Test foreign students’ English to ensure competency

Chris Longman argues for universities to hold mandatory pre-course exams

September 18, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

Reading in Times Higher Education about the former University of Warwick international student who blames the institution for admitting her despite her substandard English (“I shouldn’t have been a contender”, News, 28 August) reminded me of my first student recruitment trip to Taiwan in 1999 with Brunel University London’s international office.

During my first day on the stand, I encountered a frustrated student who wanted to do a UK master’s degree but had been turned down by several universities despite having suitable academic qualifications. The stumbling block was her poor English. When I politely pointed this out I was told in no uncertain terms that this was none of my, or the university’s, business. In contrast to the Warwick student, she believed it was down to her how she managed to get her English to the level necessary to successfully complete her studies. And if she didn’t, it was her choice to waste her money on the tuition fee.

After we declined to offer her a place, her most likely next step would have been to enrol on an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) preparation programme and study to pass the exam at the required level. This approach is sometimes called “exam hothousing”, as described by Karen Harris in her THE article (“Degree-level study without language competency is absurd”, Opinion, 3 July). Unfortunately, as she points out, this is often to the detriment of English study that would better prepare students for academic study. Nor does it help that English language test results are usually considered valid for two years. Much can and often does change in that time, and the result can be a student enrolling on a course with a certificate at the required level but with an actual English capability well below what is needed.

Now consider the Home Office’s toughened requirements for a UK student visa. For all university preparation courses it has decided that an approved Secure English Language Test (SELT) must be taken in an approved test centre. Students must prove that they are at least B1 level in the Common European Framework of Reference – generally considered “good GCSE” standard – in reading, writing, listening and speaking.

There are many year-long foundation and diploma programmes that combine A-level standard academic study with English for academic purposes and general orientation to university life. There are also many pre-sessional and pre-master’s programmes offered for a few months prior to the start of the academic programme. But reaching GCSE-level English before taking such a course is a high hurdle and, not surprisingly, many students who would previously have enrolled are now going elsewhere.

The government frequently talks about wanting only “the brightest and the best” international students to come to the UK. Unfortunately this is not what the new measures lead to. Take Chinese students. Their first choice of university will always be a top institution at home. But demand greatly outstrips the supply of places and as a degree from an overseas university is more valuable than one from a low-ranked home institution, rejected students will then turn their attention to the UK, US and Australia. But the Chinese university entrance exam requires English only at a much lower level than is needed for study in the anglophone world and there will not be enough time to reach GCSE standard by the time the pre-university courses start.

In Australia, it is commonplace to test all students on arrival to ensure that they have the English skills necessary to succeed. Any falling short are offered immediate in-sessional help. Many UK universities used to do the same, but fear of the Home Office has now stopped a lot of this. If a university discovered that some students were not at the required level and reported them to the Home Office they would risk losing their highly trusted sponsor status. If they did nothing and the Home Office later found out, the consequences could be even more severe.

It makes no sense for a would-be student to pass a language test at such a high level before coming to the UK to study English. And if selecting “the brightest and the best” is really the intention, wouldn’t it make much more sense to look at the academic accomplishments of incoming students? Currently this is completely overlooked in the allocation of visas.

For students taking a pre-university course route into a UK university, at least the language test at the end can be devised and delivered by the university itself, allowing students to be tested on the English they actually need for their course. I believe that universities should proactively subject all their incoming international students to such tests, regardless of whether they already have a recognised language qualification, before Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies certificates are issued for visa purposes. The case for this is only strengthened by the recent revelations about systematic cheating at a London test centre, which led to the suspension of three universities’ ability to sponsor new international students.

Such mass testing would be a big ask for busy university language centres, but running exams is a core business for universities and the rewards would include peace of mind, improved outcomes and, of course, healthier balance sheets.

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