IELTS, At Sixes and Sevens.

IELTS (International English Language Testing System- its academic module being used to assess international (“overseas”) students’ suitability to undertake study in the UK and Australia) has come under particular academic scrutiny, but what is rarely discussed is its usefulness in predicting academic success. We recently came across this very interesting paper written by Viki Feast, which carefully reviews other studies in the area, conducts independent research at an Australian university and makes some very important recommendations on how IELTS results should be used.

Although, as Feast argues, IELTS scores alone cannot account for whether a student studying from abroad will be “successful” or not, admitting students with low IELTS scores is likely to considerably raise failure rates.  And here she refers only to success in grades and does not deal with the equally important question of students “dropping out”, unable to cope with the demands of the course. Indeed, we have tried in vain to obtain across the board statistics on how international students compare with resident (“native”) students but can only obtain statistics on success for all students (no differentiation made between international and resident students) actually sitting the final exams. Similar problems do not exist, however, with respect to their financial contribution to the Higher Education sector. Despite this absence of statistics, something which makes Feast’s work even more laudable, we can see that key literature in the area talks about high failure rates and academic problems for international students.

As Feast argues, it appears British and Australian universities, in their rush to cash in on overseas students, are ignoring advice from the examining board itself by admitting students for courses with a score below 7, with 7 deemed to be “probably acceptable” for linguistically demanding academic courses and “acceptable” for linguistically less demanding courses. Research quoted by Feast, concludes that most universities view a score of 6 (well below the IELTS board guidelines) as acceptable.

Feast argues that either standards are increased, she suggests six alternatives, or more support is given to overseas students during their course. Obviously, Feast’s recommendations have fallen on deaf ears because now, more than ever, universities are driven by a concern for profit and not for education.. The international student represents an ideal way of closing a funding gap for these universities. To lessen the number of students or provide extra support would eat into the very income that they crave.


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