International students and language: opportunity or threat?

Do we see international students as opportunity or threat? (Screenshot from ‘Degrees of Deception’)

With recent news on the number of international students in Australia reaching a new high and the 19.4 billion-dollar revenue student fees generate for the Australian economy, these students’ experience in Australia has become an important issue. Two different points of view can be distinguished: while one perspective sees international students as enriching Australian society through their diversity, another one frames them as problematic Other. Their imputed low English language proficiency is often seen as the root cause of the latter. While there have been attempts at representing international students in the media through the first perspective, I argue below that these attempts can only work if language proficiency is addressed in a constructive way, that goes beyond the monolingual mindset.

In their study, Paltridge, Mayson and Schappler (2014) analysed news articles covering international students from The Australian newspaper published between 2009 and 2011. The researchers found that media discourses result in the dual phenomenon of ‘welcome and exclusion […] by constructing them as “economic units” wanted and welcomed by the nation, as well as unwanted “exploiters of the immigration system” and excluded “victims” of violence and racism’ (p. 108). These media articles obviously frame students as a problematic out-group.

“Degrees of Deception”

The issue of English language proficiency also featured strongly in an episode of an ABC program, 4 Corners, entitled ‘Degrees of deception’ in April 2015, which focused on declining academic standards. According to the introduction, declining academic standards were evident in the rising ‘tide of academic misconduct’ and the pressure for academics to pass weak students (so-called ‘soft marking’). According to the report, these are due to the combined effect of a decline in government funding for universities and the increasing reliance on international student fees. International students, so the show’s claim, are ‘desperate for a degree from an Australian university and the possibility of a job and permanent residency’. Consequently, entry requirements have supposedly been lowered and cheating and plagiarism have become widespread. The episode claims that academics are appalled but are afraid to speak up for fear of their jobs.

After airing the episode, the 4 Corners team stressed on their Facebook and Twitter accounts that the episode was not about ‘international students being worse than other students’. However, a corpus linguistic analysis of the episode transcript reveals that the the most frequent content words on the show – ‘student’ and ‘students’ – usually refer to ‘international students’. This group was referred to 88% of the time when using the word ‘student’; by contrast, local students are referenced in only 7% of occurrences. Moreover, the word ‘student’ most commonly collocates with or appears close to words with negative connotations, like ‘exploited’, ‘weak/weaker’, ‘targeting’, or ‘struggling’.

Secondly, the vast majority of social media comments on Facebook related to the show discussed international students as inadequate on the basis of some form of low English language competence.

Using Van Leeuwen’s (1996) social actor framework, I have also found that international students as social actors are often abstracted behind concepts such as ‘fall in standards’, ‘poor English’, ‘pressure on the system’, ‘plagiarism’ and ‘income’. The analysis shows that the 4 Corners episode did in fact imply that international students are worse than others; their low English language proficiency is constructed as the root cause of this problem.

What is more, the fact that the findings of Paltridge et al. (2014) focusing on a conservative newspaper, The Australian, are echoed in a data set coming from a more liberal media outlet and its supposedly more liberal audience, suggests that this stereotyping of international students is widespread in Australia.

The Othering of international students on the basis of language proficiency needs to be addressed. One way to do so is by reflectively engaging with linguistic diversity through addressing the monolingual mindset prevalent in Australia, which makes it difficult to move beyond defining international students as the perpetual Other in the ‘white Anglo space’ of the Australian university.

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Paltridge, T., Mayson, S., & Schapper, J. (2014). Welcome and exclusion: an analysis of The Australian newspaper’s coverage of international students Higher Education, 68 (1), 103-116 DOI: 10.1007/s10734-013-9689-6

Van Leeuwen, T. (1996). The representation of social actors. In C. R. Caldas-Coulthard & M. Couthard (Eds.), Texts and practices: readings in critical discourse analysis. London, New York: Routledge.

Author Agnes Bodis

Agnes is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, where she also works as a Lecturer in the Graduate Certificate of TESOL program. Her background is in teacher training and teaching English as a second language. Her research interests are in language education and language policy, language testing, teacher training, and TESOL.

More posts by Agnes Bodis