One of the great pillars of education is that standards shall be equal for all, and few institutions recognize this more than Australian universities. Some academics have suspected for some time though that there may be a second set of literacy standards for non-English speaking foreign students. If this were true, could it be just and fair since most examinations test knowledge not literacy, or is there perhaps a deeper agenda, if indeed one exists at all?
The Australian newspaper has reported on research completed by Harvard Graduate Gigi Foster, who relocated to Australia in 2003 and decided to bite down hard on this particular bullet. The main findings of her survey are that universities could be back fitting marks lost by foreign students on account of their poor English skills by inflating grades, and that this is to the relative disadvantage of other English speaking students too.
Her study funded by the Australian Research Council rests on a statistical analysis of data on 12,846 student files held by the Universities of South Australia and Technology, Sydney. She found that foreign students from non-English speaking backgrounds underperform domestic students by 4 percentile points on average, but that this reduces as their proportion of class numbers grows. In fact, they perform 6,5 percentile points ahead of domestic students when an entire class comprises foreign non-English speaking students.
Researcher Gigi Foster is concerned that test markers may be grading on the curve to maintain mark distribution norms, and that in terms of this they are effectively lowering standards. Although her findings aim at policy makers in government not academics and their markers, her report is unlikely to be welcomed by universities who require foreign students to balance books.
She recommends fixing the leak at source by requiring foreign students to undergo extensive language and cultural training as a precursor to academic study. She believes that this will narrow the gap enough to allow normal mark distributions without manipulation. Many agree, while many more disagree. Let us hope that Australian universities move forward from this one soon, so that all who come to Australia to study may be able to share their common academic dream once more.