The quantity of foreign pupils enrolled in British Higher Education (HE) has considerably increased in the last two decades, mainly since 1997, with around a 30 percent increase, resulting in over 30,000 additional registrations in 2002. Consequently, some severe changes have occurred within certain areas of HE. For example, on specific courses, including computer science and IT, business, masters in ELT, some law and politics courses, and foundation courses, international students often exceed the number of “home” students.
The repercussions of this massive shift include some desirable outcomes such as a highly-motivated set of students, who provide crucial funding for under-resourced institutions. Nevertheless, there are also unintended consequences that institutions require to consider at an early stage while developing a strategy for international recruitment. For instance, when an institution is exposed to perhaps 100 different nationalities, it presents a significant challenge to their assumptions about “the student” and what they know, believe, and can do.
Until recently, preconceptions about HE candidates were based on a traditionally British student body, where middle-class children experienced a comparable educational experience, could craft well-argued essays, and whose primary language was English. Leading universities presumed that highly-qualified, technically-skilled students would adjust seamlessly to their chosen degree’s demands. However, for international students, adjustment cannot be assumed, and institutions must address this with a sophisticated plan that focuses on who, when, where, and how adjustments can be facilitated, such as professional English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs, academic staff, before registration, or as part of ongoing “in-sessional” support.
Secondly, the admissions strategy assumes that the student will pass the course. Enrollment counselors concentrate mainly on transcripts, grades, and references, i.e., the academic “profile” of the applicant concerning course requirements. The system is not prepared to handle an applicant who is an apt scholar but lacks the communicative capacity to succeed on the course. Generally, language levels and academic proficiency are viewed as inextricably linked, and in a monolingual context, it is a reasonable assumption. However, it is an inaccurate presumption, which frequently results in overoptimism about the academic ability of linguistically weak, high-calibre students. If institutions are genuinely committed to the goal of boosting international numbers, English proficiency must be considered a defining attribute of a high-calibre candidate, instead of a negligible requirement. Apart from communication, foreign students have different perceptions of core academic concepts, such as plagiarism, criticizing authorities, and argument structure. On a taught master’s program, students who are not at the correct level on the first day are immediately at a substantial disadvantage for the entire course.
Furthermore, there must be more deliberation regarding the “correct” level of English for specific degree courses. The minimum regulatory level for English in numerous British institutions is band 6.0 on the IELTS test, with no grade less than 5.0 in any category (the IELTS scores range from zero to nine). Those involved in the teaching of English know how weak, for instance, a 5.0 grade in writing can be. Some degree courses evaluate oral tasks (such as many MBAs), but some IELTS alternatives omit speaking evaluation. Both of these problems raise the question of how to reach an equitable decision when admitting students.
This brings us back to the perception that if an applicant is accepted, they have a fair chance of succeeding. For this to occur efficiently with international students, English language proficiency must move from the margin to the center of institutional planning. If this is disregarded, foreign students may experience language difficulties and possess very different assumptions about academic norms. When there is a critical mass of non-native speakers, the risks of not prioritizing the impact of high quantities of international students are significant. Institutions may have to compromise on their standards to enable students to pass, live with unacceptably high failure rates, or channel resources (such as extra teaching) to support students at the right level.
The higher education sector is addressing this issue in various ways. Many "new" institutions have a tradition of admitting students with diverse learning styles and greater support needs. The majority of "old" universities have been gradually catching up with quality assurance issues and admission policies since the significant influx of foreign students in the 1970s. A forum for academics and administrators to share best practices would be immensely beneficial. While the Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes (Baleap) offers this for EAP professionals, broader institutional engagement may be lacking.
Successfully expanding a university to include a more diverse student body involves not only recognizing the benefits but also the costs. At the University of Nottingham, we refer to this mature strategy as "internationalization" rather than straight "international recruitment."
Undertaking this process has significant impacts on the entire institution. It is not feasible to ignore the demands of international students’ needs. Accepting their fees while continuing with business as usual is not a viable option. If the costs are met, the university gains an essential international dimension. Thus, the cost of English provision is considered an investment, not an expense. For 21st-century institutions, EAP needs to be part of the business plan.
An alternative reactive model is inefficient and potentially unethical. It presupposes that students, tutors, course administrators, and external examiners all "speak the same language," both literally and metaphorically. However, this assumption is being challenged regularly and will continue to be so.
Dr. Rebecca Hughes, director of the University of Nottingham’s Centre for English Language Education, stresses the importance of addressing these issues for universities to remain competitive in the global education market.