U of R international students hurt by lack of English skills, prof says

Some Saskatchewan university professors say international students being admitted to study in the province don't have the necessary English skills to be successful.

University insists the supports are there

The number of international students at the University of Regina has gone up dramatically over the past four years. (CBC)
Some Saskatchewan university professors say international students being admitted to study in the province don't have the necessary English skills to be successful.

At a recent university council meeting, University of Regina professor Cameron Louis brought up his concerns, tabling a motion stating international students were being accepted into programs they did not have sufficient English skills to complete.

But the problem may be more visible as the enrolment of international students keeps increasing. At the U of R, the number of international students has nearly doubled from 730 in 2009 to 1,448 in 2013.

The number has been going up at the University of Saskatchewan as well, from 1,714 in 2009-10 to 2,264 in 2012-13.

English professor Susan Johnston said she has been experiencing the same issue in some of her first-year classes, with international students not having the required language skills to get by.

"I've realized that they're actually not understanding most of what's going on in the classroom because their listening skills aren't high enough," said Johnston.

"I've had students writing papers that, reading them, I've understood had been crafted first in a different language and run through some kind of Google Translator or BabelFish program on the computer."

Johnston said no one knows what help a student will need until they start failing.

In some cases, when a student fails a course more than once they cannot take that class again or can be required to discontinue studies, which Johnston said causes more problems.

"The fact is that many, many students, additional language students, will turn up in your office the Monday of the week that is the last date for withdrawal and say, ‘Can I pass?’ and if they can't, they will withdraw, so it doesn't count against them as a failure," said Johnston.

She said students take the class over and over again until they get a passing grade.

"In the meantime, their entire program is being delayed because they don't have the language skills. And we're accepting them without the language skills to succeed."

Language test requirements questioned

There are a series of English proficiency tests that are standard throughout the country and the University of Regina accepts six different types, some of which are internet-based.

If an international student can’t achieve the mark requirement on one of those tests, they cannot be accepted. 

However, the concern some have raised is that the standards of the test are too low, and international students are being accepted without the right tools to be successful.

The University of Regina maintains there are a lot of programs in place to help international students, such as English coaching and various workshops to help them gain the skills they need for class.

Most of these programs are run in conjunction with UR International, which recruits and helps students from other countries.

When CBC News spoke to Livia Castellanos, the director of UR International, she did not have a comment on the standards of the English entrance tests, but she did say that if international students can’t get a good education at home, they should be able to study here.

"I think everybody deserves a fair chance and the only thing that I see when I admit an international student is a file that meets the requirements," said Castellanos. "When the students meet the requirements, it is my obligation to accept the student."

Obaid Ullah Malik, a U of R computer sciences student from Pakistan, said his experience as an international student began 20 months ago.

"In the beginning I would say it was [difficult] but after that it was fine," he said, adding in some cases the challenge was getting used to a different accent of an instructor.

He said the international office at the university was a tremendous resource.

Students getting money's worth?

Some professors also wonder if these students are really getting their money’s worth, since tuition fees at the U of R for international students are three times greater than those of domestic students, and at U of S are about 2½ times greater.

In Saskatchewan universities, are funded by the provincial government through a grant, which is based on a formula. Part of that formula takes into account the number of students enrolled at the university, counting domestic and international students the same way.

That means the Saskatchewan government contributes the same amount of money to the university for international students as it does for Canadian students. Most other provinces don’t fund domestic and international students equally.

But Tom Chase, vice president of academic affairs at the U of R, said the government money doesn’t fund all the things the university has to provide.

"We then have to take into account what international students wish from us — linguistic support, and culture support and all of the things that make up a good experience," Chase said.

Chase also said that in his opinion international students are very well supported at the university if they want to go and get the help.

With files from Tiffany Cassidy