Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 14:19 UK

Lecturer's student warning

Students at a screen
"In the long run, it can only damage our reputation"
A lecturer at one of the UK's best-known universities describes her concern about postgraduate degrees being awarded to students who cannot speak English.

I teach and research in one of the UK's best universities and I'm concerned about the standard of English displayed by some of our overseas students.

Like most UK universities, we interview undergraduate applicants, but we don't necessarily ask all our overseas postgraduate applicants to come for interview, partly because of the high financial burden this could place on them.

Of course, every applicant has to provide evidence of fluency in English, but when we meet them for the first time after they arrive, some are barely able to communicate.

I've received written work from students which is essentially incomprehensible

My colleagues and I are worried that some applicants (mainly Chinese postgraduates) could be using bribery or impersonation to obtain the required test results.

For example, [recently] I tried to speak to a student who could not understand a simple request; in the end, we had to resort to pen and paper.

Someone who needs to communicate using pictures is, to say the least, unlikely to have passed the language proficiency test by themselves.

This wasn't an isolated incident; I've received written work from similar students which is essentially incomprehensible.

It's really frustrating for me, because I have to teach students who can't follow what I'm trying to say, even when I speak as slowly and clearly as I can.

It's damaging to legitimate students (including all the Chinese postgraduates who do have fluent English) because I can't give them as much attention as they deserve.

Perhaps more importantly, it's actually dangerous, because we can never be sure that such students really understand the training they have received.

Postgraduate degrees in my faculty generally involve practical research work using expensive or potentially hazardous chemicals or equipment, so the only way to work safely is to spend large amounts of time on repetitive training and to supervise the students constantly, even though they are meant to be learning to work independently.

The extra workload comes on top of my existing teaching and research duties and frankly, I'm not sure if I can cope with much more.

Unfortunately, some are even allowed to graduate - low demand for some postgraduate courses means that students can be of lower ability than we would like, and there is a feeling that we can't fail all of them.

This problem seems to have arisen quite recently, but in the long run, it can only damage our reputation and I hope that by raising the issue, we may somehow be able to find a way to deal with it.

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