UK government assures Chinese students that English test ban won't affect their visa applications

Home Office ban on language proficiency tests after probe into cheating applies only to some agents in Britain, not mainland or Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 3:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 3:45am

British authorities' decision to suspend English language proficiency tests organised by the US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) over alleged fraud has raised doubts among many Chinese students hoping to study in Britain.

Since the British government's move was announced earlier this month, reports suggested that many Chinese students were reconsidering Britain as a study destination.

Britain has long been one of the most popular countries for Chinese students - traditionally from Hong Kong but today also from the mainland. In 2011-2012 they numbered 83,000, the largest group of foreign students in Britain, according to the Institute of International Education.

Online chat about the incident was heavy at, China's version of Twitter. "Maybe it's better to study in America," one internet user wrote, speculating that organisers for the main rival English test might raise their fees in response.

The suspended ETS examinations are the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

According to ETS, TOEIC is a test of everyday English skills of people working in an international environment. Its scores are used by corporations and government agencies in 120 countries, and its main rival test is the Cambridge-designed International English Language Testing System (IELTS). TOEFL is the main English skills test for foreign students applying to universities in the United States.

The British government suspended the ETS tests after the BBC's investigative news programme Panorama exposed the test scandal in London on February 10. Undercover video showed a number of agents helping overseas students cheat on their TOEIC exams. The agency had charged Panorama's undercover researcher a "guaranteed pass fee" of £500 (HK$6,500), three times the usual test fee.

In return, the agent found someone to take the exam on behalf of the researcher, while another arranged an invigilator - a person who monitors exam takers to prevent cheating - to read the answers to the researcher. As a result, the researcher received a high score without actually taking the test.

British Home Secretary Theresa May described the Panorama report as "shocking", and immediately suspended the exams set by ETS in Britain. Accreditation was temporarily withdrawn from a series of colleges and immigration agents who were suspected of violating student visa conditions, the BBC said.

Following May's announcement, many Chinese students were worried whether the ETS tests they had undertaken at home were still valid.

Several universities, including the University of Sussex, one of the country's top 20 universities and popular among Chinese applicants, said international students including those from the mainland and Hong Kong who took the exams outside Britain would not be affected.

"The University of Sussex has not suspended applications from international students using either ETS TOEIC or TOEFL examinations," spokeswoman Maggie Clune told the South China Morning Post.

Most students would start in September and so were not affected by the suspension, Clune said. Meanwhile, the university was helping a small number of research students obtain their visas before May.

Wu Hao, a senior student visa consultant at Beijing New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting, said British universities had told him that Chinese students could still use their test scores when applying for visas. However, the firm was advising students to take the IELTS exam during the next few months as a precaution.