The popularity and demand for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam is on the rise. Kevin McLaven, First Secretary, Educational Services, British High Commission, speaks to The Hindu Education Plus on a range of issues related to the exam.

Demand for the prestigious International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam seems to be growing rapidly across the world. According to Kevin McLaven, First Secretary, Educational Services, British High Commission, 1.4 million people have taken the test globally. Stating that IELTS has recorded growth in India too, he said that over 2.3 lakh candidates took the test in the country last year.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu-EducationPlus in Kochi, Mr. McLaven elaborated on a wide range of topics related to IELTS. Excerpts from the interview:

How do you rate the popularity of the IELTS exam especially in the wake of the economic downturn experienced across the world?

Within the last 12 months, 1.4 million people have taken the IELTS exam globally. It’s the fastest growing test of English in the world. It is not only the popular test it is also the most widely recognised test.

In India as well, it has seen incredible growth. Over 2.3 lakh candidates took the test in the country last year. If you compare IELTS test with TOEFL test, it is far ahead in terms of the numbers. There are over 6,000 institutions across the world recognising IELTS. It has certain advantages over competing tests such as TOEFL. One of the key advantages is the face-to-face speaking test.

The other positive aspect about the speaking test is that the types of tasks that the candidate requires to perform are very close to the real life oral communication tasks.

As a result, it has also a positive impact on learning. Because to prepare for the IELTS exam, you have to undertake real life tasks. We very much call it a real life test for the real world.

In terms of statistics, if you take south India if you just take the last five months even though we have been going through global recession, we have actually seen year-on-year growth of 32 per cent.

It is an interesting factor although during the time of economic recession. What tends to happen with a qualification like IELTS is that as the job market becomes much more competitive in an economic downturn, more people actually start thinking that they should get better qualifications.

It is not the first time that during the economic downturn that IELTS has actually seen significant growth. People who otherwise would have gone into job market are postponing that and focusing on improving their qualifications hoping that they would be better positioned to get a good job when the economy improves.

There have been some reports that the IELTS qualification was not required for studying abroad triggering doubts among the candidates.

Essentially, the requirements for IELTS have not changed. To start with Australia, till now anybody wishing to go to study to Australia or immigrating to Australia has to take IELTS. There has been some confusion regarding the U.K. requirement since the introduction of the new points-based student visa system that came out in May 2009.

The U.K. board authority, who is responsible for issuing visas, very clearly stated that there has been no change in the English language requirement. What we are seeing is perhaps some professional education consultants misleading the students in their publicity promotion that they can study in the U.K. without having to demonstrate the English language competence.

The U.K. board authorities themselves don’t state that the student must have English language requirement. What they say is that it depends upon the receiving institution. The majority of colleges and universities in the U.K. still require evidence of English language ability.

Some colleges and universities, however, waive the requirement for an IELTS score, if an Indian student has been studying in the English medium environment and if they have a certain minimum score in the 12th standard.

Every year British Council organises an exhibition of U.K. universities across India. There are international officers from the largest universities from the U.K. at those exhibitions. And they have an opportunity obviously to interact with prospective Indian students. If during that exchange, it is obvious to them that students’ English is perfectly fluent, they may ask them not to take an English test.

Essentially, it is dependent on the requirement of the receiving institution. But all institutions will require some evidence of English language ability. Unfortunately what has happened is that through a certain degree of slightly unscrupulous marketing, there are some perhaps weaker Indian students whose English is not very good who have been let to believe that they will get a place on a course in U.K. even though there English is still not good. What we recommend to any Indian student looking to apply to the U.K. is that there is no problem in using the services of an education agent.

But independently, they should check the web site of the university or college in which they wish to study. Because there have been a few cases where the education consultant has said something whereas the actual university is saying another. And the worst thing is where a young Indian student hands over a large amount of money to the agent who is helping them. They pay for the visa and then the visa is rejected because they have not given the evidence for English language ability.

It naturally prompts the question why the British Council is not able to regulate those people who mislead the students. Across India, literally there are thousands of education consultants. The British Council, we interact with a relatively a small number of them.

Unfortunately it is not the role of the British Council to manage, as there are literally thousands of these organisations across India. We do have agents with whom we work closely; we have listed them on our web site. If we feel that some agents are misleading students through their advertisement or through their information, we cease to work with them.

Do you have systems in place to check malpractices during the exam?

One of the reasons why IELTS is the global leader today is that the recognising institutions trust IELTS. They are aware that the actual systems in place are very watertight. Having said that, we do, from time to time, find candidates who are trying to commit some form of malpractice or another. Occasionally, we find candidates trying to swap papers in the room, sometimes they would pay for another person to sit for the test for them. We do have elaborate processes in place to ensure that these people are caught. We also have a database of impostors. We circulate that among all the cities in the India where we are running the IELTS test. The actual processes under which IELTS is managed are incredibly watertight. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to take any legal action against those trying. We also have a database of any candidates who have performed malpractice.