English proficiency programs pose risks to international student graduation times and finances

The growing international student population at Mt. A has been a positive statistic to admissions and administration alike. It currently boasts almost 350 visa students, bumping up this enrollment from last year by 4.2 percent. English proficiency is an essential element to enrollment and Mt. A has aimed to accommodate those who do not meet the English testing requirements by providing them with the opportunity to take an additional English course. This course is to be taken either during the summer before they begin studies at Mt. A, called the Summer Pathways Program, or during the full academic year, called the English Academic Bridging Program.

The Summer Pathways program runs between 4 and 12 weeks long and is paid out of pocket. Costs range from $1,994 and $4,797, depending on the program from which Mt. A deems the student will benefit most. The English Academic Bridging (EAB) program is the alternative to Summer Pathways and is taken during the school year in place of another course and paid in tuition. It runs during both fall and winter semesters. There are no course credits granted for taking EAB.

Alexia Bierlaire, a fourth-year cognitive science student from Luxembourg, passionately explained the inefficiencies of the program. She noted some of the experiences of fellow international students in the program who attended English schooling before entering Mt. A.  “They didn’t feel like they were learning, and I don’t know how many thousands of dollars that was wasted,” she said, describing elementary English lessons on synonyms and grammar that seemed not to benefit many students that were forced to take the program.

Bierlaire did not take EAB because she passed the TOEFL test (one of the recognized English tests you can take to prove English proficiency for Canadian university admission), but saw and heard about many of its problems through other students (who wished not to be interviewed). “I kind of get the idea that you have to speak English if you want to go to an English university, but the way they assess that is so flawed. […] If you’re not very academically gifted, you’re going to fail this test.”

Bierlaire recounted her experience taking the TOEFL English test to be eligible to apply at Mt. A. She explained how the test was four hours of straight testing in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English. Proctors supervised the writing and reading portions of the exam menacingly, and she had to write a certain number of words on top of paying attention to the high expectations of English excellence. For the listening and speaking portion, she sat in a room with cameras around all angles, filming her as she was rapidly asked random questions. 

“It’s not just testing English proficiency,” she concluded. “It’s testing your ability to think fast, and being able to concentrate and focus. It’s like four hours straight of testing, so it’s really long. Especially if you’re coming from a secondary school — you’re not used to it,” she further noted. “It’s a lot of stress because your future depends on it. […] If you had dyslexia or something I have no idea how you could pass that.”

Bierlaire also described the hassle of doing the testing, having to travel to another country on a specific date to take the test, missing school, and having to book hotel rooms to stay in during the testing period. She concluded: “It’s not easy, there’s a lot of time pressure, and a lot of variables can influence how you do on this test that are outside of English abilities.”

Despite the problems with the testing, international students are still subject to its scrutiny.

First years are unable to overload, “so they just lose out on one course each semester by taking EAB,” she said, highlighting the potential risk it poses to students’ degree planning. 

Aviation students are at particular risk of being put behind in their studies because of EAB. They need at least 24 credits by the end of their first year to begin flying in their second year, or 8 classes. This automatically limits EAB program students’ flexibility to fail any classes, because the EAB program is considered an uncredited course and students can take a maximum of four other courses concurrently.

 “You need to have a certain amount of credits to start flying, so they have fewer classes left to fail,” Bierlaire added, speaking of a close friend’s experience with EAB. “[Students are] already behind because they come to this new country, new [dominant] language, new people, lots to understand and discover. They don’t know the educational system. They might need to catch up on that, and they might end up failing a class. […] You can’t accelerate the MFC program because you need a certain amount of flight hours and it’s not possible to do in only two years, so students are stuck here for longer because of one or two courses [that could be compensated].”

Canadian students who graduate from a francophone high school are not required to have proof of English proficiency; the EAB and Summer Pathways program is exclusive to international students. However, many international students, though studying internationally for their secondary education, attend English schools where all of their courses are in English.

“I feel like even though they could argue that ‘well, you’re in an English university, you should know English, so that’s why you don’t get credits,’ it still doesn’t make sense,” Bierlaire said. “A lot of people sit there and they know English, even passed the English testing on their second try […] and people from Quebec who went to a French school in Canada do not have to do this English proficiency test.”

The charging of international students sounds more like robbery driven by principles of Canadian elitism, given that Canadian students who graduate from a francophone high school are not required to prove English proficiency through testing—just a grade 12 preparatory English course, the same (or even less) than what many international students who attend English schools must take for their diploma. 

International students receive some of the support advertised for the English programs, such as advocacy from the EAB professor and extended accommodations in their first year for testing. Bierlaire argued that some of these supports, however, do not justify the hefty price tag attached to the program. “Do going to office hours not do the same thing? I also got time and a half in my first year because I didn’t go to an English school and my first language isn’t English, even though I didn’t take EAB and passed my proficiency test.”

The solution to the EAB’s problem doesn’t seem to be abolishing it entirely, either. The program clearly has benefits for those who have trouble with English and have had no previous experience at an English school — the issue arises with decent compensation, the potential problems it can infringe on students’ graduation times, and the steep cost of taking the Summer Pathways to avoid that risk. Rather, granting compensation for the work and forcibly reduced course load through course credits would prevent international students from falling behind their degree and could curb the academic and financial cost of the program, even slightly. The high cost of the program — the equivalent of two courses — is doubly important to consider for international students who already pay $10,000 more to attend university in Canada than domestic students do.

“I think they should make it optional for some people,” Bierlaire remarked. Many students are capable of English schooling; however, the flawed English proficiency tests do not demonstrate it for different-minded people. “I don’t think they should force people into it just because they failed this arbitrary test once, especially if they pass it after taking it again,” she concluded. 

For more information on the EAB and Summer Pathways programs, visit the Mt. A website.

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