The case for USyd’s non-english courses

Liam Donohoe argues for a wider education in higher education.

The University of Sydney likes the image of itself as an institution that treasures diversity. With an increasing number of students coming from overseas—“more than 10,000” according to the 2016 Annual Report—and marketing that focuses on USyd’s global orientation, this image has been well-curated of late. In that context, it seems puzzling that USyd has not yet offered students the option of studying non-language course in languages other than English (LOTE), even as the range of languages spoken on campus has become more diverse.

It is certainly a feasible idea. Course content would, obviously, stay the same no matter the language of instruction. Funding would come from student fees, reallocated away from existing English-language courses, whose enrolment levels would drop just as their non-English counterparts’ enrolments would rise. Some courses are too too small to generate the demand needed for scale and will therefore be too ‘unprofitable’ to offer under current funding arrangements. But most courses—especially first year ones—would be easily replicable, even if limited to LOTEs for which there would be larger demand like Mandarin, Spanish, or Arabic. Moreover, anyone who’s ever applied for exchange would be aware that there are countless multilingual universities abroad, so the proposition seems logistically manageable.

The benefits of such a move would be greatest for English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) students. Studying in another language is difficult, and existing measures for assisting ESL students, like the Centre for English Teaching, are often insufficient. Offering courses in LOTE would provide both the financial pressure and logistical imperative to provide administrative information in LOTE, removing one of the more byzantine barriers to student support.

One might argue that ESL international students come to Australia to improve their English. But students with that motivation will still be able to study courses in English, or even take on a course load blending English and non-English language subjects. But not all international students come to USyd to practise their English; many are here to gain an internationally recognised and valuable qualification. For them, this proposal has the potential to improve learning, reduce stress and offer a safety net of academics who speak their language.

Of course, USyd itself would benefit. In the short-run it’s unlikely that the total amount of international students will increase compared to the trendline, with most of those doing non-English courses likely to have studied English courses anyway. But as global economic development creates more aptitude and desire for higher education, it’s likely a new demographic will emerge—made up of students interested in studying abroad but in their native language.

Teaching in languages other than English would also enhance the University’s academic culture. There are leading academics in all major disciplines who publish and teach exclusively in languages other than English. USyd might be able to recruit some of these figures, or at least engage with their work more substantially. And an embrace of the global also has the potential to expose the University to fields of thought neglected in western academia.

The impact on domestic students would likely be small. For one, so long as English remains the language of instruction in primary and secondary school, there will always be more demand for courses in English. Moreover, even if the proportion of international students at USyd might rise, the University will continue to expand in real terms: so long as this expansion is faster than Australia’s population growth (which at current rates, it is), there will actually be more places for domestic students every year.

But finally, cutting funding for courses in English, unlikely as it may be, wouldn’t be so unfair: given their far higher, unregulated fees, international students currently subsidise domestic student fees.

Perhaps the biggest worry, then, is the nationalistic intuition that USyd should adopt and promote the language of its home country. But it’s not clear that history or location should bind USyd in this way. USyd’s fundamental commitments are, to academic inquiry and the pursuit of the good life. In both matters, English is neither necessary nor sufficient. If the University wants to ‘unlearn’ local and think global, then it’s time it started speaking global as well.