Global Britain and language testing for international students – our work with Duolingo

For the last few months, we’ve been working with Duolingo to understand the growth of international students into the UK – and in particular, how the educational and immigration architecture support – or deter – foreign students from coming to study into the UK.

The Home Office is – rightly – concerned to keep control of the visa system and the visas it grants for international students. That means, in turn, that universities need to ensure that they satisfy Home Office requirements when they offer places to such students. The points-based immigration system, launched in January 2021, underpins the UK’s new global outlook and requires English language proficiency to ensure students and workers can communicate and learn effectively, and get the most out of their time in the UK. This requires universities to test users’ proficiency of English – which is often done through something called a network of Secure English language Test centres (SELT centres) where would-be students need to go and take a test to show their language skills.

It always amazes me that there is such a disconnect in the public and governmental narrative around migration, and the reality of experiences (and public opinion) around international students. While the macro narrative focuses on controlling UKs borders, the DfE controls an International Education Strategy which – rightly, in my view – focuses on the immense financial, reputational, educational and soft power benefits gained from the global access to the UK’s world leading higher education system. The government’s own data suggests that education exports are worth over £35bn a year to the economy. We are also privileged in the UK to be a destination of choice for many foreign students. What was thought to be an ambitious target in the international education strategy, to attract 600,000 international higher education students to the country, has already been hit – ten years early. From Durham to Derby, Cumbria to Cambridge, and Exeter to East London, international students are enriching student, university and UK experiences.

But the UK can’t afford to rest on its laurels. International students are globally mobile, and will go to institutions and countries that welcome them. The UK is also heavily dependent on India and China for the supply of students. Covid has shown the importance of digital engagement of such students, but also the benefits offered by digital learning and transnational education – meaning some students may choose not to physically relocate to study. And other countries are changing their offers to attract such students. Research identifies a rising interest among aspiring international students in other English-speaking countries – notably Canada – as a preferred destination. And students in Asia will also consider other markets – both other Anglophone countries like Australia, but increasingly in the new cadre of high performing Chinese universities too. 

So the question we set out to explore with Duolingo was – what is the likely future attractiveness of the UK as a market for international students, and how can digital testing of English proficiency help allow universities to meet migration requirements while also welcoming students. 

Our polling shows that Chinese and Indian students remain keen on the UK as a destination of choice. In addition, Recent changes to UK immigration policies have made the UK’s migration offer more compelling, especially to individuals in countries like India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. If the trend growth rate from the last fifteen or the last five years continues, the UK could expect to see between 875,000 and 1 million international students enrolling on UK higher education courses by 2029/30 – well in excess of the 600,000 target. 

The current SELT requirements, though, do present a barrier. At the moment, students need to go physically to a test centre, and sit a test. This can be expensive, and time consuming. But more than that, it can in effect exclude large numbers of potential students. Modelling we did for the report suggests in large densely populated countries like Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia, one centre serves upwards of 30 million people from a single urban location. Meanwhile, 82 countries have no SELT centre at all, meaning half a billion people must travel internationally to take the English language test needed to apply for a visa to enter the UK. 

The report suggests that greater uptake of digital visa tests – including the Duolingo English Test – could provide a solution. Already, thousands of universities around the world, including many in the UK, are already working on this system to verify English proficiency. Users can access the test from their home computer and take it quickly and easily and more cheaply than a traditional centre based test – while being observed remotely via webcam so as to ensure security.

As universities are finding, the last two years have forced them into a rapid digital shift on anything from teaching to assessment to pastoral support to resources. Using technology for screening and attracting highly motivated international students should surely be part of this ongoing pattern of digital shift. 

You can see the final report from Duolingo and Public First here

You can find the poll tables here (China) and here (India).