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Internationalizing the Canadian campus

ESL students and the erosion of higher education.

by Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney


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.

Other stories that might be of interest:

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Comments on this Article

According to the article, nowadays more and more international students come to Canada to take ESL courses. The number of students is large. In the meantime, universities are providing more and more quotas for them to make a growth of economy.
There are different voices about getting more ESL students to campus. Governors agree to this phenomenon, because this can lead a grow in economy. But there are other voice that this is a big worry for students to graduate from university because of the lack of English.
ESL students are the people who are not good enough in English and need to be trained for a period. Since their English skills are not so good, it is difficult for them to adjust to life in Canada and they need a lot of effort if they want to compete with local students. And this makes both ESL students and teachers to improve English skills of these students.
Life for ESL students is not easy. They have to learn their subject and, in the meantime, to learn English as well. They can have a better understanding only if they can handle English well. This is a big challenge for both ESL students and their teachers.
There are someone who are opposed to letting ESL students to learn in Canada, but international students have become a major revenue for the government. So the government has a positive attitude toward this. Teachers need to rethink their course activities when teaching ESL students. Sometimes students can not evaluate their effect of learning English. So teachers need to think school activities and to improve this in a different way. This is good for students, universities and governors as we'll.

Posted by Daniel, Mar 10, 2014 2:52 AM

This article seems to have touched a nerve. Let's not forget that, in the authors' view:

1) professors are subject matter experts and do not generally have the extensive professional training needed to assist students who need language support

2) different cultural and language groups have different approaches to thought process and rhetoric and that these do not always align with accepted academic genres (and as someone who has, in fact, read a great deal of Pennycook and Canagarajah, I would add that, like it or not, most "accepted" academic genres are based on the anglo-saxon model… whether that's desirable or not is another question).

3) ESL students need and deserve specialized language support and that this is sadly lacking, especially at the graduate level.

4) Non-native speaker international students with a sufficient language level, who are academically and socially prepared for our university system and its expectations, make valuable contributions to our community.

Although I understand why some readers find certain parts of the article objectionable, the overall picture I get is that the writers have enough respect for the expertise of their colleagues in English language learning to know that most professors are not qualified to provide appropriate language support. They seem to understand, also, that international students bring with them their own modes of thought and expression and that these are different, but not inferior, to ours. Finally, they explicitly acknowledge the important contribution that non-native speakers make to out universities. I don't think that commentators' charges of ignorance, racism and xenophobia are warranted.

As someone who works in the area of language learning support in a major Canadian research institution, I can testify that yes, there exists a significant minority of international students who do not yet have the language competence to participate in academic discourse. I know because I work with them daily. This problem merits a constructive dialogue, not ad hominem arguments.

Posted by Katherine Anderson, Jan 24, 2014 1:59 PM

Isn't there a double-standard here? Many commentors are upset that this opinion piece was published in University Affairs. Yet they use this forum to stereotype, name-call, bully and otherwise try to destroy the reputations of two people who trying to raise an important issue. Hypocrisy at work.

Posted by Douglas Todd, Dec 3, 2013 11:49 AM

There is no earthly reason for students who are less than fluent in English (and by fluent I do not mean that they speak without a foreign accent, many people are fluent in other languages but retain heavy accents) to be taking up space in English language based universities. For example, I would never enroll in a university in China or France if I did not already speak Chinese or French fluently and already had, at the least, a basic understanding of Chinese or French culture and history. A university is not the proper setting for basic entry level education to be conducted. Students should arrive at universities fully prepared for an advanced education and fluent in the language of the culture they choose to be educated in.

Posted by Michelle Blanchard, Nov 1, 2013 10:27 PM

The authors offer a sincere concern regarding the problem, in their opinion, of “ESL” students who are not prepared for the rigours of the university classroom. Although I do agree that many instructors are subject-matter experts and not grammarians or intercultural mediators, we cannot forget that any instructor in a university setting is indeed and educator, and must strive to improve in the area of the craft of teaching – this is paramount. Regarding unprepared international students, I would suggest that universities take advantage of their bridging programs, which help to prepare students who lack sufficient English language proficiency. By the way, these programs could help more than a few Canadian students as well.

Posted by Terry McLean, Oct 28, 2013 11:09 AM

This opinion is misdirected. The authors should have focused on the low requirements for acceptance of ESL students into their programs, rather than on the students themselves. My experience with undergraduate international, ESL, students has been the opposite. For example, they tend to write the few reports that I would dare to call "university-level reports," and thus provide me with most of the examples I show to explain my students the kinds of reports I am looking for.

It is somewhat sad that two authors who use conversation and dialogue in their graduate courses would not properly identify the problem: lack of proper requirements of acceptance into their program for international students. Perhaps the most offensive piece was the assumption that Canadian universities are more rigorous than their international counterparts. If the authors' students share this assumption they are on to a few humbling surprises if they decide to travel elsewhere for an international experience.

Posted by Gabo Moreno-Hagelsieb, Aug 19, 2013 11:03 AM

i'm all for freedom of speech, but university affairs - really? what these guys are talking about is not an *esl* issue. it's an "i'm a dinosaur and don't understand the new normal issue". these fools are talking about *my* kids, citizens of Canada. they're also talking about my money, which pays for my kids' education (and sadly, i fear, at least part of their salaries). what they are *not* talking about is their framing of the erosion of campuses as an esl issue - which it is not. so, friesen (a crc?) & keeney, maybe the insertion below could offer another way to think about the "dark and worrying side" of things?

"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 [teaching] at our universities are simply unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom."

Posted by newnormal, Aug 15, 2013 6:09 PM

Rhonda, your bang on response to this article is greatly appreciated. As a former ESL teacher who spent six years in Japan, I would be very surpised if the authors of this article have any international teaching experience (and if they do, they obviously a)weren't very good at it or b) didn't learn anything from their students). I just so happen to be making a presentation next week on cross-cultural communication to a group of international student mentors at my university and I will be using this article as an example of cultural misunderstanding writ large. Quite frankly, as a Canadian and as a supporter of international students, this article truly embarasses me.

Posted by Brian Bailey, Aug 13, 2013 3:34 PM

It's a pity that the authors did not venture to speak to their colleagues in the Second Language department of their respective universities before writing this article as they could have saved themselves some embarrassment.

That being said, I'm glad this article was published as second language speakers can now feel justified in their suspicions that they are, indeed, being discriminated against by faculty members whose role is to facilitate their educational development, rather than shame them for not speaking the language of the majority. I am also curious as to who the authors work with in their professional settings. Surely, their bilingual (or in many cases, multilingual) colleagues could provide them with some enlightening feedback.

A few things...
1) Research has shown that most second language speakers understand more of their linguistic input than they are able to produce; therefore, there is no need to speak to them as if they were "academically challenged teenagers".

2) As much as people want to believe that universities are purely motivated by the almighty dollar in their acceptance of "foreign" students (I guess this excludes the Commonwealth countries), the admissions process is notorious for their gate-keeping strategies, especially at the graduate level where it is the Faculties who make the final admission decision. Whether or not universities want to advertise this or not, they certainly have an internal quota of how many non-Canadian, non-English speaking students they will allow into a program.

3) Finally, the biggest flaw of this article is the ongoing belief that we live in a monolingual country where all members of our society are perfectly proficient speakers of English.
On the surface, one wonders if the authors have ever had to engage in any customer service interaction where both parties were native speakers of English. How many times were the interactions fraught with miscommunication, repetition, fatigue, and annoyance? Surely, countless times. Therefore, proficiency does not guarantee comprehension. Communication is an ongoing process of negotiation that requires effort on the part of both parties.
On a deeper level, the university classroom should be a reflection of the world in which we live: multicultural, multi-racial, and multilingual. Immigration has been a reality in Canada since its inception and language tensions have always been a clever way of targeting The Other without specifically ostracizing their ethnic origins. It's like saying: I don't have a problem with the Quebecois, I just wish they'd learn English already. See? It's quite clever. To desire anything other than a classroom with students of mixed language backgrounds and proficiencies is to return to a time that never truly existed.

For once, I am profoundly overjoyed to read the comments section here--something one rarely says on the internet these days--as it appears that there are much more open-minded and rational people in the UA audience than there are those producing such myopic journalism.

Posted by Rhonda, Aug 13, 2013 11:41 AM

This article is precisely the sort of discourse I hear daily from my fellow ESL teachers, the very people who are supposed to prepare ESL students for regular university classes so that they don't hold anyone back. So I was not as surprised to read this piece. ESL teachers in many Canadian colleges and universities often fail or criticize their students and punish them for not speaking English at all times and justify their pedagogical moves by stating the ESL students are not ready for university classes. I must emphasize that it is not the case for every school and every ESL teacher but in many cases it is. I'd love to share this article and the comments below with my colleagues just to show who they are catering to.

However, I am not outraged to read this. I think there is a deeper message here. There is a psychoanalytic term "transference" that might come in useful to think this issue through. I don't think the authors might even be aware of this but the kind of community, university setting, these authors fantasize about, the one where there is meaningful discussion of nuances, where each and every Canadian English speaking student is engaged, where the teacher transfers some knowledge to his students in a meaningful way and the student recites in back, etc, this kind of community is impossible. This impossibility is transferred onto the ESL student. In other words, all would be fine if it just wasn't for the ESL student disrupting classes with their inability to follow instruction. The kind of community we all, most likely all, strive for, the kind of ideal educational setting we want, is impossible. And this impossibility is embodied in the ESL student.

My biggest concern about this article is that there are no suggestions about what to do next. It seems to be: let's just not have any ESL students in regular university classes (or at least, keep only the 'good' ones). Is that it? I also wonder: okay, let's do that, then what? I'm afraid the authors would be grossly disappointed because their students would continue studying their shoelaces because the same issues they had with the ESL student would become embodied in someone or something else.

Posted by ESL teacher, Aug 13, 2013 2:35 AM

My complaint with this column is that students who are “unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom” may be both a broader and a narrower category than “ESL students,” and so we risk suggesting that only non-native speakers of the language struggle with academic convention – or that disproportionately more of those students do. An international student’s struggles with English (or French, presumably) may be no worse than a “home” student’s problems with comprehension, public speaking, or time management.

As someone who has written here, and elsewhere, about the benefits of an internationalized campus – the course of my academic career was set, in part, through conversations with “foreign students,” and I was one, myself, at an “international” college in England – I take its value for granted. But we could still talk about the practical effects of heterogeneous student populations and debate the implications of targets (3%, 5%, 7%, or more of the student body) for internationalization. When recruiting foreign students, I have seen the skepticism of parents living abroad: they haven’t been contributing tax revenue for two decades and so expect their children to pay more, but they also expect that the differential fees will help pay for extra supports. Who does a better job providing them?

Those criticisms aside, a classroom is run according to any number of conventions, and the ability to work, fluently, in the language of instruction is surely one of them. Might we have this discussion without appearing intolerant, ignorant? I’d like to think so. Colleagues often question whether admitting students without prerequisites holds back the pace and the quality of instruction. So isn’t it interesting to think that some of us might cut slack to one student who doesn’t have command of the background disciplinary knowledge while penalizing another for faulty expression of excellent ideas she grasps? In any case, I wish to give these authors the benefit of the doubt, and I think certainly that we can listen to their frustrations without disparaging their institutions, their credentials, or their achievements.

Posted by Craig Monk, Aug 12, 2013 10:58 AM

I agree that it is shameful that University Affairs would consider this article worthy of publication. I, too, intend to use it in my own teaching as an example of ignorant attitudes toward English language learners. I appreciate this suggestion from Eve Haque, as I can't think of a better way to make something positive out of this. It will be embarrassing, though, to admit to students that the article appeared in a professional publication for university educators.

Posted by Bill Dunn, Aug 12, 2013 1:49 AM


Working with non-native English speaking students from around the world has most definitely been the highlight of my career as a university instructor. If you don't want them, I'll take them! These students, through their courage, their courtesy, the richness of their sociocultural and historical heritage offer us untold riches, if we can but step out of our own epistemological shells.

New wine requires new bottles with respect to curricula and pedagogical practice.

I seem to recall one native English-speaking poet who sang something to the effect that your old road is rapidly aging and that you might consider getting out of the new one if you can't lend your hand.

And these students will have the last laugh, as that poet also declared. It's simply a matter of time, demographics, and the forces of globalization. Bring it on!

Posted by Charles Scott, Aug 10, 2013 12:23 AM

I may agree with Eve more than you do--we should "be using this article" so ...
UA/AU, thanks for keeping it (& comments) published!

Posted by Ian, Aug 9, 2013 3:34 PM

I agree completely with Eve Haque’s assessment of this piece. It may be difficult for Norm Friesen, from the hallowed halls of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, to appreciate that a large percentage of Tier 1 Canada Research Chairs (not the little Tier 2 CRC he holds!) and presidents of major Canadian research universities came to Canada as ESL students. How shameful that UA would even consider an utterly ignorant and thinly-veiled racist rant like this worthy of publication!

Posted by Natalie Jensen, Aug 9, 2013 3:16 PM

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.

Posted by Sepideh Fotovatian, Aug 9, 2013 1:51 PM

"[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 ...

Posted by Ian, Aug 8, 2013 11:30 AM

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....

Posted by Peter Ives, Aug 8, 2013 12:32 AM

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.

Posted by Eve Haque, Aug 8, 2013 12:02 AM

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.

Posted by Craig Townsend, Aug 7, 2013 4:30 PM

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