Thompson Rivers University teachers fear some of their international students are getting a raw deal.
During a discussion on academic freedom led last week by James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, teachers expressed frustration and even heartbreak for students who gain entry to the university despite inadequate English skills.
“The students’ parents are spending these tens of thousands of dollars… making huge sacrifices in their home countries to be able to have the shot through this child of getting a future and we’re the ones responsible,” said Jason Bermiller, journalism, communication and new media teacher.
“And when I hand out a C or a B-, this kid literally collapses with the whole history of the family on the back of this child.”
Bermiller said teachers should have access to more resources, like teacher assistants, to meet students’ needs.
TRU spokesperson Christopher Seguin said faculty members should “definitely” bring such issues up to department heads.
“But those concerns aren’t being, to the best of my knowledge, brought forward.”
Turk said the only way to address the problem is to speak out on the political platform by taking the issue to Victoria.
“They see international students as cash cows. They don’t see a human face. They see dollar signs.”
One major source of frustration for many teachers is the perceived shortcut given to international students in so-called pathway transfer agreements.
Those students start their schooling at a handful of private English language institutes in Vancouver before transferring to TRU classes without submitting to ESL testing if they’ve achieved a certain competency in English at the private school.
The agreement is part of a B.C. Council for International Education pilot project making TRU a partner institution in a B.C. language transfer agreement consortium.
“The purpose of this project is to strengthen B.C.'s competitiveness in the global market by offering international students a variety of options and by facilitating seamless transfer of students among participating institutions,” stated Seguin.
TRU’s admission policy states, “all foreign students shall write an English language competency test unless they have otherwise demonstrated to the (ESL chairperson) satisfactory competence in English.”
But the transfer agreement document states the language schools are “responsible for the assessment of its students and for ensuring that university applicants meet established transfer requirements…”
That’s worrying for Jason Brown, Teaching English as a Second Language co-ordinator and TRU Faculty Association president.
“What can we do when institutions are so hungry for money that they bypass normal academic standards and oversight of a normal academic person for entry into the university?” Brown asked Turk.
The student transfer agreement document also shows the schools can receive a commission of 15 per cent of every transferred student’s tuition for his or her first two semesters. But two participating schools reached for comment state they receive no commission.
Global Village English Centres is among the private institutions with a TRU transfer agreement. President and principal Paul Mahter, who grew up in the Kamloops area, agreed it does students a disservice to admit them if they have English that’s sub-par for their academic requirements.
It happens, he said, because there’s a great deal of latitude among post-secondary institutions in determining admission requirements.
“I have no idea in the case of TRU how that’s done,” he added.
But all universities have a responsibility to students.
“To allow these students in, if they seem to be weak, (universities should) have additional resources in place to make it realistic for them. Otherwise the whole thing backfires. It’s totally unacceptable.”
Seguin said participating institutions’ language achievement levels meet TRU's language requirements and use the Canadian language benchmarks.
TRU ESL chairperson Wendy Kipnis said there are a wide variety of agreements that direct international students to TRU.
“The point is the university is trying to get students on campus,” she said.
Only a third of the 1,600 international students come through the ESL department. And 90 per cent of the rest, estimates Kipnis, enter the school through international standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
If students’ English proficiency isn’t up to par, “you might have to blame (relaxation of) IELTS or TOEFL,” she said.
Global Village English Centres is one of two official IELTS testing centres in Vancouver and Mahter backs it 100 per cent.
“We believe that that is the most reliable and most widely known means of assessment.”
The TRU student union hasn’t heard about a problem with foreign students’ inability to keep up, said its president Dustin McIntyre.
And a recent survey of 613 undergraduate TRU students appears to indicate a high level of satisfaction.
The Canadian University Report 2013 published this week by The Globe and Mail showed that 95 per cent of students responded that they would recommend TRU to others.
Since 2006, TRU’s grade for the quality of teaching and learning has increased from a B to an A-.
Most notable improvements were in campus medical services, recreational and athletic programs and international student services.