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Examining the secrets of success

Melanie Butler asks Stephen Carey, Ielts global marketing manager at the British Council, about how he stays on top of things as the test increases in popularity around the world

The Ielts slogan – ‘Go more places with Ielts’ – is certainly true for Stephen Carey, the test’s global marketing manager at the British Council. When we meet he is just off a flight from Dubai, where he is based. He’s looking a little crumpled and jet-lagged, he’s lost his voice, and the airlines have lost his luggage yet again. But he certainly hasn’t lost his enthusiasm.

We are meeting for lunch to celebrate the fact that, last year, for the first time, two million Ielts tests were taken. ‘The results came out in May,’ he says beaming.

A good year, I point out, since Clarity, the Council’s partner in the Road to Ielts course, won Hong Kong’s Small Business Award.

‘I wanted to be there with them but I was stuck. Where was I – somewhere in Africa? That’s right. I had this awful journey. I flew back and changed in Amsterdam and my suitcases ended up in Moscow.’

‘Road to Ielts has two million users,’ I bring the subject back.

‘Two million unique sessions,’ he corrects, ‘since the relaunch two years ago. We partner with Clarity to run the business-to-business version, which schools can buy to help them track students’ progress, and we run a version for test takers themselves. They can sign up for ten hours’ free sessions on the Take Ielts website.’ On goes the laptop, and he clicks on the site. ‘That site has had four million visitors in the last two years.’

Having lunch with Stephen is a little like having lunch with a particularly cheerful chipmunk with a penchant for very big numbers. ‘The thing you need in this business is access and accreditation. How many places test takers can take the exam and how many places accept the qualification. So you can now take the test in 135 countries worldwide. The UN has 193 member states – I want Ielts to be available in all of them.’

‘Even somewhere like Vanuatu?’ I ask, naming the smallest country I can think of.

‘I think we are already there,’ he says, reaching for his laptop again. ‘Yes, test centre in Port Vila. Thank you IDP.’ He raises his glass of orange juice to the Australian partner which, along with the British Council and the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment, owns and manages Ielts. He frowns. ‘The next test date in Vanuatu is not until June.’

Stephen Carey cares. He cares about every element of his job. He worries about the test takers in the African countries where there is not a test centre. He worries about universities setting their entry levels too high – how will the students get in? And those who set the level too low – how will the students get through the course? Most of all he worries about his teams spread across the globe recruiting test takers.

‘If they don’t succeed, it’s my fault.’ For every place Stephen has a plan, a focus. In Africa it may be demand to meet the language requirements for immigration to Canada, which has just announced it wants up to 265,000 new immigrants this year. In northern Europe it may be students wanting to take masters in English-speaking countries or English-medium degrees at home. ‘Half of all the English-medium degrees in Europe accept Ielts,’ he exclaims.

Success lies in identifying needs. Getting the local Ielts teams to recruit test takers is all about identifying the right need, making sure the centres are in place and the test dates are available, and providing them with the right marketing materials. ‘If it fails it is down to me.’

It doesn’t often fail. Numbers are up in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. ‘India, don’t forget India,’ he implores. The numbers of 16–18-year-olds taking the test is increasing, and the number of over-30s. ‘More people going more places,’ he repeats the Ielts mantra. ‘The pattern is changing. People are taking Ielts for different things at different points of their lives. An Indian stu dent may take the exam to study a masters in the States and then go home and work for a while before applying for a high-level job overseas and take the exam again for immigration purposes.’

As far as Stephen is concerned, once they sign up for an Ielts exam, they are Ielts people – his people. And whatever the Ielts team can do for them, they will – from arguing with immigrations officials about the language level set for spouses, shepherding a group of US academics around China, or setting up a centre on a remote Pacific island. He and his team will fly there and sort it out.

All of which is amazing for a man who is terrified of flying. ‘That’s the thing about my job. I love the places I go to. I love the people I meet. But the moment I get on a plane, I go white, I tremble, I cling on to arm of my chair.’ So why does he still do it?

‘For the people. I really believe they benefit from a faceto-face speaking test, that they deserve the opportunity to go more places. To do more things. I really believe that.’

And what one thing would make his job easier?

‘If the airlines would just stop losing my luggage.’