Australian journalism courses are enrolling international students with faltering English that fails to meet minimum standards mandated by the body that oversees the admission test.

As the foreign education cash cow staggers and the federal government moves to overhaul its visa system, Crikey has discovered that some journalism schools desperate for income are under growing pressure to pass students that would struggle to string a sentence together, let alone get published in a leading magazine or broadsheet.

And the results can be devastating — both for foreigners struggling to submit straightforward assignments and lecturers under pressure to pass them without the basic skills required for news gathering.

All undergraduate students entering Australia are required to score at least 5.5 on the 9 band International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, administered locally by 38 institutions and the job ad behemoth Seek. Universities are free to set higher requirements for individual courses. But according to IELTS’ own guidelines, scores between 5.5 and 6.5 are insufficient for “linguistically demanding” courses including “journalism”, with the body stating plainly that “more English study” is required before students can enrol.

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Its acceptable range for journalism is between 7.5 and 9.

The nation’s journalism schools currently maintain an IELTS threshold of between 6 and 7.5, depending on the qualification students are shooting for.

At undergraduate level, RMIT, Canberra and La Trobe universities set the bar at 6.5, while Swinburne University — which is heavily reliant on international student income — has pegged its IELTS score at just 6. The University of Technology Sydney and Monash University are at 7.

A score of 6 means that the test taker has “generally effective command of the language, despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings” — perhaps acceptable for commerce or accounting but well short of the mark when it comes to publishable writing.

One senior journalism academic slammed the current system, saying that universities were setting up students to fail — but only after raiding their parents’ wallets for cash:

“Believe me, this is well recognised as a problem by the academics who end up teaching these students. The problem is that the whole system is driven by international agents hired by universities, whose only concern is bums on seats.

“The reality is that either universities are taking students in knowing they will fail, which is immoral and fraudulent, a breach of duty of care. The equivalent of a bank lending money to someone knowing they will not be able to repay.”

The academic said the cost of admitting struggling students to demanding courses like journalism meant students and lecturers were veering close to breakdown. The system was setting up academics and pressuring them to either lower standards, or mark international students to a different standard to local students, producing an “unethical” outcome.

“The long term threat to our international reputation in an atmosphere of increased competition for international students is obvious. But the human cost is also very great – depressed and stressed students, often from third world countries, who work much harder than their domestic classmates yet will never be able to make the grade, barring miracles.”

Last year, former Howard-era Liberal moderate Bruce Baird completed his review into the Education Services for Overseas Students Act, following the collapse of a number of international education providers.

He specifically recommended that the Act be changed to make sure “English language entry levels and support be appropriate for the course and, where relevant, for the expected professional outcomes.” He referred to the IELTS guidelines, noting that “many Australian providers accept students at a lower level than recommended by IELTS.”

If the legislative threshold for journalism was forcibly upped, many current courses would fall foul of the law.

The Gillard government is currently considering Baird’s recommendations, issuing a shout out to the sector on English language requirements, among other reforms. A separate review, led by Michael Knight, will examine the broader Student Visa Program. In his preliminary discussion paper, Knight examines the minimum IELTS result required to learn English in Australia, which some industry figures have argued is a contradiction in terms.

Meanwhile, serious questions continue to surround the legitimacy of IELTS, with tales of cheating and rorting widespread. The 1.5 million tests conducted globally each year are easily corrupted, with test conditions varying wildly.

Last month, the Western Australia Crime and Corruption Commission discovered bribes were being paid by international students to make sure they exceeded the IELTS score. And this week, international education consultant Daniel Guhr said that many students entering Australia with a “good” IELTS score of 7 were “functionally illiterate in English”, raising fears of systemic rorting.

Kerry Ryan from the Swinburne University Institute for Social Research used to coach international students on how to pass the IELTS test and is now completing a PhD on the Australian Citizenship Test. Ryan told Crikey the tricks and tactics to pass the test were well known.

“They do work hard at it of course but enormous resources go into beating the test and some operations are very sophisticated. We know for example that test takers are paid to do the test, not to pass it for themselves but to memorise it. They walk out of the test centre and get straight onto a computer to document what they have just committed to memory.

“I taught a Chinese girl who had 80 full versions of the IELTS writing test on her laptop. She spent most of her time rote-learning them. I asked her why she didn’t put some of those resources into learning the language and she looked at me like I was an idiot.”

Wendy Bacon from University of Technology Sydney said that her journalism program had taken a conscious decision to keep its IELTS score at 7.

“I really think that 6 is too low and in my view they use it because they are forced by inadequate government funding to rely on the international money,” she said.

Bacon said the problem was also widespread at some major universities which focus on general communication rather than journalism skills: “They accept as many students as they can not because they’re trying to exploit students but because they’re trying to get the money in, partly so they can fund local education and do research. I mean, whatever they say the main goal is, they’re not the educational needs of those students.

“Even with a 7 it’s difficult and it’s important that English as a second language students have extra support available.”

Bacon said that while UTS journalism only took around 15 international students who were not fluent in English, an additional challenge for journalists was adapting to Australian news values that often chafed with other cultures more reluctant to question the status quo.

Matthew Ricketson from the University of Canberra, whose program mandates an IELTS score of 6.5, said the situation was more complex than simply raising the score, which might exclude those who’d thrive as local gumshoes after they returned home.

“I understand that if you have an higher IELTS you might have fewer issues but it also can be counterproductive because many students from South East Asia for example often go back and practice journalism or public relations in their own county,” he said.

“Do they really need to be working at the English language proficiency of a local journalist in Australia? If they’re going back to Indonesia or Malaysia, Thailand or wherever, I don’t think they do. What’s more important is that they understand the concepts…interviewing, privacy, checking facts…and if they get those then that’s more important than if they get their apostrophes in the right place.

“It’s a genuine issue, it’s difficult and stressful for international students who are both trying to learn an area — journalism — and are also struggling with a second language.”

“But what worries me is that you get into this situation where you’re basically saying that unless everyone has read their Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, and knows exactly where their apostrophes should be, then they shouldn’t be in a journalism course. I just think that’s rigid and narrow.”

Associate professor Anne Dunn, who is president of the Journalism Education Association of Australia and previously oversaw the media and communications program at the University of Sydney, told Crikey that “ideally, an international student would come with a sufficiently high level of English and IELTS of about 7 to work reasonably comfortably in both the idiomatic form English and more scholarly English.”

She called for greater investment in assistance for international students once they arrive on campus.

“I do think that Australian universities are beginning to recognise that if you want to take their money you must support them properly. You need to recognise that they need to be immersed in English, in how Australian journalism works. You can’t just treat them like local kids.”

“Australian universities need to be conscientious if they’re going to start losing the competitive position they’ve held, especially in relation to Chinese students,” she said.

Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Sophie Arkoudis, said journalism courses should be considering individual bands, especially writing, when formulating their IELTS cut-off. The test is divided up into four “strands” consisting of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

“Intuitively it would make sense to say that they should have strong writing skills,” she said.

“Universities need to be deciding what the minimum IELTS scores should be for their journalism courses …and increasing those if they think that they’re high enough.

“But they should also have tailor-made English language programs that support and develop skills more specifically for journalism. Simply raising those IELTS scores as an entry point will not guarantee that those students will still have the specific English skills that they need to be journalists.”

“Teachers are under the pump in many ways because they don’t know how to handle these issues that students are presenting them with. Anywhere there are international students, teachers are struggling to meet the needs of those students.”

But Swinburne’s Ryan told Crikey that as international student numbers dwindle there was pressure to relax IELTS levels further and let more students in.

“This only makes the prospect worse. The German wine trade is still struggling to recover from flogging cheap, shitty leibfraumilch to the world in the 70s,” he said.