the line from The Old Men at the Zoo when London has been knocked out by a nuclear bomb from a despot, and someone says who gave them the bomb, and the answer is We Did....

You're right it's not fair to blame students who come here in good faith if they aren't achieving. The universities have to find a better way of being funded/government should do more to invest.

Phil said...

Sorry, Jane Henry, but I think that we can only blame Thatcher for the gradual decline in HE funding. I know what you mean about some Arab students -- I attended university with a few government sponsored blokes who were studying engineering and took a lot more interest in the military applications than Mohr's circle of forces; but I also met a lot of Middle Eastern students studying law/human rights, civil engineering or medicine.

(I'm going to write about Chinese speakers for a bit. It isn't intended to be racist in any way. It's just that Chinese speakers represent a highly visible segment of the high fee paying student community. The arguments could apply to students of other nations and races.)

I've worked in HE for sixteen years and when I first started there were very few Chinese speaking students. Most of those students were postgrads, and most of the postgrads were PhD or post doc. Their English was poor but they were on long studies, working with very smart people who looked after them. There was a lot of space and time to accommodate their needs.

In the last few years, the number of Chinese speaking undergraduates and postgraduates has exploded. There are fewer resources per head than sixteen years ago, so education has suffered for all, irrespective of nationality. Chinese speakers have good support networks provided by fellow students. But that is not always enough to address poor language skills and cultural differences (eg an understanding of plagiarism or original thinking). How will UK universities recruit their children in twenty years time if the parents receive such a poor experience?

Another thing about sixteen years ago: the university didn't have a marketing manager. Education isn't a product like baked beans; it can and must be "sold", but not as a commodity.

Lisa: I disagree partially regarding language skill improvements for undergrads versus postgrads. A lot of overseas undergrad students spend their free time with fellow nationals and don't spend a lot of time outside that community. Postgrads tend to be more isolated (by age or by accommodation) from fellow nationals. PhD students in particular are more likely to socialise with colleagues with whom they share a lab or study area.

John B said...

Obviously, people who can't speak English shouldn't be doing Eng Lit PhDs - but surely it doesn't really matter if someone's brilliant at physics or maths but has crap English?