English Language Proficiency as an Ideological Proxy

In 2009, an Australian nurse gave a 79-year-old patient dishwashing detergent instead of his medication. That crazy person was an international student from India who had just graduated from a nursing school. An investigation, which later caused the nurse to lose his license, showed that he was “unable to read the label” on the container. It is possible that a college-educated person couldn’t “read” the label on a container. And I can believe that professionals who determined that cause were correct. But I cannot help wondering if the whole investigation was driven by an ideologically shaped view of the whole situation.

To explain the above point about ideological framing of the incident–and to consider the implications of that framing for international students across the world–let us look at how the incident was used in an investigative report about the degradation of Australian higher education by an Australian TV. Titled “Degrees of Deception,” the documentary presented the Indian nurse’s case as a perfect example of what is wrong with higher education in the country.


The framing of the report by the anchor is suggestive of a deeper ideological argument, for which “poor English” is only a proxy issue:

… the alarm has been raised that Australian universities are exposing themselves to corrupt practices, to lower standards, to systemic abuse of the system. One instance that you will see tonight is the revelation from whistleblowers that some foreign students and other poor English speakers are graduating as nurses from Australian universities dangerously underqualified. (Emphases mine)

The corrupt practices discussed in the documentary–especially how some recruiters in China seem to bypass Australian admission requirements, how some Australian universities seem to lower standards to enhance graduate rates, etc–could indeed be contributing to the production of “dangerously underqualified” students. But what gets problematic is the tone used in the documentary, a tone that reinforces both the commentators’ arguments and also comes from the few teachers who support the same argument. In the documentary, English language proficiency is a proxy for a discourse that essentially labels “foreign students and other poor English speakers”–unless they adapt and perform fully as insiders in terms of all the other criteria–as not one of us.

The authors of the documentary, the self-selected teachers who support their line of argument, and (seemingly) the investigators of the nursing incident seem to all agree that if international students had high scores in IELTS, none of the other problems could occur. Students with better English who have better assimilated to the local culture would be more honest! In their argument, not only do the Chinese admissions agents rig the system by bypassing the IELTS and using fake diplomas, the students plagiarize because they have poor English skills and they have not yet learned to be honest! The nurse wouldn’t have done that horrible thing if he could “read” English better and if he were honest. Given the framing of the discourse about language and culture, the nurse’s personal weaknesses (such as incompetence or irresponsibility) or the possibility of a one-time human error (oversight or exhaustion) were probably not taken into consideration.

Forgery (fake diplomas), corruption (commission, bribery), academic cheating, and inflated grades are very serious problems. But somehow they are overshadowed by language proficiency issues and/or the potential for cheating among those students. They are not learners and humans who make mistakes; they are others with a different language and a disregard for honest learning. So, when the reporter sits down to interview two Chinese students, he starts by praising them about their good English. Naturally, taking his cue, the students also describe the problems with “some [other] Chinese students” (not them) who don’t mingle with and learn English from local students. The fact that those two students went through an on-site, 20-weeks long “foundation program,” which evidently helped them learn about Australian education (meaning that they learned English in context and understood the system and its expectations), seems completely irrelevant — they just learned English! In fact, even when the reporter focuses on the fact that they “never had to take the IELTS” after completing the foundational course, he doesn’t realize that they actually learned academic discourse and skills, that they understood the academic and social context, thereby making language learning meaningful and productive. If they took the language course and are now confident students who get the reporter’s praise for their “language,” then isn’t it possible that a university program for academic transition and academic socialization (not cultural assimilation) did a better job than just requiring them to take a commercialized language test — and better than expecting academic honesty from students by simply scaring the heck out of them? Why is it that the validity and effectiveness of tests like the IELTS are taken for granted? Why is it that teachers don’t feel professionally responsible to teach how to avoid plagiarism?

To show that the universities have the incentive to pass students, a teacher who has a story that fits this charge is now introduced. Plagiarism has dramatically risen among her students. She is overworked. Some students email to indicate that they will commit suicide if she doesn’t pass them. They’re desparate. The university doesn’t care about the challenges. She connects the problems to the greed of universities, highlighting how much money her university makes out of the courses she teaches.

Where is the language question? It often morphs or merges into the issue of academic dishonesty. When we return, with more teachers, to the tension between “pressure to pass” and increasing lack of English language proficiency, we get a closer view of the ideology. The academic caliber and success (or failure) of students isn’t discussed in terms of learning opportunity, resources and support systems, effective teaching, effective teachers. Teachers are victims in a world of widespread moral decline — and outsiders are the primary culprits.

Plagiarism doesn’t only have to do with fraud in China, greed among Australian universities, and language deficits among international students. Factors like the following are most likely very big contributors for any student demographics anywhere today: 1) courses being online, where students tend to procrastinate until the last moment, and if teachers don’t try hard to create a community and provide enough support, students resort to dishonesty, 2) the evolution of the internet and changing views toward information vis-a-vis its scarcity and originality in any culture, 3) teachers’ inability to design and implement particular assignments by making learning more appealing than plagiarizing, 4) the kinds of support teachers are able and willing to provide students as the latter work with sources for developing and presenting their own ideas, and so on. But the documentary picks teachers who, like its authors, almost exclusively present the problem of plagiarism as one of dishonesty among those who don’t speak English or those who don’t subscribe to the same worldiview about knowledge. Poor teachers!

Of course, dishonesty in itself could be on the rise as well; but the fact that the teachers play victim shows that they are willing to take their own pedagogical and ethical responsibility out of the equation! They don’t see plagiarism as complex: a mistake learners make, as a phenomenon that overlaps with legitimate practice, as a teaching opportunity — and indeed a responsibility! A lecture that we see a plagiarism expert giving to students is truly disturbing to watch: his workshop seems to treat students like potential criminals rather than learners who need help when and where they make mistakes. Prompted, nay, framed, by the reporter in a problematic way–“Are they on notice here on in?”–this teacher says that “if something happens [later on], … it then is harder for them to claim that it was recklessly or innocently done.”

When the documentary gets to the story of the nurse who gave liquid detergent to a patient, we have a new character who plays victim, preemptively this time. This teacher retired in 2012 and is scared that she might be treated by incompetent nurses in her old age. The reporter frames the question with the usual ideological spin again: “Do you think it’s the case, Barbara, that students have got through and graduated with a degree from [your previous university] in nursing who shouldn’t have been allowed to do so?” Agreeing with the reporter (for that’s why she was selected to speak), she emphasizes the dangers of letting incompetent students go into the “age case sector” where they serve the “most vulnerable, ill people”–which “frightens” this former nursing professor. The extreme case of a crazy nurse makes theory–even as the reporter adds that there hasn’t been such cases since 2011 when there were two other cases of incompetent nurses at the same place. There are no counter stories, counter evidences, counter arguments.

It is only rarely that the issues of incompetence and corruption are treated on their own terms, as when a third teacher tells the reporter that lowering of the standards has happened with domestic students as well. But details like that don’t get far less attention. Instead, we have another teacher who believes that he would be able to tackle plagiarism if his university would only provide him with the plagiarism detection technology, Turnitin! Against the real challenges of the lowered standards, commercialization of higher education, and increasing instance of student dishonesty, the teachers’ own work of teaching becomes invisible, their role of intellectual leaders and mentors insignificant. They seem to completely lose their agency and power, along with their professional rigor and responsibility!

So, what could have been a real discussion about academic standards in terms of teaching and support, resources and opportunities is turned into a discourse about language proficiency, dishonesty, and corruption. What could have been a discussion about universities’ unwillingness to invest in teaching, program, and policy is turned into a moral crisis. And that moral crisis, the documentary seems to suggest, could be addressed if only every university would accept students with high marks in the IELTS.

If English language proficiency–rather than academic preparedness before admission and academic support afterwards–was such an important measure of success, why do native English speakers perform poorly? If general language proficiency–rather than proficiencies in different contexts, levels of difficulty, disciplines–was such an important measure of success, could universities turn into giant language centers and let students pursue the content and skills and dispositions of the different disciplines on their own? If language proficiency tests were so valid and reliable, why do students with lower scores–but higher grit, discipline, commitment, and support network–regularly and significantly outperform those with higher scores? The answers are right there, if we are willing to accept them. If we, as teachers, are willing to tackle the problems with the power of our teaching instead of play victim, powerlessly riding our moral high horses, in a hopeless fight against the system and our students.

It is one thing that some students will plagiarize no matter how rewarding we make learning and expressing new ideas. It is another to create moral outrage by confusing deeper educational challenges with superficial ones, making the confusion worse by ideologically framing people and problems while playing victim.







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