Today’s news report on BBC Panorama uncovered something rotten about the language tests needed in the UK for visa purposes. Fake sitters, bribing your way to guarantee a pass, even bank account scams – it seems that “shocking” is truly the only possible description. I want to suggest ten different shades of silver lining to this whole kerfuffle. See if you find consolation in any of that; I did, and I’m the first to say that for UK language learners, this is not a happy situation.
1. When testing outshines learning, expect despair
(Skip to 12m 45 sec for the bit about testing)
Language learning is not about being correct or incorrect. It’s not about endless rows of multiple-choice questions. It’s not about outsmarting the system. Polyglots are smart enough to get on in life. But if you lead them to fully believe that language learning has become a series of standardized tests – all language students will be reduced to boredom, despair and willingness to “trick” the system.
2. In UK Universities, money talks (too loud)
International students pay lots of fees. It makes sense for universities to spend marketing budgets on overseas marketing. A UK University diploma becomes a coveted, desirable thing. There are entire countries where the mention of “Oxford” turns careers, businesses and economies around.
Exposing the test fraud scandal shows the obvious: the tests don’t really measure language proficiency. They measure the level of desperation of a given person to get into UK University study.
3. It happened in Great Britain!
Oh, I just love this one. It wasn’t documented in some far away country. There were no bizarre customs to lay the blame on, no failed democracies to fuel corruption. This was London. This here green and pleasant land. And no matter how the media are going to play this, I’m still going to cherish this thought: this mess was proudly Made In the UK.
4. Border Security? What Border Security?
All the rules that Home Office so carefully set in place to make sure only the right, bright and rich people get the right visas…all those systems and structures, meticulously built (and instantly back-logged to the point of bursting at the seams)…all the checks and balances…500 quid says they’re worthless.
Here’s why it’s a good thing: the systems may have worked for some people, at some point. But they caused legal paralysis, wrong decisions and, ultimately, home-grown corruption. Now it’s obvious. We need good systems in place.
5. Test, Inspect, Repeat
This is a crisis for the industry, and a serious flaw in the system that was already considered imperfect. Solutions will need to be found, now that media are on the money. Government must be seen doing something.
So they will do what comes naturally: more tests. More inspections. More restrictions. Another set of hoops for language schools to jump through. Another set of paperwork to satisfy the administration. With ticked boxes, HB pencils and paper mulch, the gap will be (allegedly) stopped.
And the reason it’s good news…
6. This is more strain on a super-strained elitist learning system
Take a look at Daphne Koller, as she explains how the cost of higher education skyrocketed (and its value went way down). Listen to her carefully. For language learners – English or any other language – higher education used to be the higher echelon, the place where languages were deemed to lead you.
Now this place, in the UK, becomes a super-pricey, strained and hustling mechanism. The veneer of “an esteemed university” is cracking and peeling off. If the allergic reaction to the testing fraud will be more testing, then in the long run, it will encourage more people to seek more meaningful learning.
7. Bring the language back into language learning
The most popular English language tests today are designed to get you into a university. Next year, Cambridge First will drop the “story” from its Writing paper. People just don’t need to write stories any more when they’re at Uni, do they?
This stopped being about language a long time ago. Take a look at a TOEFL prep book. This is about jargon. A particular variety of a foreign language, shaped to be super-useful in college or corporate life, and super-useless anywhere else.
It’s a strong statement, but one I will make and defend: UK dropped two highly specialized language tests from the agenda. This is good news, because it may…
8. Introduce non-academic language proficiency tests
How about a foreign language proficiency test that didn’t revolve around university entry? How about leaving well enough alone (there are plenty of academic language tests already, some of them are actually great) and ensuring some balance?
Face it: you need different kind of smarts on Oxford Street in London than on Oxford University. You talk, listen, read differently. You react differently. The texts, stimuli, interactions, registers, strategies – it is all different. And yet the money has traditionally gone into promoting tests that will ensure you get by at Uni (or, as it turns out, into circumventing those tests).
Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that those who get tested are likely to spend some time outside protective campus walls.
9. If testing is broken…
It’s so hard for me to see the good news here. I work for a language learning publisher. People buy books to prepare for those tests. Sometimes they buy our books. Sometimes it’s important for them to take this test and to prepare.
It must be horrible to learn tonight that the test you were studying for will now get you nowhere. And it must be painful to feel that the TOEIC score you got through hard work, you could have bought somewhere for a few grand.
But from this whole omnishambles (it’s telling that UK came up with a brilliant word like that – we did it! Us!), a good thing to learn is this: testing is broken. Education hooked on testing is broken.
10. …then we may be getting closer to learning
I can just about imagine the reaction that’s opposite to point 5 above. The alternative to an ever-increasing hegemony of one system, one controlling organization, one test to rule them all – could be individual test regimes introduced by colleges and universities themselves.
There are probably as many ways this could go wrong as the current system: fraudulent colleges, dozens of methods, scores, and confusing reports as students wander from one university to another. But the current system shows us where it’s rotten: at the level of single agencies and test providers.
In a set-up where higher education institutions set up their own ways of ensuring language proficiency of visa candidates, three good things happen:
– The universities go to greater lengths to check that they’re getting learning and paying students (because getting any other students will cost them),
– The “rotten” colleges, when found out, don’t corrupt an entire testing ecosystem, and
– The criteria for establishing and measuring proficiency are closer to the college’s mission and the learner’s attainment.
It’s a pipe dream – to have language learning tests throughout the UK that get students to arrive and learn at the Uni of their choice.
Soon, this might be something worth trying.
You are here to read and learn. I'm here to write!
My three e-books are available for you to download.
I update them every year with bonus chapters, so you always get the latest info.
They all cost less than a fancy coffee. If you don't like them, you get your money back within 45 days.
And if you do like them, you will help me help my favourite charity, and motivate me to write more!
Get the bundle here.