Is old-fashioned English testing holding the UK back from its international student and skills ambitions?

“It’s time to let English language testing catch up with innovation across other parts of the economy – specially if we have ambitions to be a digitally driven, high-skill nation”

We’ve heard a lot about levelling-up and the UK’s ambition to be a leader in all things digital and technology recently.

At times it feels like we’re making significant progress. Universities showed great agility and innovation to offer digital learning solutions, which will enhance the education experience for years to come.

And the government did too. The passport office and UKVI upped their ability to process applications digitally. UKVI even developed ways to take biometric information securely and scan passports with NFC technology in mobile apps. They even moved citizenship ceremonies online over Zoom.

These are very important developments if the government is to reach its ambitions of attracting 600,000 international students each year and raising the annual value of education exports to £35 billion.

But for all the innovation to streamline visa processes, students and skilled migrants from most countries must still prove they can speak English through a face-to-face test. These tests are applied on everyone emigrating to the UK, outside of a small handful of countries.

The problem is not necessarily that there is an English language test for these potential students, as it is a fundamental part of study in this country. The problem is that in an age where the UK is happy to accept a new citizen’s pledge to crown over zoom, it does not allow technology to play a role to confirm a potential immigrant’s English proficiency.  Instead, they must go to a physical testing centre, most of the time in their home country, and sit a test in person.

It’s time to let English language testing catch up with innovation across other parts of the economy. Especially if we have ambitions to be a digitally driven, high-skill nation that attracts students from across the globe to study here.

The technology certainly exists to do this.

Language proficiency tests typically consist of four elements, reading, writing, listening and speaking.  That last element is especially important as a vehicle to confirm that the individual sitting the test can genuinely understand and speak the language.

Screen monitoring technology can watch how the participant is using their computer or device while participating in a virtual speaking test. If they tried to look up a translation or use any sort of software to manipulate the test, it is easy for the examiner to see.

Live audio analysis can determine changes in speech patterns or additional noises, to identify if there is someone else is in the room speaking on the participant’s behalf or trying to assist them with their speech.

On top of all that, artificial intelligence can analyse the video feed to monitor the participant’s posture shifts, eye movements and other behaviours. This technology can flag any irregularities to the examiner in the test, to help determine if the participant could be using other devices or visual aids in the room, or if someone else is there helping them. The recording of the test can also be analysed to scan for irregularities before granting a result.

The other component is ensuring that the participant doing the proficiency test is the same person that is granted a visa and arrives on our shores. This is a process UKVI is already familiar with, using a recently submitted photo of the applicant and matching it with the passport and application.

And if it’s a university sponsoring the student’s visa application, they can also have access to the student’s application details and test results to verify the student that arrives on campus is the one who took the test.

While pandemic-related travel restrictions may be starting to ease in the UK, life is not yet back to normal in many countries across the world. Not to mention the big knock-on effect from two years of disruption and the current geopolitical tensions, attracting international students or skilled foreign workers to the UK isn’t always straightforward task.

Adopting a modern approach to English testing is vital for the UK to cement its status as a global leader in digital technologies, and to help the industry reach the lofty international student and education export targets.

About the author: Lil Bremermann-Richard is the Chief Executive Officer at Oxford International Education Group, a leading provider in digital education tools. She has more than 20 years senior management and leadership experience in education including roles with Cavendish College, South Thames College, and BPP University. In addition to her current position as Group CEO at Oxford International, Lil also serves as an Advisory Board Member for IDP Connect, is a founding member and advisory board member at Business Women in Education and Non-Executive Director at Corndel Limited.