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IELTS: UK Money-Making Venture Designed to Rip Off Visa Applicants

The past weeks have seen the necessity of the proficiency test International English Language Testing System (IELTS) being brought under questioning. The old debate was rekindled by a group of Nigerian youths, who are among the biggest candidates for the test. A petition initiated by a policy organization, Policy Shapers calling for IELTS to be reformed has garnered over 75,000 signatures. They are asking the UK Home Office, the body believed to primarily be in charge of the test, to provide explanations regarding its conduct.

Nigerians and other anglophone nationals seeking to study in foreign countries are often required to write and pass IELTS. The test is recognized by more than 10,000 organizations globally, including employers of labor, educational institutions, governments, immigration authorities, and professional bodies. For instance, in the UK, where most universities require the test, apart from their travel and visa processing cost, the test registration fee is another financial burden many international students bear when processing UK student visas.

Some of the concerns raised are the cost of the test and its short validity. The cost is much more than the minimum wages in most African countries. In Nigeria, for instance, the application fee is three times the minimum. It also has a short shelf life as its result only lasts for two years. Many also question the necessity for a country like Nigeria, where English is lingua Franca, the language of instruction from kindergarten to higher education level.

The average cost of the IELTS test ranges from 200.5 USD and $216.2 USD. There are 11 IELTS test centers across Nigeria operated by the British Council, a report shows. Up to five test dates are scheduled every month, with an average of 120 participants writing the test at a Centre on each day. With the frequency of the test dates and average numbers of candidates, the organizers are making lots of money from applicants year in year out.

Nigerians aren’t the only ones paying a high for the test; many other African countries face the same issue. In Uganda, where the test application fee is the highest on the continent, each applicant pays $317. This is more than 1,000% of that country’s minimum wage, which is $1.70. Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia are some of the other countries that pay higher for IELTS than their minimum wage.

Another great concern is the short shelf life, as its result becomes invalid after two years. Those who don’t use the result within that time are required to re-write it if they still need the test for immigration purposes. Therefore, many people find themselves writing it multiple times, bearing the high cost for each registration. The #ReformIELTS campaign has been trending on social media, with people comparing IELTS with the French version, which costs much lower and lasts for life. This further questions the major motive behind the test, as it seems to priorities financial gain.

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While some are, on the one hand, calling for reform, others are also questioning its necessity for Anglophone countries who communicate in English in their everyday lives. The UK Home Office’s modalities for exempting some countries for IELTS were also questioned. While Nigerians and citizens of other British colonies in Africa are required to take the test, visa applicants from Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica, St. Kitts, and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, and 10 other countries are exempted.

In October 2021, Policy Shapers had written to Home Office for explanations on why none of the Anglophone countries made its list of Majority English Speaking Countries. Three months after, the Home Office replied that: “to be included on the Majority English Speaking Country (MESC) list, we must have evidence that most people in the country (more than half) speak English as a first language.”

But most Nigerians don’t find the explanation plausible, with many asking the type of evidence needed by the UK to realize that Nigerians deserve to be on the list.

For years, Nigeria has been ranked high on the EF English Proficiency Index, and currently stands 29th out of 112 countries ranked globally and 3rd in Africa. In addition, more than 140 countries sat for IELTS in 2018, and Nigerians reportedly had the sixth-best performance overall. All these are enough evidence showing the proficiency of most Nigerians in English.

Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Immigration Advice Service, a UK based law firm that provides global immigration services.