Agents and educators concerned about UK test capacity

09 June, 2015

Pathway providers and agents in key recruitment markets have expressed concerns about capacity in the UK’s new Secure English Language Test (SELT) system as the peak demand season ahead of the coming academic year approaches.


Under new rules introduced in April, non-EU student visa applicants for study at below degree level need to provide a test certificate from a UK government-approved test centre. A full list of UK-approved Ielts test centres outside the UK – including permanent centres and pop-up centres – was published earlier in the year.

Some agents in China and the Middle East that spoke to StudyTravel Magazine (STM) said they were struggling to book tests in time for students.

Jon Santangelo, Communications Director at Beijing-based agency association Bossa, said the British Council recently held an agency conference in China to discuss capacity. “According to the agencies, the British Council seemed to be unaware of what percentage of students would be affected. Agencies claimed a vast majority of students will be unable to make their visa appointment or start the Autumn semester in time.”

There are only 12 approved Ielts centres in China, with just one in the capital city of Beijing. “Agencies lobbied for a second Ielts testing centre in Beijing to accommodate the area’s demand, but many believe even an additional centre won’t suffice,” said Santangelo.

In a statement given to STM regarding capacity in the Chinese market an Ielts spokesperson said, “There are currently over 10,000 Ielts for UKVI test places available across China between now and the end of July. We understand that demand is high at the test centre in Shanghai but we are working closely with UKVI to monitor and address this.”

The pathway sector is likely to be the segment of the UK’s international education industry most affected by any delays in students securing tests.

James Pitman, Managing Director of Higher Education (UK and Europe) at Study Group, expressed concerns about capacity and the clarity of the rules. “There are challenges in China and the UK in particular and peak season is not yet upon us. There is confusion in markets as the difference between degree-level study not needing a SELT Ielts and sub-degree is not well understood by agents and students.”

Pitman said Study Group and the so-called G5 – a consortium of major pathway providers comprised of Study Group, Kaplan, Cambridge Education Group, Navitas and INTO – as well as universities offering sub-degree programmes were worried. He said internal capacity in the UK and China were the predominant current concerns, and that there was uncertainty in some African markets, the UAE and Myanmar.

Dr. Derar Bal’awi Regional Director – Research, Middle East & North Africa at IGEC agency in Saudi Arabia, confirmed to StudyTravel Magazine, “IGEC counsellors are struggling to help our students book Ielts tests. Students themselves are reporting the same struggle.”

Suad Alhalwachi, Managing Director of Education Zone agency in UAE, said there was a high necessity for tests for students from this market. “All our students need the test as they mostly go for foundation pathways,” she said. The Home Office lists four permanent centres (two in Dubai and two in Abu Dhabi), but Alhalwachi said these are not open every day. She commented that although the impact for this year had been ameliorated by early planning and organising tests prior to the implementation of the new regulations, next year threatens to be more challenging.

Some agents said that it was likely some students will choose alternative study destinations in the face of extended delays and bureaucracy. Santangelo quoted one Bossa member agency as saying that the regulations affected a large number of students, that supply was not sufficient to meet demand and that some students were changing destinations.

Dr Bal’awi said, “Although the UK will continue to be a preferred study destination in our region, putting hurdles on students, either in terms of regulations or specific locations, will negatively affect this preference in the long term. We have witnessed a similar example with Australia before the implementation of the Knight Review.”

He added that students with very little time to wait, such as government-sponsored students, would be more likely to change destination.

The major pathway providers have been providing information to assist the authorities, Pitman said. “We along with the other members of the G5 have supplied the British Council with volume projections by market and month to help them plan and manage capacity.” He added, “We are hopeful that some of the pressures will be alleviated by good communication and collaboration.”

However, Pitman criticised some of the ways that the measures had been introduced. “There has been no consultation with the pathway provider sector. Further, the timing of the introduction of changes in April was unhelpful for the academic recruitment cycle. The suspicion in market is that the UKVI (UK Visas & Immigration) have driven the restriction on SELT Ielts testing centres and locations, rather than base decisions on any data on risks with current Ielts centres and convenience for students wanting tests.”

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