By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

A couple of news stories in the last week have highlighted the enduring importance of the study travel industry associations working together for the good of the sector as a whole.

Last week I reported on the formation of the Quality Assurance in Language Education Network (Qalen), a new global body of accreditation and quality assurance associations, created after the establishment of common ground and shared interests between the founder members during the annual meetings of the Global Alliance of Education and Language Associations (Gaela) and subsequent exploratory symposia.

Two of those founder members of Qalen visited us at the STM offices to explain some of the benefits of the new alliance, including building a communication platform to express the value of accreditation to governments, agents and students worldwide; external validation of each body’s standards; a focus on best practice; and a fostering of innovation. Such discussions can only be a positive for the study travel industry.

Meanwhile, holding the Gaela and the Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations (Felca) annual meetings at the same time, as occurs at the Alphe UK Conference, allows for the respective members of the two organisations to reach out to each other. We see the results of that in another news story this week – English Australia and pan-European agency association EAQA have formed a partnership following initial discussions on the fringes of Felca/Gaela and subsequent talks.

In contrast, our big news story of the week demonstrates what happens when the industry is not consulted. The UK Home Office has announced a major restructuring of the range of English exams used for visa application purposes and how they will be administered.

While some agents and students may bemoan the reduced field of language exams – not to mention language schools that were offering preparation courses for the exams that are no longer accepted – the greater impact may come from the administrative reform. Only exams taken at UK-approved exam centres will be accepted for visa applications from April 6.

In a statement given to STM, language school association English UK was pretty seething about the lack of consultation from the Home Office.

The full details of the new regulations are being presented to parliament as I write this, so I’ll reserve full judgement before being overly critical. But Ielts – one of only two examining bodies to be approved along with Trinity College London – has already stated that around 100 of their centres will initially be approved. Stretched across the world, 100 UK-approved exam centres is not many, especially given that Ielts alone has around 1,000 centres.

The ramifications of this for students and agents are pretty obvious. Students in some smaller markets will have to travel abroad just to take an English exam required for a UK visa. Or alternatively they could choose a destination with less bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Coincidentally, I have been writing April’s special report for STM on English language exams and canvassing opinions from agents on this topic. One of the biggest practical issues highlighted by agents was the lack of a test centre in their vicinity, and this was before any of us knew about these new UK changes.

The ‘vouching’ privilege that UK state-funded universities currently enjoy – they are trusted to validate a candidate’s language level as they see fit for degree level and above – does ameliorate the issue to some extent. But who can now be confident how long that will last?

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