Teaching Smarter to Improve the English Communication Proficiency of International Engineering Students-Collaborations between Content and Language Specialists at the University of Western Australia

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1 ENGLISH LANGUAGE SKILLS, INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS AND PERFORMANCE IN ENGINEERING PROGRAMS

Whatever we think of the recently released Birrell report (Birrell, 2006) and the subsequent flurry of media and academic interest that surrounds it (see, for example, Ewart (2007), Barthel (2007) and Bretag (2007)), Australian universities are now, as never before, being called on to examine their English language admission standards and support mechanisms. If, as Birrell's report indicates, one third of our international student graduates gaining permanent residency in Australia are not achieving the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) band 6 scores required for admission to Australian universities, we may well be concerned. The raising of immigration requirements for permanent residency to favour IELTS band 7 and above applicants in 2007 means that international student graduates will be under increased pressure to demonstrate competency if they wish to remain in Australia at the end of their degree. IELTS band 6 denotes mere competence in English, while IELTS band 7 denotes the much higher proficiency standards necessary for professional employment.

Explanations for the low performance of international graduates on IELTS tests vary widely. There are those who find fault with university admissions procedures and standards, others who express concerns that universities may not be doing enough to ensure that international students improve their English language levels to professional standards throughout their degrees (see, for example, student views on this issue in the media release by the National Union of Students and National Liaison Committee for International Students in Australia Inc. (2007)), and still others who point to the fact that graduating students often lack recent familiarity with the IELTS test and therefore naturally struggle with it. Despite these differences in opinion about causes for low performance, there is one issue on which most of those involved in Australian tertiary education would likely agree. This is that it would be a great disservice to international students who undertake studies in Australia if they were not enabled to develop adequate English language skills for professional employment in Australia by the time they graduate, should they so desire it.

It would be an equally great disservice to local students if we were to not facilitate their ongoing academic English literacy development in our universities. Just as there is a controversy surrounding immigration statistics, IELTS scores and higher education, there are debates on English literacy standards in our schools. In this paper, we intend neither to engage fully with the arguments and controversies surrounding international students in higher education, nor to enter into debates on curricula and standards in our schools. Although academic tertiary literacy is more of a challenge for some students than others, denying bright but less highly literate students opportunities for higher education would have consequences. It would reduce our international student intake and the accompanying benefits (ie. educational, cultural, economic, etc.) that this provides. It would also restrict our local student base and have long-term social and economic implications. This paper does not provide a cost-benefit analysis of these issues, but presumes a commitment to ensuring adequate ongoing tertiary skills development for all students who require it.

The engineering field at Australian universities presents an interesting picture. It seems that international students perform on par with, if not better, than their Australian counterparts, despite the fact that international students often speak English as an additional language or dialect. It has been proposed that international students are highly motivated to pass units due to the higher penalty of failure in light of the additional burdens they face (eg. …