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Sydney University weighs compulsory English courses for foreign students

Sydney University weighs compulsory English courses for foreign students

The University of Sydney's prestigious business school may introduce compulsory language courses for foreign students with poor English skills after more than 400 students, mostly from China, failed a core unit of their masters degrees.

About 37 per cent of more than 1200 students studying the Critical Thinking in Business course at the business school failed the subject last semester and about 12 per cent of students in the Succeeding in Business course also failed.

A pass in both courses is required to complete a Master of Commerce and a Master of Professional Accounting.

The business school's deputy dean (education), Professor John Shields, said the failure rate in the critical thinking unit in previous years had "generally been quite high" – between 15 and 20 per cent – but there were "enormous concerns" after a substantial increase in the numbers of students not passing.

In many cases, he said, students' pre-exam marks were much higher than the mark they scored in the exam, suggesting either "extreme exam anxiety" or "undue assistance".

Professor Shields said he did not have sufficient evidence to pinpoint the reasons for the poor performance but ghostwriting and poor English skills could be to blame.

"We can catch and kill plagiarism with the touch of a button with Turnitin [plagiarism detection software]," Professor Shields said. "Plagiarism is not where the major problem is, it is ghostwriting."

The University of Sydney was among the institutions worst-affected by the MyMaster scandal, revealed by Fairfax Media last year, in which as many as 1000 students from 16 universities hired the Sydney-based company to write their assignments and sit online tests.

Professor Shields said the school had introduced a "mandatory final exam", which means students cannot pass the unit if they do not pass the exam.

"The decision was taken that we need to be seen to be enforcing the importance of academic standards," he said.

"If a student isn't demonstrating a sufficient level of proficiency in a final exam, we shouldn't be passing them [in that unit]."

Professor Shields said the business school expected its international students to achieve high scores in English language tests, but at the moment there was no compulsory course that students had to complete to ensure their English improved.

"We need to do what we can to support students and there will be some students referred to extra support, and we are looking at making that support mandatory," he said.

The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association said the university was "negligent" by failing to adequately support students ahead of their exams.

"I unequivocally state SUPRA's strong support for academic standards and the most robust commitment to integrity of courses. So in a sense, we applaud the business school for trying to go down that route," said the association's president, Christian Jones.

"However, if you try to raise requirements, you have to also improve support so students have a fair chance to reach those standards."

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