Fresh doubt has been cast on the admission of foreign students into Australian universities, with a new study revealing academic gatekeepers are recklessly abusing a blunt instrument that fails to properly gauge basic English language skills.

In a scathing assessment of higher education admissions practices published in the latest issue of Language Assessment Quarterly, Melbourne University’s Kieran O’Loughlin takes a scalpel to the uncritical use of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), revealing “serious flaws in the interpretation and use of test scores”, as universities jostle for foreign cash.

Instead of employing the holistic approach common in the US and the UK, local administrators simply ‘tick off’ applications where the relevant IELTS score is achieved (usually 6.5), without a more in-depth probe into an individual student’s background and English language history.

The “invalid” results can be devastating — both for struggling international students forced to endure semester after semester of language miscomprehension and for stressed academics struggling to teach simple concepts.

According to O’Loughlin, the simple checking of academic results and an IELTS score was a “rigid and lockstep approach” that “arguably places too much reliance on the applicants’ academic record and a single piece of English proficiency evidence”. In his study of one university’s use of the test, there was no principled basis for arriving at the IELTS cut-offs and only belated and limited tracking of undergraduate students to ensure the threshold was correct: “In other words, the decisions made on the basis of applicants’ test scores were poorly informed and were therefore neither valid nor ethical,” he writes.

International students seeking an academic visa in Australia must obtain an IELTS of 6.0, with most academic institutions imposing their own hurdle of 6.5 for both undergraduates and postgraduates — despite the official IELTS handbook stating that this cut-off is “less than clearly acceptable” for linguistically demanding English language study. The test also contains four sub-strands — speaking, reading, listening and writing — with some faculties imposing their own baselines and averages.

In the US, universities normally utilise letters of recommendation, statements of purpose, high school test results and phone or face-to-face interviews in addition to the IELTS score. In the UK, students often have to satisfy a wide range of criteria, including their background, intellectual capacity, evidence of English proficiency, work experience, the applicant’s own case for selection, academic and work referees and personal characteristics.

The IELTS test business is owned and operated locally by 38 universities and job ad behemoth Seek under the banner of IDP Education. It has acquired a quasi-religious status among university and government owing to its near-monopoly over visa decisions over study.

O’Loughlin, a senior lecturer in language and literacy education, says the use of IELTS as a blunt instrument exists across the tertiary sector and is linked to the eagerness of institutions to secure a slice of Australia’s $19 billion-a-year foreign education pie. Universities have decided to throw out the rule-book “because of intense competition with other universities for full-fee paying international students”.

The forensic study into an anonymous campus also probes what goes through the minds of admissions staff when applications land on their desks. Damningly, many of those quizzed were ignorant of both the test and also of their own institution’s policies and procedures. Many lacked the basic knowledge to properly interpret the scores.

Associate Professor in higher education at Melbourne University, Sophie Arkoudis, said O’Loughlin’s article contained important revelations: “I think what the article shows is that in some cases people who actually look at IELTS scores for admission into university don’t actually understand what they’re looking at.

“So they don’t actually understand how the IELTS is structured, what the numbers actually mean…these scores are sort of arbitrarily being used for entry for university without understanding what the scores actually mean for the ability of the student to have the required English language skills.”

“It’s pretty evident that people who are in admissions don’t really know what the results mean…or are not clear about the judgements they are making. What happens in some institutions is that the cut-off gets lower as they want to increase their international student numbers and that has a serious flow-on effect for students who are left to cope with the English language demands…it’s very stressful for them.”

Currently, IDP acts as de-facto recruiter for Australian universities and the federal government’s skilled migrant program through its broad advertising program. Prof Arkoudis said that the recent introduction of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and The Pearson Test of English Academic as competitors would provide further diversity but could compound the interpretation issue as each test had its own unique methodological basis.

Controversy has plagued the IELTS testing regime in recent months. In April, Crikey revealed that Australian journalism schools were admitting students with faltering English that failed to meet minimum standards mandated by IELTS itself. And earlier this month, confidence was dented again after Curtin University’s English language testing centre was shuttered amid a corruption scandal that revealed some international students were paying over $11,000 for fake results.

In a statement, a spokesperson for IDP Australia told Crikey this morning: “Dr Kieren O’Loughlin’s paper is consistent with the advice given to institutions by IELTS on the use of IELTS scores for admission purposes: specifically that it is the responsbility of education institutions to determine what level of English language proficiency is required and for IELTS to help them understand how this translates into an IELTS score.

“IDP: IELTS Australia provides regular, evidence-based information to Australian universities to support their decision making regarding admissions policies and procedures.”

O’Loughlin, who is currently completing a follow-up study for IELTS Australia to investigate how staff knowledge and the use of the test can be improved, declined to comment.

Peter Fray

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