As Australian universities reflect on their post COVID enrolments and resumption of face-to-face teaching, international students are also returning to start or continue their higher education studies. One of the consequences of this is universities face challenges in ensuring students are sufficiently well equipped to undertake their studies, particularly as regards their English language proficiency.

At universities where post-enrolment language assessments (PELA) are conducted, it is estimated that between 25-35 per cent of all (not just international) first year university students have moderate to severe language difficulties,. This makes it harder for them to perform well academically and creates considerable challenges for academic language and learning educators and academics.

There are also regulatory concerns, the Higher Education Standards Framework 2021 Standard 1.1, requires “admissions policies, requirements and procedures… are designed to ensure that admitted students have the academic preparation and proficiency in English needed to participate in their intended study, and no known limitations that would be expected to impede their progression and completion.”

In 2021, at the 15th biennial conference of the Association for Academic Language and Learning (AALL), a grim overview was presented of how academic language & learning services have been decimated in Australian HE.

Generally, student enrolments are up 45 per cent since 2008: domestic up 42.9 per cent and international up 50.5 per cent. The number of ALL staff has however decreased  by 17 per cent over the past ten years. So the ALL staff to student ratio has increased from an average 1:2400 10 years ago, to 1:3900, with 10 universities currently having a ratio of more than 1:6600!

An “optimal” ALL staff to student ratio would be affected by student profile factors such as: number of international students; underprepared pathway students; and local students in need of language support (i.e. second language students, first in family, mature age and those from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, etc). However, in my professional opinion, based on over 30 years ALL field experience across the Australian HE sector, I would suggest as a rough guide that universities should aim for ALL (FTE) staff student ratios below 1:2500.

Restructures at Australian universities, forced redundancies, and job cuts, a number in response to the pandemic, have resulted in many ALL staff losing their jobs. Furthermore, numerous ALL staff with academic status (52  per cent in 2010) have been reclassified as professional staff or “converted” to casual staff status, with only 18 per cent (2022) retaining their academic status.

These various factors make it highly doubtful that universities will be able to recruit qualified ALL staff to provide crucial, developmental academic language support, not only to international students who need it most, but also to an increasing number of domestic students underprepared to undertake HE studies in Australia.

Alex Barthel, HE Consultant in academic language and learning; founding president, Association for Academic Language and Learning [email protected]


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