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Foreign students and declining higher education standards

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 14 August 2015


Discuss the subject of academic standards with the older generation of university academics and you will be told in no uncertain manner, that standards are deteriorating dramatically.

Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, university courses were once delivered at very high standards by dedicated academics who specialized in their respective disciplines, at most of the established institutions around Europe and the Pacific Rim. There was a time where academics were respected for their depth of subject knowledge and revered by students in their classes. However, the role of academics has changed over the last generation, from a master/apprentice to a service provider/customer relationship. In addition, student/teacher ratios in many universities have also declined over the last decades.

When government funding decreased for most universities, education became a business. The management of universities, by necessity, went out of their way to increase the enrollments of foreign students. This was needed to keep universities and faculties at the size they were. The successful recruitment of foreign students has actually been a source of renewed growth of many, if not most, universities.

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Foreign students now comprise 18-25% of total enrollments in Australian universities. Many academics will tell you of a rift between academics and university bureaucracies, as foreign students tend to be seen by management as a source of needed income. The management of universities don't want to miss this unprecedented growth in foreign students.

However, added student volumes is putting stress on the system and leading to lower academic standards, as witnessed by a number of emerging problems.

Although there are prerequisite and language proficiency standards that students are supposed to meet, the basic English skills of many foreign students are still poor, where some, if not many, are unable to grapple with the requirements of the courses they are undertaking. This probably has two causes. The standard of English by student recruits in the first place is of concern. The Australian investigative journalism program Four Corners exposed how Australian universities were recruiting students who got around language requirements through forging transcripts.

The second source to the problem of low English proficiency comes from the inability of basic pre-entry English courses to enhance students basic English proficiencies. For example most foreign students are put together in these pre-degree classes. However certain ethnic groups like Arabic speakers require a specialized approach to learning English because of their lack of exposure to English during secondary school. In addition, the structure and linguistics of their native language Arabic runs opposite to English, i.e., right to left. This requires a specifically tailored English program for Arabic speakers.

Surprisingly very few universities today tailor their pre-degree language programs to the various language groups of their students.

There is very little, if any instruction to lecturers on the use of 'special English' to classes. Thus many students find it extremely difficult to understand lecturers with deep accents using colloquial terms.

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Today's focus by university faculties is on getting large numbers of students through courses and passing them. This is hindering the evolution of teaching methods. Today's teaching methods in universities must satisfy large class numbers, so teaching options are very limited beyond standard lecture and tutorial structures. Some academics who wished to remain anonymous commented that university management seems to be more concerned about providing quality university life rather than a quality educational standards.

There are no incentives for academics to evolve teaching methods. In fact at one well known Melbourne university, an innovative management behavioral laboratory, which was once used with great success, has been put in 'mothballs' because the facility cannot cope with the larger student numbers today. Much academic innovation over the years is being lost to large cohort numbers.

Today many students according to the academics interviewed complained of student disengagement in class. Students today according to these academics, tend to ... "read much less than students a generation ago." Today's tech-savvy generation needs radical new ways of teaching that has left many academics faltering.

As a consequence, some academics complain that courses are being 'dumbed down' to assist students to pass. Where students were once required to know and understand various points of view about any topic, now the 'textbook view' is sufficient. Many classes thus focus on how to answer exam questions, rather than pursuing the knowledge of a subject in any in-depth manner. According to these lecturers, there is ...."a disincentive to fail students, particularly foreign ones."

Quality assurance systems within universities are focused on procedure, rather than outcomes, and have little, if any bearing on academic quality. ISO accreditations are concerned with paper flows, and course accreditations tend to be based upon faculties meeting particular KPIs. Although tools like Bloom's Taxonomy are still the backbone of curriculum structuring and teaching strategies, the taxonomy itself is not actually based upon research. It was formed by a consensus in meetings of academics held some 60 years ago. Many academics actually criticize the taxonomy as not being properly constructed, lacking any systematic rationale of construction, where thought and learning don't fit into neat compartments.

According to some doctoral graduates who had returned from Britain and also wished to remain anonymous as they hold jobs in Malaysian universities, told the author that some universities in the UK had two-tier standards. Foreign students who intended to return to their countries after graduation, were examined at a lower standard than those who wished to remain in the UK after their graduation. A number of universities within the Euro zone are well known for applying different standards for foreign post graduate students and are extremely active in recruiting potential students who would have difficulty in completing the requirements of a doctorate at other institutions.

The student culture of today is distinctively different from previous generations. Plagiarism, once a pillar of taboo within any university, is common among student cohorts today. Many assignments are filled with 'Googled' material. There are plenty of websites students can buy assignments from, and there are even people for hire who can write a complete doctorial thesis for a negotiated price.

It is the academics themselves who hold the knowledge that a university disseminates. However, Australian universities seem to be slowly losing their talent to overseas universities. One distinguished professor of Entrepreneurship was let go by Deakin University, due to the sudden closure of an institute and university policy of seniority based on length of employment. He is now serving as a senior professor in EGADE Business School, in Techologico de Monterrey, Mexico. Bureaucracy, rather than academics now control who will be on staff.

The new objective of universities appears to be focused in providing a process that leads to the awarding of a degree to serve as a 'meal ticket' for foreign students. It also appears with the exception of a few highly ranked universities, academic standards have been allowed to slip in the pursuit of the above objective.

The balance of power within universities has drastically shifted to the point where academics now have little say in how universities are run. Academics are cowed into following policy rather than their sense of what is best academically.

Academic standards have slipped ever since the influx of massive numbers of foreign students. Higher education is not what it was before.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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