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17th February 2017

International students’ English “inadequate”, say a third of academics

Half of academics know students don’t prepare for seminars, and many believe that falling entry requirements have led to “almost illiterate” students

A study by Times Higher Education of over 1,000 Higher Education staff has shown that academics have serious concerns about the readiness and ability of most students at their institutions.

According to the THE Teaching Survey 2017, one-third of academics believe that international students’ English is not adequate, and less than a quarter believe that students are in any way well prepared for classes.

The survey, which collated feedback from 1,150 academic staff from universities across Britain but also a few from the USA, Asia, Europe, Canada and Australia, heard that the vast majority of academics still enjoy and feel the benefit of lecturing, despite expressing concern about slipping standards of assessment, bureaucracy, and limited time to prepare their teaching.

A senior lecturer at an English university told the survey “few students will read the material on the reading list, [relying] instead solely on lecture handouts or PowerPoint slides”, while 52 per cent of academics said they knew students were turning up to seminars without preparation.

“We were told we are not allowed to ‘draw attention to’ those students who turn up to seminars having done no preparation whatsoever because it might deter them from attending future seminars,” said another, “and then the Key Information Set data for student attendance would be adversely affected.”

For almost half of academics (48 per cent), students’ schooling does not prepare them sufficiently for university, while one lecturer blames falling entry requirements for the high number of “almost illiterate” students who arrive.

9 per cent of academic staff “strongly disagree” that international students display the adequate level of English, with one lecturer telling the survey they did not understand “how some [postgraduate] students got their first degrees, as the quality of their written English is really poor.”

Academics lament the move away from the focus on teaching quality at their institutions, with 47 per cent of respondents not agreeing that good teaching can lead to opportunities for promotion. The focus instead on results and targets disappoints them — three-quarters of academics think that the Teaching Excellence Framework being introduced at UK universities will inaccurately assess teaching quality, while 43 per cent think the NSS gives students too much power.

“It seems that institutions are doing lots of evaluation, but they are not using these evaluations to promote people,” says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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