January 2008 issue

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Ielts Impact

The Ielts English language test is starting to give rival Toefl a run for its money. Jane Vernon Smith charts the rise in popularity of this proficiency test.

Since the start of the new millennium, the International English Language Testing System (Ielts) has taken the language learning world by storm. The number of organisations recognising this test has increased by more than five-fold. Always the test of choice for overseas candidates seeking university entry in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, it has recently started to gain recognition by a wider audience.

According to Isobel Oliveira, Ielts Marketing Manager at the British Council (which jointly administers the test, along with University of Cambridge Esol Examinations and IDP in Australia), the main drivers have been an increase in English proficiency requirements, and global mobility in education, immigration and work. Another significant factor, she says, is increased awareness of the test, “by employers globally and [by] universities in the USA”.

Unlike Toefl, which has traditionally commanded the North American market for pre-university language proficiency testing, Ielts is available in two variants – Academic Ielts for education and General Training Ielts for work and immigration. As a result, the test attracts a wide range of candidates.

In Australia, one of the key Ielts markets, Ielts for education has a strong base, although recent immigration regulations have boosted demand for the General Training option too. In Australia, Alan Furnell from SIS International College (Elsis) in Bondi Junction, NSW, reports a marked increase in the number of student enrolments for Ielts preparation, especially within the past 12 months. At Elsis, approximately 40 per cent of students take Ielts for university entry, and a further 40 per cent for entry into other types of tertiary study, with a view to obtaining a permanent resident visa. “The remaining students would be made up of equal proportions of those seeking an immigration/residence visa only, and those wanting more intensive language lessons than those offered by general English,” he notes.

At the Centre for English Language in the University of South Australia (Celusa) in Adelaide, SA, Director of Studies, Kathy Coutts is certain that a change in immigration requirements has boosted demand. As the Ielts test centre for South Australia, Celusa has, she attests, experienced “unprecedented demand” since November 2005, when Ielts testing became compulsory for all international graduates seeking permanent residency. The number of test candidates has increased three-fold over the past two years. With the required Ielts score for an Australian residence visa expected to be raised in the near future, the number of students seeking Ielts preparation is only likely to continue growing.

Meanwhile, the important UK market has also grown significantly, according to a sample of language schools there. At Kaplan Aspect, the numbers taking Ielts have tripled over the past few years, such that it has completely overtaken the Cambridge suite of exams, according to Sue Edwards, Director of Academic Programmes for UK and Ireland. This increase she attributes mainly to demand for UK university entry, which accounts for 80 per cent of entrants. However, she points out, the flexibility of Ielts gives it an edge over the Cambridge suite, since it can be taken every month.

“Also, we understand, from experience and feedback from university teachers and admissions tutors, that the academic Ielts examination prepares students far more [than Toefl] for the rigours of a university degree. …To gain a respectable grade, they cannot rote learn/cram for Ielts; they must demonstrate a good level of language competence,” she stresses.

This comment reinforces a claim by Oliveira, that, “the test tasks are authentic to purpose, so preparation for Ielts is also the best way for candidates to prepare themselves for the study, work or life experience ahead of them”.

Peter Tamkin at the English Language Centre in Brighton & Hove in the UK has also observed significant growth in demand for Ielts. The difference here is that demand is fuelled not, for the most part, by university entry requirements, “but the majority book onto our Ielts courses because they want variety, enjoy having an exam target [or] view exam courses as more serious,” he says.

Immigration rules in the UK will also increasingly motivate test takers, however, as the government has announced all migrant workers from non-EU countries will now have to demonstate English language capability (see LTM, December 2007, page 7).

In the USA, with Toefl the main requirement for university entry, Kaplan Aspect does not run Ielts courses. Very occasionally, if a student is undecided as to their overseas university destination, they may opt to take both Ielts and Toefl. However, agents report that clients are normally set upon one or the other according to their intended destination. Thus, it seems that the geographic divide between the Ielts territory on the one hand, and the Toefl territory on the other, is still largely in place. Nevertheless, the British Council and its partners are working to bridge the divide, and Ielts has recently seen strong growth both in terms of US-bound test takers and local entrants, according to Oliveira.

Thanks to recognition by the government and business sector, Ielts has established a strong position in Hong Kong. A number of private English schools and extension arms of universities offer Ielts training locally, and, as a result, most students take it at home, according to Agent, Kevin Chu, Director of ISE. Chu reports that here Ielts is more popular than Toefl, and used not only as a basis for entry to overseas study, but also to support job applications.

Awareness of Ielts is also growing in South America. From Chilean agency, Travel & Learn, Marianelly Nuñez reports, “Ielts is becoming popular, although Toefl is still the main test of interest for Chileans.” The popularity of Toefl, she explains, is on account of the fact that the biggest percentage of Chileans go to either the USA or Canada for postgraduate study. However, following the emergence of “incredible demand” for study programmes and work & holiday visas to Australia, and growing interest from those seeking job opportunities overseas, Ielts is on the rise. Nuñez estimates the increase at around 80 per cent over the past couple of years.

In Colombia, as in Chile, awareness of Toefl appears generally higher. However, demand for Ielts is being stimulated by a growing number of students considering both the UK and Australian markets, claims Maria Cecilia Pineda of The Grad School. Additionally, she reports, problems with the introduction of Toefl ibT (the Internet version of the test) are impacting negatively. “Ielts is regarded as more reliable, and the students are sure that they get the results in [a] timely way,” she says.

Ielts claims a superior level of customer service all round. Oliviera draws attention to a number of features: For candidates, there is the personal service of Ielts centres giving advice before the test, and the speaking test is carried out face-to-face. For recognising organisations, a free electronic download service allows test results to be received immediately upon release – that is, in 13 calendar days – and a free test results verification service has enhanced security, both in respect of highlighting fake test reports and in dealing with impersonators on the spot. Oliveira highlights recent growth statistics as evidence of the success of Ielts in promoting these strengths, and comments, “We are now building on this reputation for quality to develop new services to add value.”

Meanwhile, the test itself has also been subject to some tweaking. Recent changes include the 2006 abolition of the rule whereby candidates had to wait 90 days before being allowed to re-take, and the introduction of half-band results to allow recognising organisations to set their requirements for admission or recruitment on each skill more precisely. In addition, computer-based testing is now available to those who prefer it in 10 centres around the world, including Italy, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Germany, and will be expanded further in the near future. However, paper-based testing continues to be available in parallel.

Perhaps the secret of Ielts’s recent success has been its responsiveness. The huge surge in demand could have proved problematic, but all the indications are to the contrary. “We try to respond rapidly to changing demand patterns in each country, and Ielts-authorised test centres usually have off-site testing venues to cope with increased demand,” comments Oliveira. “We are proactive in working with our stakeholders, including government agencies, to predict policy changes, so we can adjust the supply accordingly.”

Ielts in figures

• recognised by 5,000 institutions

• taken by over 700,000 candidates in 2006

• available at more than 350 venues in 120 countries

Toefl in figures

• recognised by more than 6,000 institutions

• taken by over 840,000 candidates in 2006

• available at more than 3,300 test centres in 110 countries

Growth of Ielts (No. of recognising organisations)

2000: 942
2005: 1,978
2007: 5,000+

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