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Bloomington Herald-Times

October 1, 2012

IU's international enrollment up, but not without concerns
By Mike Leonard
September 30, 2012

Indiana University's eighth consecutive year of record international student enrollment is a positive and welcomed trend for many at the university.

The Bloomington campus counts 5,941 international students enrolled this semester, reflecting a 4.6 percent increase from last year, when the Institute for International Education ranked Bloomington 11th in the country for hosting the most international students.

Systemwide, IU has 7,785 international students, a number that reflects a 70 percent increase since 2005.

"IU's international strategic plan places a high value on the presence of students from all over the world as one of the foundations of a university that teaches a global perspective and conducts research representing the cooperative efforts of scholars around the world," said David Zaret, vice president for international affairs.

"IU's success in attracting increasing numbers of top students from around the world indicates that we are achieving and exceeding the goals that we set out to accomplish," he said in IU's news release trumpeting its record.

The rapid increase in foreign student enrollment -- however well-intentioned -- is not without its critics, however. The lack of English language proficiency by some foreign students and the cultural ignorance or resistance to the ethics and style of American higher education that some display has many faculty members deeply concerned.

Alarming language weakness

"The simple truth is that we're letting in students who can't speak English and we're letting them get through the university without even minimal English language skills," said Glenn Gass, a Jacobs School of Music professor who teaches popular classes about the history and culture of rock and roll music.

"I've had students in 400-level courses who can't understand a question, let alone respond to it. It's an embarrassment, and it drags a whole class down," Gass said last week.

The music professor -- and winner of teaching awards -- is hardly alone in his concerns. The Bloomington Faculty Council is soliciting input from instructors. And in conversations and emails, professors in a variety of disciplines echo his complaints but express reluctance to go on record criticizing a major university initiative. Like Gass, they also say enthusiastically that some of their best teaching experiences have involved international students.

Complicating matters further is the perception that the areas of the most rapid growth coincide with the problems they're encountering. East Asia now accounts for 48 percent of Bloomington's international students and some 2,000 come from China. That coincides with national trends tracked by the Institute of International Education that show that China, India and South Korea send the most students to the United States.

Earlier this year, the New York Times published a story on the phenomenon under the headline: "Taking More Seats on Campus, Foreigners Also Pay the Freight." It noted that higher education cuts in Washington state resulted in the University of Washington's latest freshman class consisting of 18 percent international students.

And while IU came in 11th in international student population among American universities, Purdue's numbers ranked it fifth. Purdue also initiated a $1,000 surcharge for international students last year and increased the figure to $2,000 this year.

Some suggest that the tuition charged international students has become a handy means to offset declining state financial support to higher education.

"One thing I'd stress is that financial considerations are not the main or sole rationale (for increasing international numbers)," said IU's Zaret. "We do not charge international students higher tuition than non-residents. Whether we recruit someone as an undergraduate student from New York or India, financially there is no difference. We can recruit all of the domestic nonresident students we need.

"It's diversity," Zaret said. "We think we enhance the educational experience of our domestic students if they have the opportunity to live with and work with students from all over the world. It makes the campus a more exciting place."

The vice president for international affairs said he does not dispute or downplay faculty concerns about language proficiency and other matters. "I have heard reports of instances with some international students who have had problems with English language proficiency in the past but we expect this to be less and less of a problem in the future," he said.

Proof now required

Chris Viers, associate vice president for international services, said that beginning with the current, fall of 2012 class, all new international students had to present proof of passing a language proficiency test in the admissions process, something that was not previously required. IU requests applicants take the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam but will also accept two other popular tests.

Once at IU, he said, international students also must pass the Indiana English Proficiency Exam, a test developed by IU faculty and staff. He also said his office is working with the academic units to make English proficiency classes required rather than recommended and is pushing to see those classes completed earlier in the student's tenure at IU.

Viers said he's well aware that violations of academic ethics are increasing. "Students who are coming from certain countries are in patterns where they are not coming from the same cultural norms where individual performance is most valued," he said. "They are thinking from a collective perspective where individuals rely on each other," he said. "In that way, the American university is quite different. It's a complex matrix of issues that come together in this."

Zaret said academic integrity is a persistent issue at every higher education institution and that fingers often are pointed at fraternities and sororities where it's alleged that test banks and course notes are maintained and shared among members.

Viers said the "explosive" growth of Chinese students in the U.S. is something that IU and fellow Big Ten institutions monitor closely but welcome. "Our sisters in the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) see China as a country of great importance, and the reputation we have globally for the quality of our academic programs is a major draw," he said. "At the same time, it gives our students from Indiana the opportunity to experience a more diverse educational experience."