It’s no secret that Australian universities are increasingly reliant on international student fees to function. With state and federal funding slashed in recent years, universities have turned to thousands of international students who fork out tens of thousands of dollars a year to study here. Now, education is Australia’s 4th largest export, with 185,370 students arriving this year so far.
The increasing number of applicants, combined with the government turning over vetting responsibilities to universities in 2019, has led to a mass outsourcing of English testing to large companies like Pearson and IDP. Most international students don’t undertake their secondary or tertiary education in English, meaning taking a test like the IELTS or PTE is the only pathway available to them.
These tests are typically taken online or in person at designated testing centres across the world and consist of reading, writing, speaking, and listening sections. Along with an ATAR equivalent requirement for each course, universities set an English proficiency benchmark for entrance. While seemingly straightforward, the corporatisation of this process is incredibly harmful to students.
The upfront cost of the tests themselves is putting increasing pressure on students. The IELTS or PTE can cost anywhere from $350 to $410 US dollars and that only increases if you have to retake the test due to failure or if your result expires after two years. Although students in Australia are now being allowed to retake just one section of the test, this still incurs extra costs.
However, according to all the international students interviewed for this article, the real cost comes from the tutoring to prepare for the test. Some large companies like Oriental East offer group classes which cost $900 USD a week, and lucrative private tutors who advertise on WeChat and other social media platforms charge up to $200 USD an hour. Some students told me they, or people they knew, paid for months of preparation classes on top of tutoring to score high enough in academic exams. The industry functions as an oligopoly, meaning companies have little incentive to lower the price or provide cheaper alternatives. Families are paying large portions of their income to tick a box; some won’t ever be able to afford what it takes to be competitive.
This is especially concerning when the accuracy of the tests is also being increasingly called into question. Computer marking is becoming increasingly common and there is less human input in reviewing test responses. Companies like Pearson advertise this as an advantage, arguing their algorithm combines thousands of answers to remove individual scorer bias and increase marking speed. Computers, however, find it hard to account for accents and often bias certain vocal styles.
The reliance on computer testing has also increased instances of cheating. Last month, multiple UK universities stopped accepting the PTE due to concerns the online test was not meeting compliance standards. The real harm here is that for many students with legitimate scores, the PTE was their only option and now they have lost their ability to study. When Pearson responded by shutting down its online operation in China, hundreds of students were left stranded with IELTS slots booked out. Testing companies have clear profit incentives to pivot to online testing, but the consolidated nature of the industry means this risky strategy is harming students.
Beyond basic accuracy, it’s unclear whether the tests even prepare students well for a tertiary environment. The IELTS and PTE are general and can be used for a variety of work and other non-study-related visas. While Pearson calls the PTE an “academic” test it does not test academic English. Multiple students who scored well above the Sydney or UNSW benchmark of 6.0 told me they still heavily struggled in their first classes. A first-year law student at Sydney who scored a very high 8.5 on the IELTS told me “the test has nothing to do with university…you write about the weather”. This presents an issue for lecturers and tutors who teach classes assuming a level of academic English that is not tested in these exams. Australian universities who want to continue to outsource this testing need to provide support to bridge this gap.
While USyd claims it’s doing more to support students, the results are another shameless cash grab. International students who fall right below the 6.0 IELTS benchmark with a score of 5 or 5.5 can enrol in a program at Taylor’s College for an English bridging course. Costing up to $49,950, not including fees and the cost of living in Sydney, the University can extract more than an entire year in tuition just to provide support to struggling students who just missed the initial cut.
English testing is a crucial aspect of admitting international students and making sure they can thrive in Australia. Expensive and generalised, the current corporate system based on giant middlemen has failed at every turn. Individual universities need to take on a larger role, even at a cost, in designing testing and processes to ensure equity and support students rather than shaking them for more money.