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September 2004 issue

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Creating opportunity

Language exams are required by students as a testament to their ability and gateway into opportunity - in terms of education, business or migration possibilities. Short courses, fast results and frequent test dates are the secrets to attracting students in today's competitive language exam market, as Jane Vernon Smith discovers. She summarises current trends in the sector.

For the most part, students undertake exam programmes because they need the qualification - either for overseas university entry, or for their employment, or to assist in an application for residency in a foreign country. Broadly, the market for language proficiency exams may be divided between exams geared primarily towards university entry - such as Toefl and Ielts - and more general-purpose qualifications, such as Cambridge FCE and CAE. The Cambridge courses are recognised by European employers and are popular career-development moves. Business-driven learning also has specific exams, such as Toeic, a multiple-choice-only test that focuses on reading and listening skills, and CPE, which is often taken up by aspiring teachers of English.

In terms of exams for university entry, there is also a geographic dimension to student choices, since Toefl is the most widely used test in North America, while in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Ielts is the test of choice. For other languages, there is often just one main exam used for determining university entry for foreign speakers - Delf/Dalf (Diplome d'Etudes en Langue Française/Diplome Approfondi de Langue Française) in France; Cils (Certificato di Italiano come Lingua Straniera) in Italy; Dele (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera) in Spain and TestDaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache) in Germany (see Beyond English, inset).

Regional trends
At St Mark's International College (Geos) in Australia, Cambridge's FCE is the most popular examination course, 'probably because it fits the level of the largest group of students, and also fits the expectations of employers in their home countries', reckons the school's Gary Maserow. It is also named by Margaret Sharkey, Company Director of Garden City English School in Christchurch, New Zealand, as the leading exam at this institution.

In the UK, Paul Gallina of Dorset-based Southbourne School reports that FCE and CAE are both popular, 'as they are required for work/university entrance'. However, elsewhere in the UK, at St John's Wood School of English, Principal Pete Bulmer says, 'After many years of really solid bookings on the various Cambridge courses, we have recently seen a drop in demand for these exams. CPE has suffered the most.' He continues, 'Because universities and colleges tend to base their entry requirements on Ielts grades these days, demand for CPE has fallen off dramatically. Over time, I think Ielts will also kill off FCE and CAE for the same reason. This will not be a positive development, I fear.'

Peter Clarke, Director of UK-based Torquay International School has the same experience regarding CPE, reporting that demand 'has virtually dried up', while that for FCE is 'erratic'. On the other hand, the school has experienced increased demand both for Ielts and CAE. The situation in Australia appears similar, with Maserow commenting, 'I feel there has been a slight decline in interest in FCE and a greater interest in CAE.' This, he believes, 'is probably due to our client base receiving more English [language] tuition in their home countries.'

Ielts on the rise
Notwithstanding differing patterns of demand for the Cambridge FCE and CAE exams, the rise of Ielts appears to be almost universal. Sujata Saikia of the British Council (joint owner/administrator of the Ielts exam) points to a number of factors accounting for its increase in popularity, not least of which is that 'Ielts is a very good test! It is reliable and valid and presents results clearly and comprehensively,' she claims. On top of this, Ielts scores receive a high level of recognition by professional and academic bodies, and are also needed as proof of language proficiency when applying to study in Australia.

For Clarke in the UK, 'The big advantage of Ielts is that students are able to get the results within days, not the months that the other Cambridge exams take.' He explains that students can take an Ielts test in August, for example, to gain a score which is needed for a university start in late September/early October. Or, 'they can theoretically take Ielts in both June and September to have two bites at the cherry.'

Bulmer adds that Ielts courses tend to be much shorter than the Cambridge courses. However, he strongly believes that this is not actually a point in Ielts' favour. 'Cambridge exams take longer because they involve studying the language in great breadth and depth,' he insists. 'We can guarantee that a student who has passed CAE has made great progress and really has a very good knowledge of the language. The learning environment is also better, as students are placed in class levels according to the exam they want to take.'

Ielts, he suggests, is actually a 'grading test that is open to virtually everyone', no matter what level. This means that schools are tempted to put students from intermediate level to advanced level in the same Ielts class, he says, 'and this degrades the learning experience, I think'. Bulmer also suggests that because the Ielts courses are shorter, less progress is made, 'even though Ielts students tend to have very high expectations'.

Nevertheless, Ielts, while not winning over all school personnel in terms of the breadth of skills improvement, seems to be winning over more and more students themselves. At Cambridge Esol, which runs the Ielts exam along with the British Council and IDP Education Australia, Roger Johnson reports a growth in candidature by over 40 per cent in the last two years for all its exams - with particularly impressive growth for the Ielts exam and the Young English Learners Test.

Toefl versus Ielts
Even in North America, where Toefl is regarded as king, Ielts has been making substantial inroads. According to Saikia, Ielts has seen impressive growth in recognition in North America - and particularly the USA - in recent years. More than 400 US schools now recognise Ielts for admissions purposes, including six of the eight Ivy League universities.

Whereas Ielts has been expanding, Toefl's owner ETS has closed a number of computer-based Toefl test centres worldwide, according to Russian agent, Leon Kashnitski, Director of University Council, who reports that this can sometimes be a factor in a student's choice of whether to sit Toefl or Ielts.

This situation is echoed in Brazil, where Leib Raibin of WTT-UC Cursos No Exterior notes that demand for Ielts is growing at the expense of Toefl for the plain reason that the Ielts exam is simpler to take in Brazil. 'In Brazil, there are more test sites for Ielts than for Toefl, the Ielts cost is lower and the final test results return much faster to the candidates,' he says. 'Ielts, being more accessible, is becoming more and more the test of choice.'

He points out that, although Toefl is still the better known exam, this is changing fast. 'Brazilians used to be much more inclined to take academic programmes in the USA, but this is changing very rapidly due to the USA's international image deterioration and its ultra-conservative visa policy,' he explains.

However, ETS is being proactive in updating its exam, and from September 2005 is launching a new generation online test that will examine abilities in listening, reading, writing and speaking and will offer students specific comments on their performance following the test. And according to agent Laura Wibowo of AG Education in Indonesia, the differences between Toefl and Ielts have been minimised since the recent introduction of a speaking element (TSE) to complement the normal Toefl test.

Despite the advances of Ielts, Toefl currently remains dominant in the North American market. 'Toefl preparation is the most popular [language programme], mainly because of the stranglehold the Toefl test has on English language admission requirements in the North American universities,' says Andy Curtis, Director of the School of English at Queen's University in Kingston, ONT in Canada.

Meanwhile, Deborah Huber, Chairperson of the English as a Second Language department at the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, BC, states plainly, 'We really only offer a Toefl preparation course, as it is the most popular test in North America.' As such, the institution has been focusing on improving its Toefl preparation, rather than extending the range of exams offered. Earlier this year, the university introduced a new programme to enable students to identify particular areas in which they need to improve prior to sitting their Toefl exam. This involves taking a practice test, administered by college staff, which is then sent for grading and returned within two weeks.

Direction of the sector
While the Toefl exam might be under threat from Ielts, demand for both exams is also affected by other developments. New Zealand's Margaret Clarke, Director of the Bay of Plenty English Language School, already notes in respect of Toeic that 'the Korean market, which is always price-sensitive, is more likely to sit the exam back in Korea where it is cheaper'. Both Curtis and Huber in Canada believe that the future will see students undertaking much more study in their home countries prior to travelling abroad. 'This makes sense,' claims Huber, 'because studying abroad is an expensive proposition for most students, and they are realising that it is more cost-effective to get as much English language training [as possible] in their own countries first.'

The effect of this on the market is likely to increase demand for higher level exams - CAE rather than FCE, for example. Indeed, Huber has already noted a decrease in the lower levels of the college's English language training programme and expects the college to adjust its programme accordingly.

On the other hand, Clarke in the UK notes increasing demand for low-level Ielts training. 'Students are being asked to take Ielts at an early stage of their English language development by their sponsor organisation, in order to measure their ability as a benchmark for their future progress,' he explains. 'The existing Ielts examination is too difficult for such candidates, and perhaps there is a case for an additional Ielts foundation-type exam for candidates who would typically score only between 3 and 4.5 on the existing scale.'

With Johnson at Cambridge Esol pointing out that young learners' exams are gaining in popularity, the direction of the exam market is less than crystal clear and probably varies according to nationality. One thing is certain however: language proficiency - and the verification of this - is still big business. Exam bodies, especially those providing exams that do not benefit from institutional backing, will need to remain responsive and innovative to maintain market share.


Exam geography

Just as different exams are to some extent linked to different student destinations, so too are certain nationalities strongly associated with certain exams. Two UK language schools both report that the main nationalities enrolling on Ielts preparation programmes are Arabs, Chinese and Koreans. According to Paul Gallina of Dorset-based Southbourne School, this is because Ielts is widely marketed in these countries, while other exams are not well known. 'The Arabs need Ielts for further professional training and sometimes university,' adds Torquay International School director, Peter Clarke. 'The Koreans and Chinese need Ielts predominantly for university foundation courses and, in some cases, Masters degrees.'

In New Zealand, Margaret Sharkey at the Garden City English School reports that 'Ielts is very popular with Chinese students, but other nationalities will take the course, depending on their plans'.

Currently, many Chinese students are seeking overseas university entry, and are thus contributing a large proportion of overall student numbers on exam courses in locations as far apart as the UK, Australia and the USA. This is consequently reflected in the numbers interested in both the Toefl and Ielts exam. Indeed, during the Sars outbreak in China last year, Ielts testing centres were closed and there were reports of a huge backlog in students waiting to take the Ielts test. The Ielts scoring system is used in Australia as part of visa immigration procedures.

In Canada, Deborah Huber at the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, BC, says, 'Currently, the majority of our students are Chinese, and they are often very interested in the Toefl preparation course, particularly if they are planning to transfer to another Canadian university to continue their degree.' Fellow Canadian, Andy Curtis of the School of English at Queen's University in Kingston, ONT, relates a similar experience. 'Many of our students from China would like to enter Canadian universities [after their course], so if their enrolment numbers continue to rise, the demand for Toefl preparation courses will do the same,' he predicts.

While English language exams for university entry are undertaken predominantly by Asians, Toeic too is dominated by Japanese and Koreans, being recognised by employers in the region. However, the Cambridge exams have a very different pattern of demand. 'For Cambridge courses, our major client group is from Switzerland,' says Gary Maserow at St Mark's International College (Geos) in Australia. 'My understanding is that, in Switzerland, a Cambridge certificate endorses the English ability of a holder and may entitle them to greater pay. It also makes them more employable.' Interestingly, the Swiss are also the main nationality opting for the Cambridge courses at Cape Communication Centre in South Africa, according to spokesperson, Gavin Eyre.

In New Zealand, Sharkey sees a range of European students on their Cambridge exam programmes. She adds, 'We also have many Asian students who want to take the FCE course, and this is purely [due to] the reputation of the course and the intensive studying they do.' Some Mexican students also prefer FCE to Toefl, according to Sylvia Mendoza of Mexican agency Mondo Joven Travel Shop, 'because this evaluation lasts longer, and gives them a qualified level of English'.


Beyond English

While English is the language most in demand for exam programmes, there is also a significant, although less developed, market for courses leading to qualifications in a range of other languages.

In Germany, the standard exam required for university entry is the TestDaF. According to Heiko Ahmann, Marketing Director of the Humboldt-Institut in Argenbuehl, demand for this exam has increased considerably over the past 18 months, with university entry the main motivation for enrolment on TestDaF programmes. Ahmann believes that one of the reasons why TestDaF is becoming so popular is that it provides a detailed analysis of the candidate's skills, rather than a simple pass or fail. 'If students fail the exam on their first try, they know what to focus on for their further studies,' he says. The exam's popularity is likely to be further enhanced by the fact that since 2003 it has been available for students to take on their home computers.

Alongside TestDaF courses, the school has also introduced the Zertifikat Deutsch exam. 'This is also a useful certificate (below the TestDaF level) that gives students a chance to prove their knowledge of the German language to potential employers,' says Ahmann, who believes that the exam market will continue to expand. 'Students see the need for standardised and officially recognised certificates,' she explains.

University entry is also a major motivation for Asian students to embark on exam programmes in France, according to Jean-Marie Baurens of Eurofaec in Montpellier, while Western Europeans are more likely to be looking for a qualification in order to upgrade their CV. Agent Liselotte Helborg of SI - Language Travel in Sweden sends clients to France to undertake courses leading to the Delf and Dalf exams. 'I guess these students want to have an internationally recognised certificate,' she says. 'They probably realise that the demand for language skills increases because of the European Union and that it's very hard to get a job these days.'

In Italy, meanwhile, university entry is rarely the motivation behind taking an exam course, according to Laura Brena of Lingua.it Istituto di Lingua e Cultura Italiana in Verona, although the main exam, Cils, is the benchmark for this purpose. 'Most of the students who attend the Cils courses are living permanently in Italy,' she relates. 'They take the exams because they want to live in Italy, sometimes they have an Italian boyfriend or girlfriend, they would like to find a qualified job and they want to certify their language level [for this reason].'

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