Are English-Speaking Universities Accepting Students with Inadequate English?

In the previous blog post about international students’ English competence, I explained how the quantity and quality of language learning affect students’ academic English knowledge.  I posited that students need well-developed English skills before starting university. Students should not delude themselves and hope that their English will magically improve once they touch the British, American or Australian soil. Language improvement is usually much slower than students expect. If students’ English does improve, the progress affects mainly speaking and listening skills. That is not good news since universities assess students’ performance through reading and writing assignments.  Students with poor English at arrival are set for failure.

In this blog post, I want to talk more about IELTS and TOFEL requirements imposed by universities.
I often meet lecturers, supervisors, course directors and academic tutors complaining about low levels of English proficiency among international students. The topic pops-up frequently in privately held discussions about international students. It is an open secret in academic circles.

However, universities and regulators officially contradict these anecdotal reports and claim that the problem of low English proficiency is exaggerated.

What is going on here? Are universities really accepting students with too low IELTS/TOFEL scores?

Here is my commentary. I converted IELTS bands in TOFEL scores and put them in brackets. 

Universities should ensure that students have an adequate level of English language skills before they start their courses.
The majority of English-speaking universities impose the minimal requirements usually expressed in TOEFL score or IELTS band and international students have to meet these requirements. It makes perfect sense. Students with better scores on IELTS/TOFEL are generally better prepared for studying at English-speaking universities than students with lower scores.

The British Council (the owner of IELTS) recommends that students should get a minimum 7.0 IELTS (95 TOEFL) for less demanding university courses and probably 8.0 IELTS (105 TOEFL) and higher for challenging ones.

There is also a consensus among tutors of English for Academic Purposes that students need to reach a high level of English proficiency (above 7.5 IELTS, 100 TOFEL) to learn, read, write in English.

Surprisingly, more than half of universities in the UK (among them the best universities) are happy to accept students with the English proficiency score between 5.5 (50) to 6.5 (85), so below the language standards recommended by the British Council and academic tutors.

A few links with language requirements:

The problem has been also reported in the context of American, Australian and European universities.

Speaking blantantly,  English-speaking universities accept students who don’t have the language skills needed to succeed and benefit from studying abroad.

What happens to students who cannot get the required score on IELTS/TOFEL?

If students don’t get the minimum required score on the IELTS or TOFEL test, they get a second chance. Students can participate in so-called pre-sessional/top-up courses. Such courses aim at improving the IELTS score by 0.5 band (usually five-week courses) to 2.0 band (20-week courses).

An example:

Lancaster University (the UK) organizes the 20-week course for students starting a Masters or PhD. According to the website the programme is designed for ‘students who have an overall IELTS score of 5.0 with a minimum of 4.5 in each element’.  The program promises that ‘on successful completion of the course students will have improved their language skills to a level, which is acceptable for entrance to their academic programme’.
Cost – £6,040.

So let me remind the British Council suggests a minimum score of 7.0 for undemanding linguistically courses. Here Lancaster University attempts impossible. They want to improve students’ IELTS score from 4.5 to 7.0 in just four months.   That seems highly unrealistic expectation. First, the IELTS scores don’t improve that quickly. Also, students who attend pre-sessional courses still get worse university results than students who arrived in the UK with the right IELTS score (see Thopre et al. 2017).

In my opinion, prospective Masters or Ph.D. students with  5.0 on IELTS (40 TOFEL) who take such pre-sessional courses make a mistake. The courses are not likely to prepare them for studying at the postgraduate level.

The problem with students struggling with language at English-speaking universities became conspicuous in recent years. Here a few articles from the British and Australian papers which decry the poor English skills among international students. I don’t necessarily agree with the content of these articles. The authors sensationalize the issue, don’t seem to understand language acquisition, focus too much on students’ oral skills and suggest simply more stringent testing as a solution. However, such articles seem to indicate systemic language proficiency issues among international students and sadly it might be only the tip of the iceberg.

My university accepts overseas students who are doomed to fail

Universities ignoring own English standards to admit more high-paying international students

Universities are recruiting foreign students with poor grasp of English

Poor English, few jobs: Are Australian universities using international students as ‘cash cows’?

Universities enrol foreign students certain to fail

Premier intervenes as international students’ English fails to make the grade

Academics pressured to pass struggling international students

So why do universities recruit international students with insufficient language skills?

On one hand, it is hard to understand this situation since accepting students with low proficiency in English is detrimental to students’ academic performance and well-being. Also, the reputation and standards of universities suffer. When no one knows what it’s all about, it’s most likely about money. Universities depend on tuition fees paid by international students (at least to some extent) and that dependency leads to the problems. That is the main reason universities accept international students with poor English. That is also a reason some universities are accused of treating vulnerable international students as cash cows.

Here again an interesting article and a movie:

How universities milk the international student ‘cash cow

Cash Cows: The universities making billions out of foreign students

Although some universities and educators tried to refute the allegation of treating students as cash-cows or admitting students with low-English proficiency, their arguments are not convincing.

It is also possible that some universities accept students with insufficient English unintentionally.

People who decide on entry requirements do not always understand second language acquisition and the needs of international students. Academic experts who are native speakers of English often cannot assess the time and effort needed to develop academic English. As experts in their own fields, they have an advanced understanding of a subject, however; they forgot how hard it was to learn the subject. It is the case of ‘the expert blind spot’ and/or ‘curse of knowledge’. People responsible for university admission cannot put themselves in the position of international students.

I often talk with people admitting students to universities and hear that students need higher IELTS/TOEFL scores, particularly on speaking.
Sometimes admission officers justify low entry-requirements and expect that students will improve English dramatically by immersion or osmosis. They often decry the lack of fluency, ignoring the fact that factors such as stress, accent, shyness can affect fluency.  That shows a profound lack of understanding of second language acquisition and students’ needs. Some students might not be able to speak well, but they can be excellent academic comprehenders (simply understand well what they read) and by proxy good writers. Such students might have no problems to get a very good degree if their progress is assessed on the basis of reading and writing (it is often the case at English-speaking universities).

Here is an example,  a post by someone who worked in higher education policy for years (also as a ministerial advisor).
The author seems to suggest that international students should be more fluent in English. That is incorrect.
Often reading and writing skills are more important for students than speaking skills but the author focuses solely on oral proficiency.  I

How bad is the international student English language problem?

No matter what the reason for accepting students with low English proficiency is, this obvious malpractice puts students in academic, health and money-related jeopardy. International students who trust universities that once they meet the official requirements, their skills are on the appropriate level are likely to make a mistake.


I strongly believe that many international students struggle academically because universities set IELTS/TOFEL bar too low. Students should try to score higher on IELTS/TOFEL  than the minimal requirements imposed by univeristy. Finally, students who cannot reach let’s say  6.5  IELTS (90 TOEFL) should focus on developing their English  proficiency. The brutal truth is the low IELTS/TOFEL scores are likely to reflect deficiences that need to be remedied.

In the next post, I will explain why some students with very high IELTS/TOFEL scores do academically worse at university than students with only decent scores (IELTS/TOEFL scores can be misleading). I will ask students to reevaluate their reading and writing skills since authentic academic reading and writing differ strikingly from reading and writing modules on IELTS/TOFEL. Finally, I will tell you about ‘the pudding test of Academic English’, probably the best way to assess if students have the right skills to study abroad.