Dean Forbes



Teaching in English: the only pathway to internationalisation of Italian Higher Education?

Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation

University Cattolica de Sacro Cuore

6 September 2012

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

Few issues attract more soul searching in Australian universities than the English language skills of students. It is not by accident that the new quality assurance regulator TEQSA (the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) has nominated the English language skills of students as one of its two audit priorities.

It is not just international students that are the focus. Non English Speaking Background (NESB) students are a diverse group with a range of language skills. Some are immigrants to Australia, such as the Sudanese refugee and temporary visa students.

In total, 33% of Flinders University’s 20,991 students in 2011 were born outside Australia. Two thirds of these were international students, and one third were Australian citizens.

There is also the issue of the English language skills of Australian born students. The recent expansion in the cohort able to enter university, and subsequent increase in low socio-economic status students, has drawn attention to the unacceptably low retention rates of students, particularly during the first year of academic study. Retention rates for local students are well below the rates for international students. Improving poor English and study skills are important to better retention rates.


The English levels of international students applying for admission to Flinders are either assessed through their scores in a recognised language test, or by a range of other measures including the time spent in an educational institution successfully studying an English language curriculum.

The IELTS test is the most common in Australia, mainly because it is recognized for the purposes of obtaining a visa. Research generally shows a strong positive correlation between level of English and Grade Point Average (GPA) (eg Field 2002).

Going beyond IELTs scores alone, Rebecca Hadad (2011) examined the connection between types of English language pathways and GPAs among the Flinders commencing students. She found that the students achieving the highest GPA’s had undertaken English with one of the two main partner providers of English language (IELI and Eynesbury), were working while studying, and shared accommodation with English speakers. 

Based on work completed in 2008 for the 2010 intake, Flinders base level requirement to enter the University was set at IELTS 6.0, with specific requirements in sub bands. Seven levels were established depending on the demands of the course, or the requirements of professional registration (Table 1).

Table 1. Flinders University IELTS Levels 2010

Level     Overall IELTS       Sub-band                                        Example Courses

1           6.0                         Min 6.0 speaking & writing             Most UG & PG Courses

2           6.0                         Min 6.0 in all sub bands

3           6.5                         Min 6.0 in all sub bands                 Nutrition and Dietetics

4           7.0                         Min 6.5 in all sub bands                 Law

5           7.0                         Min 7.0 in all sub bands                 Psychology

6           7.5                         Min 7.0 in all sub bands

7           7.5                         Min 7.5 in all sub bands                 Teaching

Suspicions about fraudulent English language scores surfaces from time-to-time. It happens in bursts in particular locations; current concerns are about small pockets of fraudulent practices in India and Nepal. But cases of fraud are in decline.

A bigger problem are sub band scores and overall band scores. They are crude instruments and can be misleading, giving a distorted impression of a student’s capability. 

Many students need additional dedicated English language support. It is usually blended into the first year academic curriculum, but unevenly across the university.

Currently there are several means of delivery. These include dedicated academic subjects, an example being the School of Humanities’ Professional English; as additional enrichment by dedicated staff within a School; or outsourced and delivered by the Intensive English Language Institute or the Student Learning Centre.

Two new university-wide undergraduate initiatives are intended to strengthen language, cultural communication and critical thinking skills, in the students’ first year at university. 

The first initiative is to find space within the first year undergraduate curriculum for a mandatory credit bearing literacy subject of 4.5 units (7.5 ECTS) (VCC 7/12, 27/6/12). Professionally accredited programs (eg medicine) that are unable to squeeze an extra subject into the curriculum, are required to integrate this material into the course curriculum. Having had some success in implementing a strategy to internationalise the curriculum will help us to incorporate this kind of material.

The second initiative will make available to all commencing (international) students whose national language is not English a two week Introductory Academic Bridging Program. The emphasis will be on academic writing, English, critical thinking and argumentation.

Several universities test students English around the time that they commence their studies. Sometimes this is a diagnostic test which students are encouraged, but not compelled, to undertake. In other cases it is compulsory. We are considering both options.

Tracking, testing and monitoring student performance is critical. According to Flinders 2011 International Student Barometer (ISB) results, 84% of our students were satisfied with the English language support provided. This puts us in the top four in Australia, and around the global ISB average.

Flinders has an annual Key Accountability Measures (KAMs) review process. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) reviews overall student academic performance on a Faculty and course basis. My responsibility is to review the academic performance of international students in both programs on-campus in Australia and in our trans-national education programs in China, Malaysia and Singapore.


International research PhD and Masters students are a fast growing proportion of international students in Australia. Flinders cohort has increased by 30% per annum over the last four years; it now comprises about 20% of our research students (236 in total). Research students require special attention.

Their needs include English and other research related skills. Additional support is sometimes available where funding bodies provide financial support. An example is the scholarships provided by AusAID (the Australian Government’s development agency), which funds a compulsory five week Introductory Academic Program (IAP) for scholarship students, most of whom are postgraduates. Generally, however, support for research students has been ad hoc, with students referred to the Student Learning Centre for additional help.

Through the Dean of the Office of Graduate Research, Flinders is developing a targeted program for research students known as Skills for International Postgraduates (SKIP). On current plans it will be a 12 week part time program incorporating language and research skills such as academic writing, critical thinking and research methods.

A second new program will be piloted, focusing on postgraduate course work students. It will also be based on the IAP model but shortened to two weeks, and run prior to the beginning of the first semester each year.


Going forward Flinders needs to review its English language entrance scores. We will look closely at whether our current minimum entry requirement of IELTS 6.0 should be increased to 6.5, with a 6.0 in each sub band. This is increasingly the minimum level of Australian universities and, I note, of the Adelaide campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Our review, however, will go beyond the setting of particular levels of English and look also at language support within the university. A few years back the Australian universities instigated a project to facilitate the development of policies and strategies necessary to support language skills. Ten Good Practice Principles were identified.

Table 2

Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for

International Students in Australian Universities

1. Universities are responsible for ensuring that their students are sufficiently competent in the English language to participate effectively in their university studies.

2. Resourcing for English language development is adequate to meet students’ needs throughout their studies.

3. Students have responsibilities for further developing their English language proficiency during their study at university and are advised of these responsibilities prior to enrolment.

4. Universities ensure that the English language entry pathways they approve for the admission of students enable these students to participate effectively in their studies.

5. English language proficiency and communication skills are important graduate attributes for all students.

6. Development of English language proficiency is integrated with curriculum design, assessment practices and course delivery through a variety of methods.

7. Students’ English language development needs are diagnosed early in their studies and addressed, with ongoing opportunities for self‐assessment.

8. International students are supported from the outset to adapt to their academic, sociocultural and linguistic environments.

9. International students are encouraged and supported to enhance their English language development through effective social interaction on and off campus.

10. Universities use evidence from a variety of sources to monitor and improve their English language development activities.

Source: DEEWR 2011

A further set of six English Language Standards were developed, replicating the Good Practice Principles 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10, and compressing others. I have included it as an Appendix.

The Good Practice Principles make good sense and provide a framework and checklist for policy development at Flinders. But it will not be easy to successfully service the 4,000+ international and local students that need support.

There are two particularly difficult challenges. First, there is the need for adequate resourcing (Principle 2). Doing justice to the 10 Good Practice Principles is expensive.

Second, perhaps even more challenging is getting students to be pro-active with regards to English. This means getting students to take responsibility for continuing to learn English (Principle 3), and to be socially active on and off campus in activities that enhance their English skills (Principle 9). Students have a tendency to prefer the comfort zone attached to their own language group that is not easy to change.


Thus far I have concentrated on non-native student speakers of English. What about non-native speakers among the academic and professional staff? Some 32% of Flinders fulltime staff were born outside Australia. This also can be a problem.

It is not just a concern in universities. Around ‘40 per cent of employed Australians…have a level of literacy below the accepted standard needed to work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’ (Skills Australia 2010 p 4). 

Flinders 2011 International Student Barometer results show 94% of international students are satisfied with the English spoken by academics. This places us in the top three universities in Australia, and comfortably above the ISB global average of 90%.

However, I often observe situations in which native speakers of English make no real effort to adjust their speech to suit their audience. They speak very quickly, use colloquial expressions, and make reference to local issues without providing context or explanation.

My pet irritation is when I hear colleagues criticise the language capabilities of international students, yet do not take the time to understand the English they speak. Listening skills, in my opinion, are underestimated, yet many misunderstandings could be resolved with a more considered approach to listening.


At Flinders our formal Graduate Qualities state:

‘We expect [our students] to demonstrate cultural awareness, to develop a global perspective and to cultivate a respect and tolerance for others.’

Central to the global perspective is a commitment to fostering global citizenship by facilitating the skills and characteristics that enable our students and staff to function effectively in a globalised world.

For an English-speaking university, a good level of English language and communication skills are critical to this. Understanding the nuances of cross-cultural communication, speaking English appropriately and acquiring the listening skills required to understand other styles of speaking English are all essential.

Consequently, for Flinders University inserting well-resourced, effective, embedded English language support into a crowded curriculum is, and will continue to be, a high priority.


Table A 1

Six English Language Standards for Higher Education Providers in Australia

1.The provider ensures that its students are sufficiently proficient in English to participate effectively in their higher education studies on entry.

2.The provider ensures that prospective and current students are informed about their responsibilities for further developing their English language proficiency during their studies.

3.The provider ensures that resourcing for English language development meets students’ needs throughout their studies.

4.The provider actively develops students’ English language proficiency.

5.The provider ensures that students are appropriately proficient in English when they graduate.

6.The provider uses evidence from a variety of sources to monitor and improve its support for the development of students’ English language proficiency.

Source: DEEWR 2012

Table A 2

The Baird Report on English Language Issues

The Baird Report cited criticisms of educational institutions for ‘low English language entry requirements’ (p iii).  It recommended ‘that ESOS [Education Services for Overseas Students Act] be amended to require providers to demonstrate that the:

a. Delivery arrangements for each course do not undermine the integrity of the student visa program

b. English language entry levels and support are appropriate for the course and, where relevant, the expected professional outcomes’ (p viii)


Both Bonnie Cothren and Melinda Dodd made valuable suggestions which were incorporated in this paper.


Australian Government (Baird Report) 2010 Stronger, Simpler, Smarter ESOS: Supporting International Students. Review of the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000

Barthel, Alex 2012 ‘Standards set for English proficiency’ Campus Review, 25th June 2012

DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2011 Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities

DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2012 English Language Standards for Higher Education

Feast, Vicki 2002 ‘The impact of IELTS scores on performance at university’, International Education Journal, Vol3, No 4, pp 70-85.

Hadad, Rebecca (with assistance from Maria Stavrinakis and Matthew Jones) 2011 Flinders University English Language Pathway Benchmarking Study 2007-2010.

Houghton, Robert 2011 ESOS Compliance Project 2011.

i-Graduate 2011 Flinders University International Student Barometer Entry Wave 2011.

Rusek, Wanda 2012 Report on English Language Support Services at Flinders University.

Skills Australia 2010 Australian Workforce Futures: A National Workforce Development Strategy, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Winchester, Hilary and Mairead Browne 2012 External Audit of Flinders University to assess compliance with the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007 (The National Code) and the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (the ESOS Act)