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UK B-schools Reject TOEFL Exams

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A handful of UK business schools are no longer accepting the internationally popular TOEFL tests as proof of English language ability for overseas students needing visas. The move comes after the BBC uncovered testing fraud earlier this year.

The University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, Durham University Business School, and London’s Cass Business School have all suspended use of TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams as proof of English language ability for students from outside Europe who require a student visa to study in the UK. Other UK universities are also not accepting the test.

The UK government suspended leading test provider English Testing Service (ETS), which administers TOEFL, as official evidence of English language ability after fraud came to light in another ETS-administered test, TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), in February. But UK universities have vigorously lobbied the government to accept any ETS tests taken in good faith so far, and last week the government revised restrictions.

“We have emailed every overseas applicant about the situation,” says Jill Howarth, postgraduate admissions manager for Durham University Business School, which is advising future applicants to take alternative tests.

Although ETS will no longer be an acceptable official test provider, the UK’s Home Office, which is responsible for visas and immigration, will accept any visa applications dependent on TOEFL provided they are submitted and paid up by July 22, 2014.

But all of this may be a red herring: Universities and business schools recruiting international students have the UK government’s “highly trusted status” to determine their own language requirements and assessments, including TOEFL, for overseas student visas.

Importantly, restrictions on ETS only apply to visa applications for courses below degree level, which of course excludes MBAs and master’s programs. “This change doesn’t affect higher education institutions’ ability to choose their own method of assessing prospective students’ English language competence,” according to the Home Office. In other words, schools can decide whether to accept a TOEFL test, even if the test is taken after the immigration rules go into effect.

Despite the loophole, some institutions prefer to play it safe. “The University of Cambridge will no longer be accepting TOEFL test scores as sufficient to meet the language entry requirements for graduate study,” says a statement on Judge’s website. “Unless we receive further guidance, we won’t change,” said a spokesman from the university’s graduate admissions office. Cass also says it won’t accept TOEFL from September and is advising applicants about the changes. “But we’re not expecting the withdrawal of TOEFL as a SELT (Secure English Language Test) to cause any significant disruption to our enrollments next academic year,” a spokesperson said.

But other schools such as Said, Henley, London Business School (LBS), and Warwick have confirmed they will continue to accept the TOEFL test for students outside the European Union. “Despite the initial concerns about TOEFL coming from the Home Office, there are no lasting changes affecting Tier 4 [visa] students who have taken or who wish to take TOEFL for study at Warwick at degree level and above,” said a Warwick Business School spokesman.

LBS, which interviews all shortlisted candidates in English and sometimes follows up with its own English language telephone test, says it will continue to make its own assessments. “We accept a range of different English language test scores but recognize their limitations,” says David Simpson, LBS’ director of  MBA admissions. “Therefore, we don’t have strict score cut-offs but approach assessment in a more holistic way.”

Suspicion of student visas as an immigration scam runs high in the UK. This is especially true after a BBC current affairs program secretly filmed candidates faking test results for the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) exam. As a result of the program, ETS no longer offers the TOEIC test for U.K. visa-granting purposes

Privately, admissions departments admit to confusion around the UK government’s decision to suspend ETS. The TOEFL test, which is considered the gold standard for many students wishing to study in the US and UK, was never implicated in the fraud – and while ETS sets the test, third-party contractors administer it.

“The TOEFL is the test my clients overwhelmingly take for business schools across Europe and North America,” says admissions consultant Rachel Korn, who works mainly with U.S., European, and Israeli clients. “Over my 18-year career in admissions I have found the test to be a rather accurate reflection of the taker’s ability to function in English.”

And it’s still used as an acceptable qualification for students who don’t require visas, Durham’s Howarth points out. “Generally universities and business schools require higher standards of English for postgraduate study than those required by the Home Office, anyway,” she says. Like many schools, Durham provides English language tuition before and during business courses. “We’ll still accept TOEFL as proof of ability for European students who don’t need visas.”

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