Blocking accreditation of English language exam 'may harm UK universities'

Educational Testing Service claims that Home Office decision could see institutions fall behind in international recruitment

November 27, 2014

The language testing company that became embroiled in a crackdown on student visa fraud has been blocked from regaining Home Office accreditation – prompting it to claim that UK universities risk falling further behind in international recruitment.

In their first interview since losing their Secure English Language Test status in February over allegations of organised cheating by some students, senior staff at the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service told Times Higher Education that, although they had made mistakes, they had also made significant improvements to security.

ETS realised that these would prove insufficient to regain accreditation for visa purposes for ETS’s Test of English as a Foreign Language exam, because the Home Office decided that applications would be judged against past performance. Even though no concerns had been raised about TOEFL, it had previously shared a single licence with another ETS exam, Test of English for International Communication, which was the focus of the BBC Panorama investigation.

David Payne, ETS’s vice-president and chief operating officer, declined to criticise the government’s decision and said the organisation remained committed to the UK market.

ETS said large numbers of British universities – including 70 per cent of the Russell Group – were accepting overseas students with the TOEFL qualification under “vouching” provisions, where the institution guarantees an applicant’s language ability for visa purposes.

But Dr Payne claimed that restrictions on the TOEFL, which ETS describes as the world’s most popular and widely accepted English language exam, could be damaging to the country’s universities.

Dr Payne said that students taking the TOEFL had previously been able to apply to study anywhere in the English-speaking world and that the lack of accreditation “puts another barrier or hurdle” between them and UK institutions.

“There’s no way to look at it other than that it puts you at a competitive disadvantage,” Dr Payne said.

He added that the situation could add to perceptions that Britain was “not welcoming” international students.

ETS boasts of the security of its TOEFL, with recent innovations including the introduction of biometric identification and voice recognition technology.

However, these measures were not in place on the TOEIC at the time of the Panorama probe, which found that an undercover reporter was able to pay £500 to an immigration consultancy for a “guaranteed pass”, while at an East London college, spoken and written tests were taken for candidates by a “fake sitter”, and the correct answers to a multiple choice test were read to students by an invigilator.

ETS has since taken the responsibility for security in all its exams back to its US headquarters.

Dr Payne acknowledged that ETS had “made mistakes” but claimed that it had not been the only victim of an attempt by “organised crime” to subvert the visa process.

The allegations of cheating led to three universities being barred in June from recruiting any new international students. One of these, Glyndwr University, had its highly trusted status suspended.

On 24 November the Home Office announced that this would be reinstated, but on condition that the university vacate its London campus. Glyndwr will be able to recruit only a limited number of sponsored students to its Wrexham campus ahead of a further review in January 2015.

Glyndwr said it planned to improve its security controls before applying to offer courses in the capital again.

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