PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2003, 12:00am

Dr Jane Lockwood (South China Morning Post, February 21) asks why deputy chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, Raymond Kwok Ping-luen, should promote the use of a test called the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to measure the English level of his staff.

The simple answer is that a much-trumpeted consultation document 'Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong' published in January by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Scolar) recommends the use of IELTS.

This document suggests: 'For working adults who wish to assess their English language competencies, we recommend that they make use of the IELTS.'

Dr Lockwood rightly points out that promotion of IELTS is at odds with the Workplace English Campaign (WEC) which has spent a large amount of money on promoting benchmarks other than IELTS over the last three years. So, is this yet another case of the government's left hand not knowing what its right is doing? Regrettably not. The chairman of Scolar is Michael Tien Puk-sun. And he is also chairman of the WEC which is supervised by Scolar. So if anyone should know what each hand is doing it is Mr Tien. So the metaphor is not of left hand, right hand, but 'shooting oneself in the foot'.

The IELTS test is not appropriate for companies such as Sun Hung Kai to use as a benchmark for their staff.

As Dr Lockwood notes, IELTS is used as an exam to test proficiency to enter universities in such places as the US, Britain and Australia.

For companies seeking benchmarking of their staff in Hong Kong, they should use other tests such as the Business Language Testing Service (BULATS) of Cambridge University.

Even the British Council, which also administers IELTS, says 'we recommend BULATS test as a reliable and affordable way of confirming that you have achieved the appropriate [WEC] benchmark'.

In addition, I would add the following:

IELTS is more expensive than other benchmarking tests. It costs $1,100 compared with $350 for the BULATS. Preparation for IELTS costs up to $3,000, for BULATS nothing. Therefore, the overall difference in price between the two is $4,000 (plus) to $350, making IELTS over 10 times as expensive.

IELTS can only be delivered, at fixed times, by the British Council or Australia's International Development Programme, whereas the BULATS test can be delivered anywhere, by any providers approved by BULATS, which are approved by Cambridge University.

The Scolar paper is a consultation document seeking public input until February 28.

The Hong Kong Federation of Private Educators will be making recommendations to Scolar that it sticks to the benchmarks it has already set out in the WEC, rather than introducing a new, more expensive, less relevant, more difficult to administer and rather elitist test.

We suggest that people such as Dr Lockwood, who are interested in this issue, should make their own submissions to the Scolar document (its Web site is before the February 28 deadline.



Hong Kong Federation of Private Educators