Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Something smells very fishy at the Home Office - but what's new?
Not long ago, UKVI announced that from 5th April 2015 (that's this week) only TWO examination boards would be able to implement Secure English Language Tests (SELT). Worldwide. This means that anyone who wants to apply for a UK visa for anything more than a visit (Tier 4, Spouse, Parent, ILR, FLR - leave to remain - etc.) must pay either the IELTS Consortium (which consists of Cambridge Examinations, the British Council and IDP Australia) or Trinity College London (TCL) (see this very self-congratulatory press release). Ka-ching!!
Previously a wide range of examinations were accepted by the UK Visa and Immigration body and its predecessor UKBA (two public bodies that seem incapable of meeting publicly-announced targets). These included Cambridge English's Key English Test (KET), Preliminary English Test (PET), First Certificate in English (FCE), Business English Certificate Vantage, Cambridge Advanced English (CAE), Cambridge English Legal, Certificate in Financial English, Cambridge Proficiency in English (CPE), and ESOL Skills for Life, a range of examinations from City and Guilds, and Pearson's Test of English (PTE) which, like IELTS, offered an Academic and Workplace option (see here while you still can!). Many of these examinations offered the visa applicant the opportunity to sit an English language examination which would not only give a good indication of their CEFR level but would be relevant to their immigration, career or professional needs, unlike some of the examinations which are now accepted by UKVI. For instance, the TCL examination offered for the leave to remain visa (GESE) will only let the candidate know if they have passed the required level (e.g. A2) in speaking and listening.
What is very odd is that nobody seems able to explain why the examinations offered by City and Guilds, Pearson or Cambridge English (outside IELTS) are no longer acceptable as a SELT. In fact, UKVI seems determined that nobody will find out what the new conditions are for a SELT or why only the IELTS Consortium and TCL have been granted the 2-year contracts.
There are some very important questions that remain unanswered. If Cambridge English's facilities and procedures are secure enough to run IELTS, why are they not secure enough to run PET, FCE, CAE or CPE? If Pearson are trusted enough to run the country's driving theory tests, why are their language tests and test centres not up to spec, according to UKVI?
Pearson is a commercial organisation. It invested heavily in the PTE system and, imho, has produced a very good computer-adaptive test that assesses a range of (academic) English skills and was designed from the beginning with the CEFR in mind (unlike the IELTS test which was 'retro-fitted' to CEFR descriptors). Why was it not awarded the contract? Let's ask them shall we? Well, the nice people at BALEAP did, and here is the reply they received:
As a global education company, Pearson regularly receives and assesses Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for government contracts. In this instance, after careful consideration, Pearson took the decision that there were a small number of conditions which we were unable to agree to.
Consequently, the Home Office did not assess our application and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) will not be accepted as a UK Home Office SELT from 6th April 2015. Tests taken on or before 5th April 2015 will continue to be accepted by the UK Home Office until 5th November 2015.
We are very disappointed that we will not be able to continue to offer PTE Academic as a UK SELT as we believe that the unrivalled security, speed and convenience of PTE Academic delivers an outstanding service to visa applicants and score users.
As you may know, any approved Higher Education Institution (HEI) can still use PTE Academic to assess a student’s level of English as part of a Tier 4 application for degree level study and above. PTE Academic continues to be accepted by the Australian and other governments around the world, as well as by thousands of institutions in the UK, Australia, USA and Canada.

So what were those 'small number of conditions' which Pearson were unable to comply with, despite preparing a commercial test precisely for this purpose and which, I would agree, offers "unrivalled security, speed and convenience" for "visa applicants and score users"? I guess we'll never know because nobody is allowed to disclose the details of the tender, as Password ELT (another commercial venture that have invested significant funds to produce a reliable CEFR-standardised test) have informed us:
As you and some of your members may know, in July 2014 the Home Office started the process of drawing up the recently announced new approved SELT list that will take effect from 6th April 2015. As a major English language test provider, Password ELT were invited to the briefing meeting where the new requirements for SELT providers were announced. Unfortunately all in attendance were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, thus we are not able to say anything substantial about the meeting or subsequent discussions. However I think it is allowable to comment that the due to the onerous operational and contractual requirements we weren’t sure any of test providers would be able – or willing – to submit compliant bids.
Pearson were unable to comply with a small number of terms and Password were not only unable or unwilling to comply with the 'onerous operational and contractual requirements' but they are unable to tell us what those terms were. The UKVI has put a gag order on all these companies presumably because it knows the new conditions it has placed on these companies are not only unacceptable to the public but in all likelihood unethical. Possibly illegal.
Will the UKVI come clean and reveal publicly why it has handed just two companies the contract to test English?

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