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British Home Office announces new language testing arrangements for UK visas

The British Home Office has taken steps to streamline the number of accredited providers for Secure English Language Tests (SELT) for visa purposes, and has also introduced new requirements for authorised test centres in the UK and abroad. This represents a significant shift in testing arrangements for the UK as SELT is required for many categories of British visas, including the Tier 4 (General) student visa.

A 20 February announcement reveals that, from 6 April 2015 on, only exams from Trinity College London (TCL) and IELTS will be accepted for UK visa applications that require formal English assessments.

TCL will offer its Graded Examination in Spoken English (GESE) and Integrated Skills in English (ISE) tests to students in the UK, while IELTS – which is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP, and Cambridge English Language Assessment – will administer its exams, including the newly introduced IELTS Life Skills, via roughly 100 accredited test centres. The Home Office has provided a complete list of approved centres in the UK and abroad.

The February announcement follows a government review of systemic exam fraud in the UK that began in spring 2014. That investigation in turn led the British government to open a new tender for visa-related testing services in autumn of last year. Two other currently accredited providers – Pearson and City & Guilds – will continue to offer approved testing services until 5 April 2015. However, neither provider participated in the recent tendering process and so neither will be an accredited SELT provider beyond that point.

The Home Office has confirmed, however, that any exams from the currently approved list, including those from Pearson, City & Guilds, and Cambridge, taken by 5 April can be used to support visa applications filed until 5 November 2015.

A City & Guilds spokesperson told Times Higher Education that the organisation did not apply for accreditation due to the extensive tender requirements, including, “A need for testing centres in countries that City & Guilds felt did not fit with its international strategy and additional investment in IT systems.”

“A spokeswoman for Pearson,” adds the Times, “said there were ‘a small number of conditions’ with which the company was unable to agree, meaning the Home Office did not assess its application. She added that the company was ‘disappointed’ that it would no longer be offering accredited testing.”

New requirements for test centres

The Home Office has indicated that exams may now only be taken at authorised test centres, and that those centres must be under the direct control of accredited testing providers. Indeed, strict new stipulations for SELT-accredited test centres appear to have been an important factor in the tendering process.

For example, the SELT-approved IELTS test centres represents only a fraction of the IELTS test sites worldwide. “IELTS currently lists around 1,000 test locations,” notes Study Travel Magazine. “Suggesting only around 10% of these will initially be UK approved under the new rules.”

A statement from IELTS makes it clear that students need to ensure they are registering at an authorised SELT test centre: “From 6 April 2015 you must take the test at an IELTS test centre authorised by [UK Visas and Immigration] to run IELTS tests for UK visa and immigration purposes and you must confirm at the time of registration that you wish to use your test for [a UK visa application].”

The more extensive test centre requirements appear to have also been a factor in Trinity’s recent acquisition of the UK test centre chain English Exam Centres (EEC). In the wake of the EEC purchase, Trinity has announced that, from 6 April on, it will offer SELT testing in 10 new UK test sites: Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, London Hammersmith, London Holborn, Manchester, Newcastle, and Peterborough.

What next?

Industry response to the Home Office announcement has now started to come in. Study UK said in a statement to Study Travel Magazine, “This is quite a radical change in policy which will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the English language teaching industry. But what is not clear yet is the impact it will have on students. Study UK looks forward to seeing full details of IELTS and Trinity’s plans soon, as the whole sector will need to be assured of their ability to meet the rising demand for these tests across the world.”

Additional details of test centre regulations are due to be presented to the British parliament shortly and we will update this post with any further details as they become available.

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