Why Band 6.5 IELTS Might not be Enough to Succeed at University

The majority of international students who want to study in British or Australian universities take the IELTS. When preparing for the exam, these students frequently aim for Band 6.5 since it is sufficient to enter most of the British/Australian universities. In fact, more than half of the universities in the UK are happy to accept students with Band 6 and some good universities accept students with Band 5.5.

If you have been admitted to university on the basis of your IELTS score, you might feel well-prepared for the challenge of studying in a second language. At the end of the day, if you weren’t, the university would not have admitted you in the first place. Right?
Please, don’t shoot the messenger, but the chances are you might be terribly wrong about it. Why?
Firstly, It is not a secret that universities in the UK make lots of money thanks to tuition paid by international students. To put it bluntly, many universities in the UK treat international students as ‘cash cows’. Therefore, universities are happy to accept students with the lowest acceptable level in English.  I am not familiar with educational system in Australia but it appears that the same applies there too.
In a results, many international students struggle with their academic progress.
Don’t get me wrong, I have met lots of  international students who were doing extremely well, in fact, better than native students. At the same time I have spoken with many young, bright and motivated students who were working twice as hard as native students and they were still struggling with academic work. No matter what they did, they were still perceived as the the slackers and struggles. Many of these students were self-funded or more precisely funded by their families and they really bent over backward just to keep up with academic burden. i can only imagine the stress and immense pressure they felt.
I have also spoken to lecturers who decried decline in degree standards in the UK. Some of them openly blamed for that international students with poor English. They also complained that many international students blatantly plagiarise and use ‘ghost writers services’ for their academic projects. A friend of mine -a lecturer at respectable ‘red brick’ university admitted that he had marked international students’ projects leniently to allow them pass. Similar comments are also frequently voiced in popular press (google ‘universities admitting students with poor English’). Frankly, I have seen myself students admitted to a doctoral program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speaker of Other Languages) who were not able to  string a sentence together. And their writing was only slightly better than their speaking skills.
This anecdotal evidence of international students’ poor English skills and its negative effect on their academic performance seems to be corroborated by statistics published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. They reveal that international students are less likely to graduate with 2:1, and the situation seems particularly grim for Chinese students.
It doesn’t surprise that many students with lower IELTS band struggle academically. Generally students with better scores on the written component of the IELTS, have better chances of succeeding at university. However, I have met students who had only Band 6 on the writing test and their writing was on doctoral level. I also met student with Band 8 struggling with their assignments. How can this be explained?
There might two reasons for these disparities.
Firstly, The IELTS and in particular its written component might not reflect the students’ capability and skills required to write advanced academic projects at university. Let me explain this. In the written component of the IELTS students are required to draw on their knowledge and experiences in order to respond to a question or write an essay. In other words, student need to rely on what they know about the subject. However, academic writing at British or Australian university is different. Students  need to know how skillfully integrate source materials (e.g. books, journals, reports) into academic writing. In other words, students rely on sources written by others, not on their own knowledge and experience.  Students are expected to support their writing with good quality primary sources using balance of description, analysis, persuasion and critique. They are also exposed to varied academic genres (e.g. case study, research reports, research proposals) not only essays.  In order to write assignments, projects, dissertations and theses students need to know how to effectively  integrate sources into their writing. Thus, the IELTS is not exactly aligned with actual tasks students in the UK are expected to perform.
Secondly, the problem might be also related to the fact that many international students learn English to pass the test and not to master the language. IELTS books such as ‘Tips for IELTS’, ‘Grammar Secrets for IELTS’, ‘High Scoring IELTS Sample Answers’, ‘Strategies for IELTS’, ‘Hacking IELTS’ suggest the students look for ‘quick and dirty tips’. There is nothing wrong with this as long as students understand that the IELTS only opens the door to university and the real mastery of academic language requires more than some quick tips.

Despite these problems British universities continue to accept international students with inadequate English skills. They know 5.5-6.5 is probably not enough to study in a second language,  however, unrealistically, they assume that students will improve their English skills while working on the course.  At the end of day, they will be living in an English speaking country. Full immersion. In reality, students don’t improve their reading and listening comprehension and writing skills as rapidly as universities would want and students themselves expect.  With academic workload and looming deadlines finding time for learning English is challenging.
The problem could be alleviated to some extent if international student were provided with appropriate training and support. Unfortunately, you are likely to receive less academic support than you might expect (particularly considering the tuition you pay).  I don’t want to generalise, there are certainly universities with great staff and necessary expertise, but on the whole tutors don’t understand international students’ needs, challenges and problems. Many tutors teaching English for Academic Purposes are monolingual speakers who never mastered any foreign language in their life. Even if they do speak French or Spanish, they never published anything in their second language. They don’t understand the process of learning the language, and challenges related to academic reading and writing in a second language.
Some tutors or supervisors might expect you to improve your writing over night. Some other friendly but overzealous tutors might focus on correcting every single error you made in your writing, if it were to resolve the issues. Some writing courses might suggest you writing 500 words everyday to improve academic writing. They have no idea how hard and frustrating is to write for students who think at very high level and struggle with simple sentences. Tutors are also not prepared to develop students’ independent learning skills. They might be able to help you to manage your learning on emotional level but fall short in providing practical, working solutions.
If you are considering studying abroad, don’t focus solely on the IELTS. If you do, aim for Band 8. At least! Learn English for mastery rather than for tests. Learn English on the basis of authentic materials from your study area (read journal articles, reports and books from your chosen field). Familiarise yourself with different academic genres.  Develop knowledge management skills (Learn Citavi, Zotero, Scrivener, Docear) to help you write from sources. Employ learning technology to work smarter not harder. Take responsibility for your (language) learning. The best time for language learning is before you enter university.