Melanie Butler talks to Fraser Cargill about his career and the new Pearson PTE Academic examinations
Q You have had an unusual career including a stint as Australian honorary consul toNorth Sumatra. How did you become an honorary consul and how did you change to a career in testing?
A Oh, long story... I was working for the commercial wing of an Australian university and had set up a language and cultural centre in Medan, North Sumatra for them on an initial two-year contract – my partner and I enjoyed it so we stayed. We ended up bringing all things Australian in the region under one roof so that we could present a one-stop shop for Australia in the way of language training, crosscultural exchange programmes, trade and education. When the Australian government decided to set up honorary consulates around Indonesia we were a fairly nice fit for them. I was always involved in testing, having trained as an Ielts examiner in 1993 and then set up an Ielts test centre in Medan from 1995.
Q How did you get involved in international education and what did the experience teach you?
A When I first moved to Australia in 1989 I went to work in one of the large language centres operating there. It was at the time of the Chinese boom periodin Australia and we literally had dozens of classes filled almost entirely by Chinese students. The majority of them had borrowed large sums of money in order to gain an overseas education which they felt would boost their career opportunities at home. To then see them trying to combine English language study with work to pay back these loans demonstrated to me the respect for education in some countries that I felt perhaps we took for granted to some extent certainly in the UK. The school was not one of the best around and I felt that the students were often treated pretty badly. This, and subsequent experiences, has taught me that it is can be too easy in an increasingly commercial field to treat everyone as commodities – this should never be the case. I try to remember that education should be an enjoyable journey – not just a means to an end – and that we should try and make that journey more enjoyable for students in all that we do.
Q Most of your career seems to have been in Asia and the Pacific. Obviously this represents a huge market for examinations – if indeed it is a single market...
A You are right – it isn’t a single market at all and each country has its own unique culture, language and characteristics. However, I think that there is a very different attitude to language learning in the region – and this is probably applicable to many non-English- speaking cultures – whereby language learning for many is a necessity for future study, job opportunities, accessing a wider range of materials on the Internet, etc. therefore the need or desire to measure your progress in learning a foreign or second language is quite different and has much wider appeal. There are also many governments with very specific objectives for the study of English beginning at a young age and the benchmarking of English language standards against those countries which are either bilingual or multilingual. If you couple this with the growth in technology in the region then a test like PTE Academic, which combines cutting-edge technology, reliability of scores with stimulating and authentic item types, then you tick many of the boxes.
Q Australia seems to be playing a key role in the academic exams market. What do you think makes Australia so strong in international education?
A Australia has been involved in international education since the days of the Colombo Plan, which saw a group of about 5,500 scholarship students study in Australia between 1951 and 1964. Of course we have moved on a fair bit since then with almost 500,000 students studying in Australian educational institutions today. The cultural ties, our proximity to the rest of Asia and the quality of an English language education combined with some very smart pioneers of the international education industry here have all helped Australia get to where it is today. The growth of this industry – now ranking as Australia’s third largest export industry supporting almost 125,000 jobs, of course led to the need to assess English language skills to ensure that international students were ready to enter courses delivered in English. The use of an English language test by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) for certain visa categories inAustralia since 2001 has obviously fuelled the growth of tests here in Australia. The need for a more reliable measure of English language proficiency with better accessibility has been a part of the development of PTE Academic, but that has been a reflection of the global needs.
Q Your current title is vice president, what are the most difficult and rewarding aspects of the job?
A The main aspects of my role are fairly varied; overseeing recognition and sales for the new test in the region, working with colleagues from different parts of Pearson in the region on educational solutions for a wide range of partners, developing relationships with education and government bodies and being part of the global management team at PLT. The most rewarding aspects of the job are working with a great set of colleagues on a daily basis and knowing that Pearson develops some fantastic educational solutions – whether it is in English language tests such as PTE Academic or our online learning resources to support students in almost any subject. The most challenging aspect has to be the time zone challenge. Our management team covers the globe and arranging meetings to suit everyone is always interesting. I often work late at night to attend meetings which is still preferable to my colleagues in the US who then have to get up at what seem like unearthly hours to me to be in the same meeting.
Q When I talk to people in English language teaching about PTE Academic, they say why do we need another academic English exam? What are the three key factors which make this exam different?
A That’s easy. First reliability – the use of our automated scoring system ensures both candidates and receiving institutions know that they can trust the scores. Second security – exam security has always been an issue in high-stake exams and the use of integrated biometrics at the test centre ensures that the person who took the test is the person in the photo on the score report, meaning that there is no doubt over the identity of the person who took the test. Flexibility – the ability for candidates to take tests on a date and time that is suitable to them rather than waiting for availability has to be a plus.
Q The new PTE Academic is just set to launch. What for you personally has been the most memorable thing about the experience of developing the new test?
A Looking at how up to twenty different parts of Pearson have worked together to make this a reality. Also watching John de Jong’s (vice president test development at PLT) concept for PTE Academic grow into what we are about to launch has been great.