Despite already passing a secure English language test, students could be prevented from studying in the UK at the whim of Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs).
As interviews are re-introduced for students to “check their actual ability”, there are growing concerns about whether ECOs are up to the job and if the assessment of a student’s English ability will be universal around the world.
Taking steps to reduce abuse of the student visa route is a good thing. However, not using qualified language assessors raises legitimate concerns. As we previously reported, Damian Green has said: “With more interviews and greater powers to refuse bogus students we will weed out abuse and protect the UK from those looking to play the system.”
Over the next year, it is expected that 14,000 international students applying for Tier 4 visas to study in the UK will be interviewed. This represents around 5% of the expected 250,000 international students. Only a fraction are expected to be interviewed as the UK Border Agency will be targeting regions where the risk of abuse is higher and specifically target students who do not apply to an education provider with highly trusted status. No announcement has been made as to which nationalities will be targeted, but one would expect the Indian Sub-Continent to come under scrutiny, as it has in the past.
It is expected that at interview ECOs will ask applicants about their “immigration and education history, study and post-study plans, and financial circumstances”.
The use of an interpreter will be strictly banned and the theory behind this move is to check that a student’s English language skills match those on the secure English language test certificate submitted in support of their application. Failure to convince the ECO, failure to attend and the need of an interpreter will result in the applicant being rejected.
Applicants must be able to “demonstrate without the assistance of an interpreter” that their English meets the level of the test certificate they have submitted. Failure to do so, and failure to attend interviews, will result in their application being rejected.
Thank said, the UKBA has provided no details as to how the interviews will be conducted nor what training ECOs will receive to make them viable assessors of language ability.
The Chief Executive of Cambridge ESOL, Mike Milanovic – who provides a number of secure English language tests, including the IELTS – said: “Speaking is possibly the most challenging skill to assess. Even when it is carried out by very experienced language teachers, you still need to provide them with specialist training and very detailed instructions.”
“You also need an extensive quality management system to back this up. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to deliver a fair, reliable assessment,” said Milanovic.
The UK Border Agency has hinted that staff may seek guidance from local British Council offices, but no comment has been made by the British Council when asked if they have been asked to provide any kind of training to ECOs.
Secure English language tests were made compulsory for Tier 4 student applicants in 2009 and the level of English required was raised in 2010. At the time, the UK Immigration Minister, Damian Green, said: “Secure English language testing will ensure that we have independent evidence that all education institutions are ensuring their students are capable of following a course delivered in English.”
Does the introduction of English ability checks mean the UK Border Agency no longer has confidence in these secure tests? Regardless, many in the industry do not believe that this step will do anything to reduce abuse of the student visa route.
A research director with World Education Services – which monitors higher-education – said: “Interviews may deter fraudulent applicants to some extent; however, interviews are not only resource intensive but also highly subjective.
“A better approach would be to investigate the sources of frauds. For example, many education agents who are appointed by universities have an incentive to make an applicant look ‘admissible’ by hook or crook. More attention could have been paid to curb risks of fraud at the source.”