IELTS was originally designed to assess English language skills for entry to courses of academic study. However, the use of IELTS for professionals seeking registration or membership of professional association has been growing over the past decade. This study was designed to examine language testing for professionals in three global markets: one relatively new market, Canada, and two traditional markets, the UK and Ireland.
The key objectives of the study were to examine the history and rationale for selection of IELTS as a language benchmarking system for professional associations, to explore the main competitors to IELTS in global testing for professionals, to determine the minimum band scores being used as criteria for registration or membership of professional associations, the decision-making policies and the perception of its fitness for the purpose. This was a qualitative study which included desk research of alternative examinations and assessment systems and the targeted associations, and identification of key contacts, followed by semi-structured interviews conducted face-to-face, by telephone and by email.
The study found that the range of assessments accepted by professional associations varied according to the country. In the UK, eight out of ten associations listed IELTS as the only acceptable assessment system of English language competency, and association staff tended to be well-informed about IELTS and familiar with the band scores.
In Canada, the range of testing systems used was more diverse, with some nationally-produced benchmarking systems also accepted. The majority of registering bodies, however, reported that most applicants presented with either the IELTS or the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) tests. The main challenge to IELTS’ market share is the roll-out of iB TOEFL, which tests integrated skills and has largely replaced TOEFL, particularly in Canada where ETS is highly respected.
The UK and Ireland, as members of the EU, are bound by legislation which prevents them from asking for a language assessment from professionals of the EU. Accordingly, the responsibility for ensuring that individuals have the appropriate language skills to operate in an English-speaking context has been shifted from the regulatory body to employers. This may be a potential growth market for IELTS in those countries.