English language testing for Tier 4 visas
15 January 2010

Should students applying for British Tier 4 visas have to take an English language test as part of the process? And if so, what form should it take?

These controversial questions, under urgent consideration in the industry as a result of the current Prime Ministerial review of student visas, were discussed by an expert panel and a large audience of education providers at a conference in London this week.

Opinion among the audience and much of the panel was strongly opposed to mandatory language testing for students.

Michael Carrier, Head of English Language at the British Council, was applauded when he commented: “Policy-making is normally based on evidence, and I’d very much like to have evidence. What percentage of beginners have overstayed their visa compared with advanced students? If that evidence doesn’t exist it needs to be collected.”

Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, pointed out the problems of creating a workable system of mandatory English testing as part of the visa process. “It would be a huge economic disincentive. Presumably the Border Agency wouldn’t be paying for this. At the moment it is not required in any other country in the world to have a certified English level so it would clearly make the UK less competitive.”

And Mark Lindsay, Managing Director of St Giles International, also warned of potential problems. “We employ 300 people in our UK institutions. We recently had a board meeting where we were discussing whether investment would be better in centres in the US and Canada as a result of some of these proposals. People’s jobs are at risk in the UK.”

The conference, Language at the Border: Assessing Language Ability for Study in the UK, was organised by Cambridge ESOL, and despite a heavy snowfall was attended by around 150 delegates.

Introducing the day, Michael Milanovic, Chief Executive of Cambridge ESOL, said the UK had to balance the interests of national security against the economic benefits of having over 600,000 overseas students coming to the country each year. Reduced Government levels of support for higher education would make overseas students even more important to us as a country, he said.

Suzanne Barnes of the UK Border Agency, contributing via an audio link, gave her view of how Tier 4 has been working and outlined the reasons for the PM’s review and why a mandatory test might be under consideration.

Applications were up, she said, and refusals down.

“We frankly have to look at the new system as it’s being rolled out. The route is very attractive, not only to genuine students but also potential economic migrants, and we have to make sure it strikes the right balance.”

She said that as educational institutions now had the responsible role of sponsoring students for visas, there was an implicit duty upon them to check language proficiency. This was both to meet the requirements of the Tier 4 visa and to ensure students were on the correct course.

Visa officers had quite rightly questioned the claimed proficiency of some students if they had interviewed them to check documentation, said Ms Barnes. Some sponsoring institutions appeared to have accepted the word of agents they did not personally know.

She argued that the current division between six-month student visitor visas and the Tier 4 general student visitor was legitimate. It was reasonable to require students applying for a longer visa to demonstrate recent interest and proficiency in learning English, and an old school certificate did not necessarily do this.

She was also interested in the Canadian immigration system of only accepting English certificates awarded 12 or 18 months previously. This, however, does not apply to students.

Officials from Cambridge ESOL spent some time explaining to delegates just how rigorous a testing system would have to be in order to meet considerations of security and fairness.

Juliet Wilson, Assistant Director, talked about the rigorous testing system adopted by Australian immigration control last year, and about Cambridge ESOL’s own secure testing developments.

This March, she said, they would launch an online verification service which would include an on-the-day photo of the candidate as part of the certificate.

She explained the many controls which were needed to ensure tests and their results were secure. Any organisation offering such a test for immigration purposes would need to have secure testing centres in many countries, with regular inspection and training.

Dr Nick Saville, Director of Cambridge ESOL, said it would be essential to seek guidance from assessment professionals and applied linguists to develop such a policy and that the system would have to be fully accountable with stringent guarantees.

Many questions would have to be debated, because there were such high stakes attached to such tests. What features of the language would be tested, and with what justification? When and where would tests happen? How would data be used to validate test results?

He said: “Language testing is intertwined with policy and border control not just in Europe but beyond. An inappropriate test for such high-stakes decisions would lead to negative impacts.”


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