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Category: Professional practice

Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Addressing English language proficiency in a business faculty

Anne Harris
Edith Cowan University

In the Faculty of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University, the percentage of international students enrolling in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses is increasing rapidly. The vast majority of these students come from backgrounds where English is not their main language of communication and a number come from regions where English is barely spoken. In order to assist these students in the most effective manner, at the beginning of first semester in 2009, the Faculty initiated the Business Literacy and Numeracy Project. This paper delves into the literacy aspect of this Project. It charts why such a project was established, outlines various actions taken, and proposes some likely outcomes.


In early 2007, there was a surge of media interest in higher education in Australia driven, to a large extent, by a 2006 report produced by Professor Bob Birrell. Birrell (2006) outlined difficulties of graduate international students reaching English language proficiency required for immigration. He was scathing in his criticism of Australian universities, asking how many of these international students came to be enrolled in an Australian university, let alone graduate with a degree. Global and national headlines followed, all pointing to the perceived lack of English competence among graduates (see Ewart, 2007; Elson-Green, 2007 and Barthel, 2007).

Responding to criticism of admission policies and teaching of international students, in 2007, Australian Education International (AEI) commissioned a National Symposium on the English language competence of international students. This resulted in discussion papers that looked at entry pathways, in-course language development and support, and employment issues. A final paper outlined numerous outcomes, including strengthening in-course language and academic support, more generalised use of post-entry English language assessments, and developing more effective mechanisms to audit both entry and progression (AEI, 2007, p. 17).

This symposium also led to a significant project convened by Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA). The project, called 'Good Practice Principles for English language proficiency for international students in Australian universities', drew on outcomes from the National Symposium and work already underway in universities (Australian Universities Quality Agency [in-text as AUQA from this point forward], 2009a). A number of guiding ideas underpin the principles, one of which acknowledged that "it can no longer be assumed that students enter their university study with the level of academic language proficiency required to participate effectively in their studies" (AUQA, 2009, p. 2). Of the ten principles, eight stress various responsibilities of universities: to "measure, monitor and build [English language] competencies" (Nagy, 2009).

While these principles were in the final stages of discussion, an influential review into higher education was released. Commonly termed 'The Bradley Review', it also addressed English language skills, noting evidence of weak entry pathways and what are often termed back-door entry pathways. The Expert Panel engaged in the Bradley Review acknowledged submissions that international students require greater support and that English language tuition should be integrated into the curriculum. The Panel's conclusion that higher education providers place greater emphasis on "the preparation of international students for the world of work and particularly for working in Australia" (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008, p. 103) has clear implications for any curriculum appraisal.

Birrell's initial article specifically targeted what he perceived as the lack of work readiness of international students for employment within the Accounting profession. Over the ensuing years, the media kept the story alive and some Business faculties around Australia responded to the ongoing scrutiny. Early in 2009, with the final report of the Good Practice Principles Project imminent, the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL) at Edith Cowan University initiated the Business Literacy and Numeracy Project, which aims "to ensure that students ... have adequate literacy and numeracy skills to succeed in their course and future employment, and to provide appropriate support where this is not the case" (Clark-Murphy, 2009). Informed by current debate of issues around English language proficiency, this Project unfolded through 2009.

It is timely, as in March 2009 when the final good practice principles report was released, it included a warning: "as part of AUQA quality audits universities can expect to be asked about the way they have addressed the principles" (AUQA, 2009a, p. 2). True to its word, AUQA's 2009 audit reports indicate its seriousness in addressing aspects of English proficiency and entry pathways. Curtin University of Technology (Curtin) was congratulated for "taking the initiative to develop an instrument to diagnose and provide support to the English language proficiency of students" (AUQA, 2009b, p. 21), as was RMIT University (AUQA, 2009c, p.21) despite its work still being at a trial stage. Some entry pathways were questioned at Macquarie University (AUQA, 2009d, p. 31) and the University of Canberra was noted as implementing a proposal that "did not seem to be informed by the current national debate about English language proficiency issues" (AUQA, 2009e, p. 27).

Our situation

Despite media rhetoric that international student enrolments will decrease, FBL has continued to experience strong growth. In addition, there are many local students who have English as an additional language (EAL). Data shows both cohorts are heavily represented among those most likely to graduate with a number of units failed. Some academic staff also experience disquiet about the level of English proficiency among EAL students so the increase in their numbers has intensified concern. These concerns are mostly expressed in terms of uneasiness about admission policies, i.e. FBL accepts students who do not satisfy basic entrance standards or that some entry standards are too low. This is being addressed at both Faculty and University level and is too complex an element to include in this paper. Other issues are also voiced such as lack of Learning Advisors within FBL to support the specific requirements of the growing EAL cohort and personal feelings of inadequacy in dealing with literacy needs of students. As a result, this Project has been overwhelmingly welcomed within the Faculty.

In order to achieve the aims, a number of tasks were undertaken. Initially, the main actions focused on assessing students to ascertain levels of English language proficiency. In order to find the most suitable diagnostic tool, post-entry language assessments (PELAs), so-called as the nomenclature suggests the result does not affect a student's admission to the university, were researched. Secondly, learning support options at Australian universities and best practice in learning support were analysed. Looking only at the literacy component of the Project, this paper highlights key aspects of those developments, reveals some initial responses and suggests further possible outcomes.

Diagnostic assessment of English language proficiency

The most pressing task at the start of this Project was to ascertain whether or not students in FBL have adequate English language proficiency to succeed in their studies. In March 2009, a series of diagnostic assessments were conducted in a large undergraduate core unit. An International English Language Testing System (IELTS) diagnostic assessment was adapted and students completed three tasks that comprised writing and speaking. English teachers examined all aspects following a detailed marking key. The results were generally low and indicated that FBL needs to address the level of language competency of EAL students. However, IELTS assessment is regarded as generalised rather than specifically addressing academic English needs. To find more appropriate forms of assessment, in June, a small group of students from this cohort agreed to participate in further trials, this time to evaluate four PELAs; two computer-based and two paper-based. For both paper-based tasks, assessment was based on the TOEFL strategy [like IELTS, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is used worldwide to assess English language proficiency].

The first paper-based exercise was an integrated writing exercise. Based on the TOEFL Reading-Listening-Writing task, it took around 50 minutes to complete. Students read a passage from their textbook, listened to a brief lecture rebutting the views, and wrote a short comparative essay. Integrated writing specifically appraises a student's ability to participate in a lecture situation. However, in terms of preparation and delivery, it requires the equivalent of producing a short lecture for each cohort, thus is best administered in small groups. This makes it more suited for placement within a unit rather than for general diagnostic assessment.

The second paper-based task was a 20 minute writing exercise that asked students to complete an encyclopaedic entry for a recent invention. Remarkable for its simplicity, it is designed by Alex Barthel from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), to specifically diagnose academic writing. Earlier this year, he trialled it with 3,500 students and found it to be "quick and efficient" (Barthel, personal communication, April 3 2009). Discipline-specific topics are set, regarded as significant when diagnostically assessing the literacy of Business students (Lee & Anderson, 2007, p. 312; see also Bachman, 2002, p. 471). Also important is the utilisation of trained examiners using a TOEFL or an IELTS strategy to assess papers. UTS used only three Bands - fail, borderline and pass (Barthel, 2009). In FBL's later trials, the TOEFL scale (0-5) was applied. This task was simple to administer. IELTS examiners, employed specifically for this trial, found it easy to assess and, more importantly, evaluated it as positive in terms of diagnostic potential and validity.

The computer-based tools trialled were the screening aspect of the Diagnostic English Language Needs Assessment (DELNA) [from the University of Auckland] and the English Language Skills Assessment (ELSA) [from ACER]. At the University of Auckland, students complete the DELNA Screening which takes around 20 minutes. Those who fail to reach a certain score are asked to register for a further two hour diagnosis that, at this stage, is not entirely computer based. The DELNA Screening assesses vocabulary and speed-reading. Results revealed our students experienced difficulty with the speed-reading component but found the vocabulary quite easy. Almost all the EAL students who participated would have been asked to undergo the further two hour diagnosis.

The ELSA test is an hour long and consists of reading, grammar, listening and writing. All results are computer generated, including the short written essay. The way in which ELSA runs proved difficult as no stable link could be made through a standard web browser. In the end, a Remote Desktop Connection was sent and installed by IT staff. Comparing ELSA results to other PELAs trialled suggests the test was too easy. In addition, the written component generates a computer-based result where only language that has been programmed can be assessed.

At the postgraduate level, there has been a large increase in international numbers over the past two years. Due to the limited time they spend within a course, early diagnosis of English language difficulties is imperative, with results closely linked to a range of support options. However, this cohort is invariably overlooked so, in August, English language diagnostic assessment took place with postgraduate students enrolled in three units within the domestic and international MBA and MPA courses. Over 200 students participated in the short written task while 47 also completed DELNA Screening. Once again, results of the written task among international students were generally low and a high percentage of the students who participated in DELNA failed to complete the speed-reading component.

The results clearly point to the necessity of implementing a PELA at the beginning of each semester, targeting all newly enrolled students. However, choosing a PELA is not straightforward. Katie Dunworth, designer of an online PELA at Curtin University of Technology (Curtin), claims that,

Over one third of Australia's universities offer some kind of PELA, with many more considering their introduction. At present, most existing PELAs are paperbased, focus primarily on writing or reading and writing, and are linked to a particular course of study. It appears, however, that PELAs which are currently at the planning stage are more likely to be available online and available at an institutional level. Whatever the content and delivery mode, most universities are designing their own instruments in response to their perceived needs ... (Dunworth, 2009, p. 9).
In readiness for an AUQU audit, Curtin produced and launched UniEnglish - an online tool designed to assist in diagnosis. As seen, they were commended for their efforts. UniEnglish incorporates reading, writing and listening tasks and instant feedback is given on all but the writing which is assessed by a language specialist. UniEnglish is not compulsory but students are strongly encouraged to complete it. However, the uptake is said to be low so to overcome this to some degree, Curtin Business School, which comprises around 75% international students, has incorporated the written component of UniEnglish into a first year core unit within its Bachelor of Commerce.

Both Deakin University (Morrison, 2009; Morrison, personal communication, April 6 2009) and the University of Newcastle (see University of Newcastle, 2009a; 2009b) have developed online diagnostic tools, using DELNA as their basis. Ownership of the diagnostic tool allows them to change the tasks to suit the faculty and test validity. Neither is compulsory and, due to the online environment, there is no way of knowing who actually sits these diagnostic tools. Both universities stress that the key is students taking responsibility for their learning (see Principle 3, AUQA, 2009a).

Despite lack of security and other computer-based issues, online PELAs are favoured by many universities in the belief that they are cost effective and easy to maintain. DELNA Screening is relatively easy to use and cheap to run (the University of Auckland charges $5 per student). However, in our trials, the failure rate of computers was around 5%, with slow internet speed being blamed. With over 3,000 students potentially being assessed, it looms as a significant problem. In addition, if completion is compulsory, a scenario many universities are analysing at the moment, the logistics of establishing a secure environment for an online PELA are extremely difficult.

DELNA is linked to the Diagnostic English Language Assessment (DELA), developed at the University of Melbourne's Language Testing Research Centre. DELA is paper based, two hours in length, and comprises reading, writing and listening (see University of Melbourne, 2009). It appears to be the most valid and reliable diagnostic tool available in Australia and, although owned by the University of Melbourne, the university is open to working with other universities in developing it (Elder, personal communication, April 8 2009). Some trials conducting DELA online have been progressing this year. Validity of online tools, in general, is still being established and trials will no doubt continue over the ensuing years.

Research testing DELNA's validity has been undertaken and while findings support claims that the two components in the screening mode are "robust measures", difficulties in evaluating any particular language tests are raised (Elder & Randow, 2008, p. 189; see also Read, 2008, p. 188; Davies & Elder, 2005, pp. 804-9), an issue for a further paper. There is little research regarding ELSA's validity for use in a university setting, but a number of discussions with academic language and learning professionals support conclusions of it being too easy and lacking academic items to measure skills. Barthel trialled numerous PELAs at UTS and eventually settled on the 20 minute written task. Another university, looking to develop its own PELA, brought in test designers. Outlining the difficulties, one of them mused, 'we might do something 'not dissimilar' to the task set by Alex Barthel". Indeed, as Barthel asserted, it is 'cheap and efficient'. At this stage, the simple writing task, working out at around $7 per student, is FBL's preferred option.

In an ideal world, an online PELA that suits diverse needs will be made available. Students complete the task in orientation week, receive their diagnostic results within three days and, if necessary, book into and systemically complete beneficial learning support options throughout the semester. That is FBL's preferred approach. The introduction and subsequent presentation of any diagnostic assessment measure, especially if compulsory, is important. Much can be learnt from the way in which the University of Auckland introduced DELNA (Read, 2008, pp. 185-190) and the problems faced at the University of Melbourne (see Ransom, 2009). In short, the nature and purpose of the assessment are clearly understood by all involved, language advisors are involved in the process, effective follow-up measures are in place to ensure students access language support, results are sent to academic departments and there is a firm commitment of senior management. Read believes that, over time, the completion of a PELA should be accepted as "just another part of the experience of entering university" (Read, 2008, p. 186).

Not surprisingly, data from universities trialling PELAs indicate that the ideal of all students completing a PELA prior to commencing university and voluntarily enrolling in available learning support options if required is far from reality. In the real world, while research points to compulsory diagnostic assessment as the best way forward, few universities are compelling their students to complete such a task. However, as an alternative, many Business faculties have introduced a writing assessment in a first year core unit and integrated learning support options within that unit to assist students' English language proficiency.

Providing best practice learning support

The second aim of the Project is to provide appropriate support where English language proficiency requires attention. At ECU, there are four Learning Advisors (LAs) who provide services to the entire university although another two are listed as being available only to a specific school. Analysis of learning support offered by Australian universities reveals that ECU's ratio of Learning Advisors to students is 1:4,800. Of interest, Curtin's ratio is 1:3,700; the University of Western Australia's (UWA) is 1:3,000 and Murdoch University's is 1:1,700 (Association for Academic Language and Learning [AALL], 2008, Appendix A).

The ECU Learning Centre is centralised and offers similar services to most universities: one-on-one consultations; downloadable resources; workshops and short courses; and ESL short courses. Lecturers are also offered embedded learning support, but experience indicates that a faculty may have to cover costs. Outside of the Learning Centre, some generic ESL units are available for credit. All of these services are optional but it is clear from research and anecdotal evidence that students most in need are the least able or the least willing to access support measures.

While no one approach is regarded as best practice, this centralised model, called the 'deficiency' model, is judged as less effective (see AUQA, 2009a, pp. 9-10). The key to offering effective learning support is tailoring it to the student population and offering a range of options. UWA has developed a Communication Skills Framework that aims to include written and oral skills, information literacy and interpersonal skills in a coherent manner throughout a student's course (University of Western Australia, 2009). In a completely different way, UTS conducted an Academic Literacy Integration Project in 2005/6 that looked at embedding communication, information literacy and staff development within undergraduate and graduate courses. UTS indicated it aims to gradually replace generic courses and one-to-one consultations with embedded services (University of Technology, Sydney, ELLSA Centre, 2009).

This approach of embedding language support can take place at course, unit or lecturer level. For example, Macquarie University offers a Masters in Accounting (CPA Extension) that links the course with its English language centre (Macquarie University, 2009, see also Dale, Cable & Day, 2006); Curtin Business School has comprehensive ESL support within a core 'Communications' unit for all Bachelor of Commerce students (Carmela Briguglio, personal communication, May 12 2009) and Murdoch's ESL Learning Advisor works, where possible, one-on-one with lecturers (Colin Beasley, personal communication, April 22 2009). The embedding of learning support, however, "can be costly and complex to develop" (Association for Academic Language and Learning, 2008, p. 8), and may be difficult to maintain due to limited resources. There can also be differences in teaching philosophies, priority of language needs and power relations between academics and LAs. At another level, there is often a tendency for academics to refer students to learning support units or advisors rather than addressing students' academic learning skills themselves (Tapper & Gruba, cited in Huijser, Kimmins, & Galligan, 2008, p. A-23).

While there is no easy solution to the provision of best practice learning support, recent Australian research (see, for example, Briguglio, 2007; Stappenbelt & Barrett-Lennard, 2008; Huijser, Kimmins & Galligan, 2008; Dale, Cable & Day, 2006; Harris & Bretag, 2003) indicates reasonable agreement on a number of factors. Generally students develop academic language competence most effectively within their discipline. Therefore, language support offered through discipline-specific credit-bearing units (such as ESL units) or subjects integrated across the curriculum (such as core units) are seen as the most effective educational strategy. Collaboration between LAs and course coordinators along with effective and sustained staff development is required. At a more specific level, where support is linked to an assessment task, students are more likely to access it. Based upon such evidence, the most effective learning support for FBL students requires an integrated approach.

Implementing recommendations

In November 2009, a number of recommendations were advanced. While it is impossible to pre-empt University decisions, two elements required to advance English language proficiency within FBL are proceeding: the implementation of a PELA at the beginning of a student's course and learning support that directly links to outcomes of the PELA.

The PELA, at this stage the short written task, will be implemented in two stages in 2010. Further trials will take place in semester 1 and diagnosis of all newly enrolled students in the Faculty will commence in second semester. Voluntary completion has not proven effective elsewhere, so the PELA will be compulsory for all newly enrolled undergraduate and postgraduate students (see Principle 7, AUQA, 2009a). This is contingent upon LAs being situated in the Faculty as follow up mechanisms need to be in place. As a result, two Learning Skills Advisors will be employed early in semester 1. Only when this small learning support team is operational will the short writing task be rolled out. Much thought has gone into this process. Links between diagnostic measures and learning support options devised specifically for FBL's cohort will be strong, transparent and hopefully attractive for students to follow (see Hirsch, 2007, p. 203). Rather than elaborate here, it could be a topic for a further paper. Suffice to say at this point that results of the PELA will be strongly connected to the services offered by LAs. Language development will be incorporated into subject content and the process of learning, allowing a range of support measures to be offered (see Principle 6, AUQA, 2009a).

As 2010 progresses, the main tasks of LAs will comprise conducting small workshops targeting specific problems and larger workshops on more common issues; limited embedding in key units at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels; running professional development with staff; and other tasks as required. In addition, as many students regarded as 'at risk' lack confidence in seeking assistance, the LAs will be highly visible, housed in accessible rooms with clear signage. To fully implement integrated learning support, at least one credit bearing ESL unit, prepared specifically the FBL cohort, will be offered by semester 2, 2010.

A glimpse into the future

This Project is addressing growing concerns within the Faculty regarding English language proficiency, especially in relation to students with EAL. Trials conducted in 2009 reinforced the concerns, and a number of actions will be progressed throughout 2010. The two essential features, the implementation of a PELA and integrated learning support, will be among the Project's main foci. To facilitate outcomes, two learning skills advisors will be in place early in semester 1. Throughout the year, a number of integrated English language support systems will be rolled out, all contextualised within the Faculty and the various disciplines.

In 2011, ECU is due for its next AUQA audit. By the time the audit is finalised, a new body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), should be fully operational (AUQA, 2009f). Glimpsing into the future, ideally ECU's TEQSA audit report will include a Commendation that reads along the following lines:

TEQSA commends the Faculty of Business and Law at ECU for its exemplary approach in addressing English language proficiency. The Faculty has followed best practice principles in all respects. In particular, the Faculty is commended for its inclusion of postgraduate students, a cohort largely overlooked.


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Author: Anne Harris, Faculty of Business and Law, Edith Cowan University. Email: a.harris@ecu.edu.au Web: http://www.business.ecu.edu.au/faculty/tlsi/staff/aharris.htm

Please cite as: Harris, A. (2010). Addressing English language proficiency in a business faculty. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/harris.html

Copyright 2010 Anne Harris. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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