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Testing times ahead?

The market for exams may have been hard hit by Covid-19, says Melanie Butler, but exam courses may be the key to re-opening it

“without English testing,” screeches the headline in University World News, “study abroad cannot continue.” Well, that is certainly true for the university sector in the English-speaking world, especially when it comes to students coming from China. As University World News explains, two of the best-known academic language tests, TOEFL and IELTS, are regulated by the National Education Examinations Authority, which has not only closed their exam centres, but has not allowed them to run online courses, meaning that neitherTOEFL’s iBT Special Home Edition Test nor the IELTS Indicator online test are available in the country.

This has offered an immense opportunity for non-regulated exam providers, especially the other major international test for university entrance, PTE academic. It has also resulted in Pearson opening waves of new testing centres in China and beyond, as the company tells us on page 18.

And it is not just Pearson. According to, University World News, the Duolingo English Test, “has been the only online English test available in mainland China and is quickly becoming recognised by an increasing number of education providers.”

Indeed, around the world, more and more students are dusting off general English qualifications and using them on their applications. Help is at hand for admissions officers struggling to evaluate tests they have never even heard of, as we report on pages 22-23, Professor John Slaght has a new set of guidelines, covering a host of tests, from Aptis to Versant.

New Zealand is reportedly planning to keep its borders closed to students until 2021, while Australia is considering bringing students in on special flights. In Canada, an announcement on “travel guidelines in July 2020 and beyond” is expected imminently, according to a June 20 article in the Canadian Immigration Newsletter.

There is also bad news for students in India, the second largest market for overseas degrees. Canada is the most popular destination for Indians, and parents are more concerned about safety, with a surge of interest in countries like New Zealand, that have had very low levels of coronavirus deaths, according to the New Indian Express.

But the biggest problem for Indian students may actually not be the lack of exam centres, many of which are open, but rather the lack of exam teaching. The Indian press is full of stories of would-be students complaining about online IELTS courses or bemoaning the closure of training centres.

However, this could be good news for language schools in English-speaking countries, at least those English-speaking countries which will let them in. As we report on page 7, Malta is the first country to allow its language schools to re-open, but only to students from 19 countries. The UK is also widely expected to relax its recent quarantine rules, again to a limited number of countries.

Some language schools are raring to go, with Maltese chain EC declaring it will open its schools in Malta in early July, followed by its UK schools sometime in late July, with others following in late August.

EC is just one of an increasing number of providers expecting to open their UK schools by September. Bell, ELC Bristol and Wimbledon School of English, to name but a few, are also planning to open their doors.

It is no surprise that this list is dominated by providers known for their exam courses. And it’s a good bet that exam courses will be top of the list for students willing to travel – and it won’t just be academic English exams they will be looking for.

In many English-speaking countries, migrants need English language tests too. In the UK, as we report on page 20, migrants need to take a government-approved Secure English Language Test (SELT) in a Secure English Language Test Centre. There is a new list of SELTs which have now been approved, including newcomer LanguageCert, featured on page 21, and a new exam from Pearson Home.

And language centres offering these exams do not need to depend on students flying in from abroad. Migrants already in the UK also need a SELT to extend or change their visa under the new points-based system, which we do our best to explain on page 19.

The lack of exams during lockdown may well have posed the biggest threat to international study, but it is exam courses which may well lead the way in opening up the market.

Image courtesy of JE SHOOTS/UNSPLASH
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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