The discussion of international students’ English language competence has been a hot issue since 2007 when the media reported Birrell’s study. It put the spotlight squarely on the English language skills of international students and the standards of our universities.

Even in 2020, issues of English language standards continued to simmer.  Australian universities have developed a number of practices to address the learning needs of their international students. However, they can also be vulnerable to claims of using international students as cash cows and claims of soft-marking. The challenge for universities remains that communication skills are not explicitly assessed in many disciplinary subjects and that there is an assumption that students will develop these skills by osmosis. This is more relevant than ever in the current COVID-19 environment, with the swift shifts from campus based to online teaching and learning and concerns regarding experiences of international students learning online.

A recent Office for Learning and Teaching project (2018) developed the Distributed Expertise Model (DEM), to assist universities to strengthen their evidence base for communication skills in face-to-face and online contexts. The two main findings from the study were:

  1. The highest impact on student learning is when communication skills are included in disciplinary assessment tasks throughout a student’s program.
  2. The development of communication skills is important for both domestic and international students achieving successful learning outcomes.

These findings informed the DEM. This whole-of-program approach includes a variety of practices that fit together to develop and assess students’ communication skills. Within this approach, responsibilities are distributed according to the professional obligations of key people involved in teaching and learning. The practices apply to all students and are designed to be sustainable and scalable across the program.

It’s not rocket science. Employers expect communication skills’ acquisition for employability purposes from all students – domestic and international alike. It’s time we assured their development, particularly as new graduates seek to navigate the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on the world of work.

Professor Sophie Arkoudis

Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne

[email protected]


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