The PIE: Do you expect particular countries where the online option for PTE Academic is going to be in high demand?
Freya Thomas Monk: We operate in over 100 countries worldwide today and the online version will operate in every country around the world, apart from China, Iran and Cuba. But we plan to introduce it in China next year.
The question around demand is a good one. It’ll be any country where people want to take the test in order to go to university – the big sending and receiving markets I think most of all.
“There’s a lot of customer demand out there as young people want to move forward in their lives”
I also see demand coming from students not wanting to travel so far away from home, perhaps going to closer countries as opposed to moving further afield.
Pearson’s got a new CEO, Andy Bird, and we’ve done a reorganisation of how we run the business, and now I’ve taken on responsibility for all of the Pearson tests of English, including operations and how we do things market by market and sales. So I’m really excited about where we stand at the moment.
We’ve had a really tough year and a half. I know there’s a lot of customer demand out there as young people want to move forward in their lives. And I also know that English remains a building block for learning. Many of the English tests we have can do a great job to support peoples’ careers, workforce learning and young learners.
The PIE: Do you have a date on the PTE Academic roll out in China?
FTM: We don’t have a date, but at some point next year will be our aim. Our in-person test is global, so from November if you go to test centre in China, you’ll be taking the two hour test. Most of our centres there are open at the moment, obviously we monitor it day to day. New Zealand, Vietnam, countries in APAC are struggling because of lockdowns at the moment. It changes city by city.
The PIE: The online option is not for language evidence for migration or visas, but is that something you’re looking into?
FTM: When governments would like to shift to online, then we’ll follow them, but at the moment, we see no indication that governments want to move away from the in test centre model. So we provide that service and very happy to do so. We’ve done that service for way more than 10 years.
The PIE: And for the online version, how many institutions have you got signed up?
FTM: We’ve 3,000 for the in-person. Now we have the green light to talk to universities and add in the recognition for the online version, so we’re racking it up week by week, month by month.
By the time people can take it November 16, we’re planning to have quite a solid number of universities on board.
The PIE: Your competitors announced online options last year, and I think people have been anticipating that Pearson would do the same.
FTM: We did have a test we put into place, and many universities picked up on it, called Versant last year, which is a different test to PTE. But it was a very useful, good test and a fill-in with a remote proctored part of it.
The PIE: How does the remote proctoring for the new test work?
FTM: We have a whole range of different security measures in place for PTE, and this is a human proctored model. We use a service that is available in Pearson to us via Pearson VUE. And it’s a model that works really well and it’s been proven.
We know we’ve got the best technology in the business. We’re confident launching and we believe it’s here for the long run. It isn’t just a flash in the pan with the pandemic. So now’s the time to really strategically roll it out.
The PIE: We’ve seen Duolingo and other providers hopping into online testing quite quickly. How disruptive are new players?
FTM: I keep a very close eye on Duolingo and, I admire what Duolingo is doing in many sectors, but I also don’t see it as a high stake competitor in this sector.
They are a broad service language provider which offers multiple different languages and within their service is a specific English test. I think it’s particularly got traction in the US. It’s very interesting to see whether or not it gets traction in other markets around the world. It’s different market by market. In the pandemic world, we’re finding that different markets are responding in different ways.
The PIE: How has Covid been for you?
FTM: It’s been tough on our customers. Young adults around the world still have the same dreams and aspirations of travelling abroad to work and study. But they’re thwarted. They’re held back in their tracks. Whenever we see news coming out around borders reopening or something, we see an immediate response from our customers wanting to take their tests to get going.
For us, it’s just meaning we have to be very nimble operationally. We have to be willing and able to switch test centres on and off, depending on lockdown rules. Regretfully, we’ve become very adept at that over last 18 months.
It’s been stressful, but I’m proud with how we’re adapting and how we continue to serve everybody the best we can.
“Part of the reason we’re bringing out these new services, is to make the customer experience more straightforward”
Part of the reason we’re bringing out these new services, is because we are always looking to make the experience for our customers more straightforward, make it the easier part of what they have to do in their long journeys to move abroad.
The PIE: On the shortening of the test from three hours to two, how have you ensured that you can still test everything you need to within that time?
FTM: We set ourselves the task of seeing if we could do it. We want to give our customers the quickest experience we could whilst also ensuring the accuracy and the range was there.
We’ve been able to do it. We’ve got the full team research scientists who ensure that the scores are as accurate and valid as ever. And it is. And we’re also able to still cover all of the same item types as we had before. We’ve done enough research to know that it’ll serve well in markets.
The PIE: I know that you’ve signed up with BOSSA recently in China. Do you see those types of relationships with agents more important now than pre-pandemic?
FTM: Agents have always been really important. We’ve certainly launched the BOSSA partnership in China, which I love. We are also looking to improve our services and the experiences of partners in India. So it’s a key part of our strategy driving into the agent market.
Agents have a really key role to play right now because, young adults around the world are eager and wanting to get moving again and agents can help them navigate that really tricky journey. Their role as counsellors and advisers is second to none right now, and we really need to support that sector to provide that service to customers.
The PIE: With the fall out of IDP buying IELTS in India, have you been able to gain market share this year?
FTM: There was a concern about there being such concentration around IDP in India. There’s concern about customer choice, availability and risk. We are very firmly raising our hand and saying we are the other option to IELTS. We have coverage across the whole country, lockdown’s permitting. We provide a terrific service and our message is cutting through. We are doing quite well in the Indian market at the moment. I think the IDP British Council change has shaken up the market.