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In my opinion

Internationalizing the Canadian campus

ESL students and the erosion of higher education.


One of the most profound recent changes to Canadian higher education seems to have gone little noticed: namely, the increasing numbers of students on campus whose native tongue is not English. Some of these students may be first-generation Canadian or landed immigrants, while many come from other countries. Most universities now have departments dedicated to the recruitment and retention of international students and are busily criss-crossing the globe in search of new customers.

Governments and senior administration in universities have been successful in persuading Canadians that “internationalizing” the campus is a positive development for all concerned. Yet, there is a dark and worrying side to this that is felt most acutely in the teaching of the humanities and critical studies. There is no sugar-coated way to say this: many of those who are welcomed at our universities are simply unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom.

It may be that they possess insufficient abilities in English or that their academic and cultural preparedness is not up to speed. Either way, their presence fundamentally changes teaching and learning, to the detriment, we believe, of all involved: students fluent in English, instructors, and the students who don’t speak English well or don’t understand the Canadian academic context. For who enjoys being thrust into circumstances for which one is ill-prepared or, conversely, over-prepared? It is a lose-lose-lose scenario.

We have both taught graduate courses where a significant portion of the class consists of ESL students. Layers of common cultural and historical understanding that serve as a foundation for graduate discussion disappear from beneath one’s feet. When teaching a class with a large ESL enrolment, faculty cannot balk, but are pressured to adapt and adjust their expectations.

Instead of engaging students in disentangling the nuances and subtleties of a particularly important passage from the assigned readings, one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers: articulating slowly; avoiding any conjunctions and non-standard English; writing simple terms on the board. You teach to the needs of your class, and when three-quarters of the class are struggling with reading comprehension and basic vocabulary, that’s the object of your teaching.

Humanities and other teachers who are expected to address and balance the needs of such students with those of lifelong English speakers are not grammarians or intercultural mediators: they are subject-matter experts. And the kind of expertise required is manifold. Each culture brings with it set genres of writing and rhetoric, and many of these may be quite different from the pared-down logic and style of a research report or even a textual analysis. And, while universities provide writing centres and other institutionalized assistance for undergraduates, there is nothing comparable for graduate students. Indeed, the sorts of expertise and infrastructure for addressing the writing needs of ESL graduate students – whether of a mechanical and practical nature, or a more subtle and nuanced kind – range from inadequate to non-existent.

Qualified students can hardly be blamed if they slouch in their seats and study their shoelaces, as the professor iterates, yet again, something they learned in grade school. Conversation and dialogue – what the Greeks called the dialectic and which forms the core of the graduate school experience in the humanities – should inspire and stimulate students possessing the requisite abilities with the language. Yet it is impossible to engage students in any meaningful and rigorous exchange of ideas if their minds are focused on vocabulary and pronunciation.

Insofar as ESL students contribute to and benefit from the pursuit of academic priorities proper to Canada, fine and well. But insofar as such students are academically or linguistically unprepared to enter the broad cultural debates that animate the educational conversation, their presence in the graduate classroom and in some cases, their receipt of Canadian credentials, occurs to the detriment of the Canadian students and institutions. It is a form of intellectual and professional duplicity. And we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Given our experience, we believe that Canadian universities need to rethink their enthusiasm for non-English-speaking students. They are indeed a ready source of revenue; but it is a rare thing in this world that one gets something for nothing. In our view, the money brought in by foreign students has extracted a great price.

Norm Friesen holds the Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University. Patrick Keeney is an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University.

Read Deputy Editor Léo Charbonneau’s reaction to the comments posted below.

Also, an ESL student has written a response: An (ESL) student’s perspective on internationalizing the Canadian campus.


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  1. Craig Townsend / August 7, 2013 at 16:30

    According to the 2011 census, 22% of Canadians listed French as their mother tongue and 58% listed English as their mother tongue (that leaves 20% in the other category). I shudder to think how my Canadian francophone colleagues and neighbours would react to such egregious oversight on the part of Canadian professors. Let’s hope it wasn’t translated into French, Canada’s other official language!

    While as a teacher of large undergraduate courses in English to students who are anglophones, francophones, and “allophones”, I share some of the authors’ concerns. As many of our (and I include Québec!) universities have opened enrollments to students from outside Canada, and to students with mediocre or even poor previous academic performance, and as the linguistic and ethnic composition of Canadian society has shifted, there are many challenges that we face in delivering post-secondary education.

    However, the authors seem to conflate “unprepared for the rigours”, lacking “common cultural and historical understanding”, “academically or linguistically unprepared”, “don’t speak English well”, “foreign students”, “ESL students”, “don’t understand the Canadian academic context”, “and “struggling with reading comprehension and basic vocabulary”. If we were to restrict entry to Canadian universities (leaving out francophone universities as the authors have done) according to all those features, who would be left? How many of us would want to teach in a university that was so exclusionary, and what about those of us teachers who along with their students are also struggling to teach in English (or French) or may come from another cultural background?

    Restricting the admission of ESL students to universities (although on what grounds could an ESL student who came to Canada during childhood and passed high school and met university entrance requirements be excluded?) wouldn’t necessarily address what the authors identify as problems. Introducing language proficiency tests and increasing language course requirements would help, but based on my experience many Canadian students would face the same difficulties.

  2. Eve Haque / August 8, 2013 at 00:02

    What an ignorant and xenophobic little article. Linguistic facility has nothing to do with the order in which you learn a language and content knowledge is different from linguistic knowledge/use. I started to explain this at length then realized I was writing an undergrad lecture and that the authors actually know nothing about ‘esl students’ but were actually reproducing standard xenophobic tropes about people who are conventionally understood to be ‘non-native’ speakers of English. I would suggest that the authors educate themselves (shocking that one of the co-authors is a CRC in some sort of ‘learning’), and that University Affairs vet their publication standards. As for me, I will be using this article in my own teaching as yet another example of the way in which language myths are used to reproduce age old exclusions.

  3. Peter Ives / August 8, 2013 at 00:32

    This article is based on very superficial stereotypes and xenophobic generalizations that seem to begin from the presumption that native users of English are INHERENTLY better at communicating in it than non-native speakers. I am all for being critical about the ‘internationalization’ of Canadian universities and asking who is it good for aside from meeting budget short-falls due to funding cuts, or being part of the privatization of our universities. But instead this article just rehashes the elitist arguments of those who decry the more general opening up of universities to those outside the upper-middle and upper classes since the 1960s. I expect more from people who call themselves academics dealing with education and learning….

  4. Ian / August 8, 2013 at 11:30

    “[I]n the teaching of the humanities and critical studies […] for the rigours of the university classroom,” shouldn’t we recommend students (in Canada) to read NOT just English translations but in the original languages–French included? Literature, arts & social science …

  5. Sepideh Fotovatian / August 9, 2013 at 13:51

    This arrogant piece reads more sarcastic than academic to me. So, I decided to respond in a similar tone:

    I am not surprised the authors have observed students studying their shoelaces in their classes. Even academically challenged teenagers are aware of the basic rules of academic writing (e.g., avoiding biased assumptions). This combined effort represents what students should expect to learn in the classes…

    I suggest the authors familiarize themselves with postcolonial research around “standard English” (see Pennycook or Canagarajah or McKay for example) or ‘linguicism’ (racism based on language use, Philipsen), or multi-competence and multilingualism (Cook) before they advocate for a ‘No NESB Policy’ at Canadian universities.

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