Unprepared Students Vs. Unprepared Universities

Faculty members share their experiences with the emotional labour attached to the increase in underprepared international students at CapU

Gwen Pemberton (she/her) // Arts & Culture Editor

International students make up a huge portion of Capilano University’s population and are an invaluable part of the community, which is why various instructors, who have asked to remain anonymous, have expressed their concern about many of their international students being increasingly unprepared for their studies at CapU. 

Not only are many students arriving without the English proficiency needed to succeed in their studies, they are often not prepared for the academic environment, which can be quite different from their previous experiences. One instructor, who has been teaching at CapU since 2017, said that the current system leads to bad outcomes for both the students and the instructors. “I believe in international education. I think it’s awesome…but where it becomes a problem is when they’re underprepared, and that lack of preparedness affects every element of the class,” they said. 

There are also mounting concerns about the university’s apparent strategy to increase international enrolment in order to make up money lost from domestic students.

In the 2019/20 academic year, international students made up 40 per cent of the full-time equivalent (FTE) student population at Capilano University. According to the 2018-19 Institutional Accountability Report, “increases in international enrolment [fees] have offset smaller but persistent declines in domestic enrolments.” 

The most recent report shows that 31 per cent of full-time students were international, even with decreased international enrolment resulting from, “lingering uncertainty following the COVID-19 pandemic.” But as CapU continues to place recruitment resources in international countries, the university is struggling to support the international students already in attendance. 

A contentious issue for some faculty was the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The purpose of the IELTS exam is to assess English fluency for ESL (English as a second language) students. Students who take the exam receive an overall score from 0 to 9, and a score in each of the 4 categories — listening, reading, writing and speaking. Currently, CapU’s minimum IELTS requirement is 6.5. 

In response to the influx of international students in the English department, some staff, who had observed an increase in international students struggling with the material, suggested raising the IELTS requirement to the then Dean, Julia Denholm. Reportedly, the response was that raising the IELTS would be “out of step with other institutions.” 

Unlike other universities, such as SFU or UBC, CapU is an open institution. “The idea with open enrollment is that these are institutions that are meant to serve the public,” says an instructor who has been teaching at CapU since 2017. While other schools may still reject those students who meet the minimum requirements, some defend keeping IELTS minimums low in order to broaden access to education.

It is correct that CapU’s minimums reflect those of other universities. SFU’s minimum requirement IELTS score is 7.0, while UBC’s is the same as CapU’s at 6.5. However, UBC and SFU accept students with the minimum scores, but then enroll them in programs specifically for international students. “Students coming to CapU were just pushed right into the standard academic courses,” said one instructor.

At UBC, many international students enroll in the International Undergraduate Study Preparation Program (IUSPP) before pursuing an undergraduate degree. While participation in the program does not guarantee regular admission to UBC, the IUSPP Agent’s Handbook states that the program is designed to, “build confidence and develop skills in international students for the academic and cultural challenges they face with living and studying in North America.” 

IUSPP helps international students develop English fluency, and become familiar with a more strenuous undergraduate program than is common in many countries, such as the UAE or India, which are more focused on final test scores than coursework. CapU has no such preparatory program for students, aside from one English for Academic Purposes class. Because of this, some faculty members were in favour of raising the minimum IELTS scores at CapU in order to ensure that incoming students could be successful in their studies in Canada.

The alternative, however, can have disastrous consequences. For domestic students, failing grades may not be the end of the world, but for international students it can mean the difference between being able to stay in Canada or not. “Think about when your family takes out a loan you can’t really afford so that you’ll come to a different country by yourself …The whole family is banking on them graduating and then applying for permanent residency. [It’s] a huge amount of stress on them,” said one instructor in the Philosophy Department. “Most of us are sensitive to that, but we also have to balance it with maintaining academic standards, because otherwise the credentials lose value.”

The mental health risks to international students who struggle with the curriculum are real. On top of completing full time coursework, many students have to support their families at home or abroad, contend with high costs of living and go to work. While many instructors have expressed concern, they say there is not much that they can do. One professor shared a story about a student who was struggling in their class, and came to them saying that if she failed she would not be able to sponsor her husband to come to Canada. “These are about people’s life decisions…I’m not supposed to be making immigration decisions, I’m supposed to be marking your English,” they said. 

Another instructor, previously a recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award, expressed feeling unprepared to help students in these situations. “Students [are] sharing about their personal life with me, about them being evicted, having housing problems. I direct them to the resources available, but it is hard because there is not much I can do.”

There is also the issue of low student motivation. Some instructors report being told by students when confronting them about low attendance and marks, “Don’t worry about it, it’s just for our immigration.” They said it can be hard to teach in an environment which often incentivizes obtaining an undergraduate degree over meaningful learning. “[T]hat’s very hard because you’re not even starting from the same premise. You know that we’re here to teach you something. They’re just here to get something,” said one instructor.

“I think there has been…a lot of opportunism on the part of the university,” says Charles Campbell, an instructor in the Faculty of Business. He expressed concern that in an attempt to attract international students, CapU has not adequately prepared to support students or faculty. “The range of abilities in the classroom has changed for me over the 13 years I’ve been here,” Campbell says. “When you’ve got 35 students and they all need your help in different ways…one of the calls an instructor has to make is, ‘Which students’ needs am I going to focus on?’” 

The problems with international education at CapU are systemic ones, and not easily remedied. Many factors, including low entrance requirements and a lack of resources for international students, compound to create an environment that is difficult for many students and instructors. As the university is set on continuing to bring in more international students, it is worth asking if they have invested enough in support, either with preparatory courses or aid for teachers. These issues are not new, and as CapU continues to grow and to internationalize education, if they cannot create those resources it poses real problems that have huge consequences for students who come from abroad seeking an education.

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