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Leave it to the authorities? Better not!

by David Will

I was chatting to a friend of mine, at the time Vice-President of a prominent Australian university. He was lamenting the recent death of a Chinese student at his institution. It was a suicide, and it was not the only one he said.

He explained that the student had been struggling to keep up with his studies, and had become convinced that he was about to fail. His English level was too weak to study effectively. As a product of China’s one-child policy he’d represented his parents’ big hope for the future. They had given up a great deal in order to pay for him to be able to travel to Australia. They had sacrificed willingly in the belief that the qualifications he would obtain, and a subsequent high-earning job would materially alter living conditions for the whole family. Coupled with the fact that education is highly esteemed in China this proved a greater burden than the young man could bear.

His educational problems stemmed from his inability to deal with studying in a second language. Yet how could this be? On the face of it he had worked very hard on his English language skills in order to get into the university. Indeed without a fairly high score on the IELTS test he wasn’t even able to satisfy immigration criteria for entry into Australia in the first place.

I was fortunate enough to operate two language schools in China for some years, and consider it a privilege to have had such an intimate insight into this fascinating and sophisticated country. Part of what I learned from our students helped me to understand something of what happened. Having completed study with us students would often travel up to Beijing. We began to ask why they were going.

As it turned out they attended special IELTS preparation schools in Beijing and other cities in order to achieve the grade required by immigration. Typically teachers of these schools would enrol themselves for the IELTS test at the local centre. With no intention of doing the exam they spent the time ‘learning’ the questions. Afterwards they returned to their school and in classes of over a hundred, using microphones, they ‘taught’ the questions they’d memorized. In the more subjective areas of speaking and writing they tried to teach students standard responses that could be rote-learned. Together with other techniques these ingenious people helped to ensure students got an IELTS score higher than was representative. In the case of the boy in Melbourne, and many like him, it was considerably higher.

The rest of the story was oft repeated. The unprepared student would get a visa and arrive at university overseas quite unable to cope linguistically, with a range of consequences. Failure would mean a return to China and a loss of considerable funds, and face, by parents. Extra support by a university was more expensive and put pressure on students and institution alike. There were accusations of ‘dumbing down’ degrees, as lecturers were forced to spend excessive amounts of time tutoring students whose language was not sufficient. Those same lecturers were under pressure from their vice-Chancellors to find ways to help the students pass. Full fee-paying foreign students are a valuable commodity to universities. And then there is the consequence of suicide!

What does this say about the system that gets students into such tenuous circumstances? In fact there is much to recommend it! To begin with it is difficult to find anybody who will condemn it. For the IELTS preparation schools in China it is a robust commercial enterprise. For the parents it represents a way to meet an unyielding immigration criterion. For the student it offers great hope for the future. Many, indeed most of the students who come through this system achieve university qualifications and return to China better placed to find good careers. For Vice-Chancellors under pressure from reduced government funding it is a more important form of revenue than it is for the IELTS schools. Immigration officials are satisfied because they can tick the box that shows they have done their job.

Furthermore there are things I like about it myself! Any system that helps to make tertiary education available to the many who in the past were unable to access it has its good points. This is even truer for China, where there are not enough University places for high school graduates.

Yet there must be something fundamentally wrong with a system where the only party interested in maintaining standards, IELTS, is seen by most others as merely an obstacle to be circumnavigated. Essentially there are three reasons for this. Using a language test as a criterion for granting a study visa is an absurdly arbitrary and easily bypassed one, particularly when the language test in question was not designed for that purpose at all. Secondly, commercial pressures on universities and on IELTS schools in China can lead to corner-cutting when the pressures go up, as they do when economies suffer. Finally the lack of university places in China mean students, and parents, are more interested in beating the system than with being genuinely prepared for the adventure –  not the best frame of mind to begin a 3-6 year process of education.

In such circumstances where do the checks and balances come from? Laws and regulations can help, but they do so on a broad scale, and only when they have ‘teeth’; in other words when the resources exist to enforce them comprehensively. In any case they are less than effective in so many individual cases. Instead, in a nutshell, controls must come from institutions themselves. And to state the obvious institutions are made up of individuals. If each of us adheres to a high code of ethical conduct the institution, by default, behaves appropriately too. It comes down to each administrator, examiner and teacher. It requires all of us to speak out, when we see standards slipping in our own place of work.

The events I have described were prevalent some years ago now, and in many cases things have improved, usually as a result of decisions made by institutions in order to safeguard their own standards. But we are now emerging from the worst worldwide economic crisis since the war. We have already seen the closure of GEOS schools in Australia, and there will be more. It happens every time there is a dip in the market. It’s part of the cycle.  In market parlance it gets rid of the dead wood! Unfortunately it also engenders corner-cutting again.

The problem is that the market is amoral. It permits existence based on commercial success alone. But this cannot be acceptable where education is concerned, and where students have so much at stake. Legislation doesn’t, and never will, cover every eventuality. In Australia every time there is a high profile closure the regulations are reviewed at great cost both in terms of time and money. Amendments are made, politicians feel they have done what they can, and everybody goes home – until the next time. Once again this isn’t the solution. Once again it requires all of us to speak up when we see something not right in our place of work. We need to develop within ourselves a greater sense of collective responsibility than perhaps currently exists. We need to be able to say ‘OK, maybe it is not directly my business, but it isn’t right and I am going to say my piece!’

American, unregulated, amoral capitalism has been shown up as a farce over the last eighteen months. Much as the great American economic institutions would deny it, such deregulated madness will not come again. This is particularly so as increasingly China, and not America, sets the international economic agenda. China is no longer the coming nation. As was clear at the recent environmental conference in Copenhagen, there is no show without China. China has arrived.

This is not as frightening as many of us might think. China may be regularly portrayed by the Western media in a negative light but the achievements of the Chinese central government over the last thirty years are often underestimated, not least the fact that they have lifted 350 million of their people out of poverty over that period, and continue to do so consistently. They do it by propagating their own form of capitalism; a capitalism that is driven from the centre, and is carefully regulated. The achievements show that it has been done with their people’s interests at heart; a kind of benevolent despotism that has characterised much of China’s history and political activity. In the past emperors were left in place so long as they made every effort to take care of their people. Collective responsibility by another name!

This is anathema to free marketers, but as China becomes the largest economy in the world, as she will within fifteen years, it may be a reality that the rest of us have to deal with. Collective responsibility! Could it be that China will have something to teach us about ethical behaviour?

Author’s Bio:
David Will was the Owner/Director of International House Queensland in Cairns and Brisbane for 18 years, and of I.H. Jinan and I.H. Qingdao in China. Before that he was an EFL teacher in Spain, at IH Huelva, Santander and Torrelavega, and in Scotland and Australia. These days he cycles and grows olives.

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