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How have the new SELT rules at sub-degree level impacted the UK sector?

The SELT shake-up has been a topic of conversation this summer, with sudden changes meaning IELTS is now the only approved global provider of Secure English Language Tests for students seeking to obtain a visa to enter the UK and study at sub-degree level, while Trinity College London can also provide SELTs but only in the UK, for students already onshore.

A Trinity College London SELT Centre.

"We have always managed the IELTS centre network dynamically to enable us to meet test takers’ needs, and this is no different for the SELT tests"

Universities – free to determine their own criteria for entry and use a vouching system to sponsor Tier 4 visas – are in fact unaffected by the new SELT legislation, but the impact on the FE and private language sectors and ensuing uncertainty in the marketplace has been notable.

As well as restricting who can offer SELTs, the regulations also stipulate that SELT centres must be operated directly by test providers – an additional security measure aiming to cut opportunities for fraud.

This has led to the number of centres where students can sit a SELT in the UK dropping to 20, while the global number has been slashed from upwards of 15,000 to around 110 IELTS SELT centres, making capacity a major concern.

In Japan, for example, there are only two SELT centres, while there are just 12 in a country the size of China.

This includes just one in Beijing, despite lobbying by education agencies for greater provision in the capital.

In the first two months following the regulatory change, limited capacity in the UK meant that some students struggled to book exams at a nearby test centre. With demand particularly high in the south and southeast of England, some were offered spots in Belfast in Ireland, Birmingham in the Midlands and Portsmouth in the southwest instead.

However, efforts to increase capacity appear to be paying off; English UK, for example, is now receiving far fewer complaints about capacity than it did in early June, according to Huan Japes, its deputy chief executive, professional services.

“Agencies claimed a vast majority of students will be unable to make their visa appointment or start the autumn semester in time”

But in China, concerns are more deep-seated, according to Jon Santangelo, communications director at the Beijing Overseas Study Services Association.

At a conference, “agencies claimed a vast majority of students will be unable to make their visa appointment or start the autumn semester in time,” he told The PIE News.

“Students are now turning to Australia for IELTS-accepting schools while some are switching to the US.”

And an FE college stakeholder who preferred to remain anonymous told The PIE the new rules were impacting September enrolments for vocational courses.

“Our agents are telling us… it’s the risk of travel to a SELT centre, the risk that they might not then get the school that they need, so it’s all those costs and time of travel. If it was easier they’d be prepared to take the chance and have another go – but it’s just not worth the risk. And Canada will open its arms to them much more easily.”

Some schools have been hit particularly hard, with former SELT centres seeing test takers plummet by 30-50%

However, Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of private FE and HE body Study UK, said that despite having been “sceptical” about IELTS’ ability to meet capacity needs, he has yet to hear of any major issues.

Meanwhile, the Home Office, which determines the locations of SELT centres, gave assurances that “sufficient capacity is in place to meet current demand, even during the busiest periods of the year”.

“In addition to the permanent SELT centres, there are also 84 mobile centres available around the world which offer tests in more remote locations,” a spokesperson told The PIE News.

The Home Office gave assurances that “sufficient capacity is in place to meet current demand, even during the busiest periods of the year”

And IELTS has doubled places in some of its most high-demand locations such as Shanghai and Qatar for August, typically a busy period, though this does not address the issue of location.

“Of course, we are monitoring demand very closely and if we do find areas where provision is inadequate, we will discuss this with UKVI,” Victoria Sellar, IELTS SELT Consortium concession manager, told The PIE News.

Students are not the only party to be affected by the changes; following the announcement that IELTS exams delivered through independent centres would no longer be classified as SELT, many language schools saw their test centre business fall overnight.

The number of test takers across EUK’s 30 member schools that act as IELTS test centres is down around 18%, Japes reported, though a small percentage of this is due to lower enrolment figures overall.

Some schools have been hit particularly hard, with former SELT centres seeing test takers plummet by 30-50%.

The impact of the changes has no doubt been amplified by the speed with which they came about, leaving centres little opportunity to adjust.

“The examination centres were suddenly presented with this decision, and were not given any due warning, so there’s a question of transparency”

“There’s a problem certainly with the examination centres themselves, which were suddenly presented with this decision, and were not given any due warning really, so there’s a question of transparency there,” Japes said.

Earlier this year, Crest Schools of English, one of EUK’s members, closed its doors after three decades of teaching, citing the new SELT rules as one of a number of factors.

Though Japes said that EUK has no immediate fears about any further closures, many other schools have felt overwhelmed by constant policy changes affecting international students. Many in the FE and private ELT sector feel that policy adjustments are creating an ever greater divide between them and the HE sector, which continues to accept all IELTS test results as usual.

“We’re all exhausted with these changes, and I don’t think either people like myself or professional bodies – certainly not the Home Office or [the Department for] Business, Innovation and Skills – have caught up,” said Mark Allen, international manager at Sussex Downs College.

“I think 6 April is really a tipping point where we’ve really started to push people too hard”

“I think 6 April is really a tipping point where we’ve really started to push people too hard,” Allen said.

For John Mountford, international director at the UK’s representative body of state FE providers, the Association of Colleges, the main gripe is that rules targeting FE institutions “doesn’t really reflect on the quality of the sponsor”.

“These opportunities should be based on your performance, not on your sector,” he said. “To have this blanket licence for universities to use their own tests or use tests as they feel appropriate doesn’t really reflect the quality of the work the FE sector does.”

“There is definitely, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the quality of our sector; and more particularly of our quality as sponsors,” he elaborated.

“We are very regulated, we do take a very robust approach to things like attendance and performance.”

Nevertheless, there is some optimism that the worst is over, and IELTS has said that it will continue to endeavour to adapt as needed.

“We have always managed the IELTS centre network dynamically to enable us to meet test takers’ needs, and this is no different for the SELT tests,” Sellar said.

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