As UK universities face a looming admissions crisis, three innovators met in London for a temperature check on how English proficiency testing affects international student enrollment. 

  • As Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Global Engagement and Student Life at Portsmouth University, Chris Chang is responsible for providing strategic leadership in Global Engagement. 
  • In addition to serving as Chair of the BALEAP organization, Conrad Heyns is the Director of the Centre for Academic Language and Literacies at Goldsmiths, University of London. 
  • Representing the test provider perspective was Dr. Alina von Davier, Chief of Assessment at Duolingo, whose expertise spans computational psychometrics, applying AI and machine learning to assessment data, and transforming traditional assessment methods through technology.

International admissions are down

As immigration policy becomes stricter, universities have seen a reduction in international student enrollment. According to Chris, the growth the sector saw two to three years ago was unsustainable, so international enrollment was bound for a reset. He expects to see numbers stabilize soon, meaning a return to pre-covid levels. 

“We know that by 2030, we will have a demographic decline in under 18s,” he said. “We have five years to get this right.”  

The panel members and audience agreed that doing things the way we always have will not help UK universities to achieve the enrollments they rely on for financial stability. “We need international students to help finance the sector,” said Conrad. “It’s not going to be financed completely by home students.”

"By 2030, we will have a demographic decline in under 18s. We have five years to get this right.”

Chris shared these concerns: “The numbers we’re playing with are huge, the impact this will have on the economy, on the universities and on cities, will be huge” he said. “So there is a need to reset. We know that there will be a stabilization of numbers, but the crucial thing is the government must stop the rhetoric and encourage controlled migration. We need to put safeguards in place.” 

Conrad reported that across the country the higher education sector is already restructuring, with many institutions having already notified staff of the potential for redundancies. Chris warned if enrollments do indeed go down by a third, this will also impact the private rental sector, hospitality industries, and more, in cities and towns up and down the country. 

What can we learn from the last admissions crisis? 

The sector faced its last crisis only a few years ago, when global lockdown forced the sector to evolve and innovate in order to remain afloat. As a result, many institutions now offer students more choices—and the panelists agreed that that’s a good thing. 

As the only means of English proficiency certification available, the DET was a lifesaver for many universities during lockdown. By keeping the doors open to international enrollment, it helped ensure institutions’ continued financial stability, and enabled thousands of students to graduate from UK institutions such as Imperial, Portsmouth, and Southampton—all of which continue to accept the DET. 

Chris agreed that for his institution, the DET was a "godsend," but that the choice to accept the test wasn’t made lightly, citing the studies they conducted to determine its fit for purpose. "We found that it was comparable to direct entry from other exams, so we were confident in using it," he said. "And we’ve been using it ever since."  

Conrad shared this perspective. "I get a bit frustrated by people who say, you know, well, it was alright during COVID, but who have suddenly reverted back to no, let’s just stick with the test we’ve always known," he said. "It’s important to keep an open mind, and embrace the benefits that newer technologies have unlocked."

Institutions have a choice to make 

Since the first onset of the pandemic, there has been an explosion of tests in the field, and the panel acknowledged that institutions may feel exhausted trying to keep up. They were asked to share advice for how institutions should navigate these new tests. 

For his part, Chris encourages other institutions to take a closer look. "Back in 2020, many of my colleagues thought of Duolingo as a tool for free, basic level language learning, and so they wondered how this test could be taken seriously in an academic setting,” he said. "But when we get people to actually take a look at the product itself, they find that there is rigor." 

Alina recommends that when considering different tests, institutions shouldn’t be put off by differences, but instead look for what’s the same, because in the end what matters is whether students taking these tests go on to be successful. She pointed out that while the DET differs in many ways from traditional tests, it adheres to the same professional standards, and is CEFR aligned. 

"It doesn't really matter if a test was made in one way or another, you must look at the features," she explained. "Is the test reliable? Is it valid? Is it secure? These are the goals of any high-stakes test, no matter how it was designed." 

Chris agreed that the point of an English language test (ELT) is to ensure students can cope with the level of English being taught, because otherwise it's unethical to recruit those students. While he acknowledged the skepticism towards newer tests—due perhaps to their use of AI, or offering a lower price point—he thinks this is the wrong perspective. 

"The question should be, why aren’t we making all tests more accessible?" he asked. "Why aren’t we focusing on the student experience, and asking ourselves what we can do to remove barriers?" 

Students have choices, too 

While the UK has wavered in its acceptance of digital tests, other major English speaking markets such as the US and Canada have not; the panel acknowledged that increasingly, this influences students’ choices, as many have begun to choose universities based on whether they accept the tests they’re able to afford. 

"The UK makes things so complex for students, and so costly," said Chris. "We’ve put so many barriers in place that at a certain point, students will ask themselves, 'is it worth it?'" 

“We’ve put so many barriers in place that at a certain point, students will ask themselves, ‘is it worth it?’” 

Audience member Joël McConnell of Imperial College London said that’s exactly why his institution has remained steadfast in accepting the DET.  "Thinking about making this as frictionless as possible from the start is why we’ve stuck with it," he said. "And unlike other tests, it’s mission driven; we actually find that for a lot of incoming candidates, missions behind organizations really matter."

Conrad agreed that if testing can be streamlined, so much the better. "Students want things in place that make that journey smooth throughout, so they can go on to achieve what they want to do." 

Bridging the generational gap  

Institutions may be historically wary of change, but there’s awareness that the tide is turning. Chris said that because incoming Generation Alpha students are digitally native, they’re quite comfortable with tech, including digital tests.

"The reality is, AI is here—and it’s actually quite effective and efficient," he said. "I think we must embrace it, so we can learn to manage it and use it in the right way." 

Conrad points out that students aren't the only ones to benefit from the evolution of AI, as it also has great potential to lighten the load for teachers, freeing them up to do more interesting, demanding work. "I’m curious to see where it goes, and I’m an optimist, I quite like the excitement of it."

Unsurprisingly, Alina shares in this excitement, but says "you can’t have excitement without some level of stress." She emphasized the need for guidelines, such as the DET’s Responsible AI Standards, to help manage some of the risks that come along with using the latest technologies. 

"I like innovation, but I don’t innovate for the sake of it," she said. "We do it responsibly and rationally, in order to build advantages we can give to stakeholders."

How can institutions move forward? 

When so many decisions are down to committee consensus, agile decision making can seem impossible. But each of the panelists has experience bringing change in industries and institutions inclined to maintaining the status quo. Their advice is to move quickly and begin laying the groundwork needed to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.  

"Everyone has seen the numbers, and everyone is getting worried," said Chris. "But this presents an opportunity: we must use the burning platform that we see now to push change forward." 

"We must use the burning platform that we see now to push change forward.”

According to Chris, this will require many conversations with stakeholders, and perhaps altering committee structures or making other structural changes to enable faster decision making. 

"You need champions to push change forward, but you also need the right evidence, as having a true understanding of the product is crucial," he said. To this end, he emphasized that working in collaboration with testing organizations can give institutions an advantage. 

Alina agreed, saying she hopes institutions will see test providers as key resources in navigating their options. "There are many conversations that must happen between different communities in the UK about the acceptance of a test," she said. "I hope we can be good partners to these communities, and that these conversations will help us to use evidence and data in our decision making." 

Choice is good for students and institutions  

The panel concluded on an optimistic note, as Chris, Conrad and Alina agreed that the sector is primed for changes that will benefit all stakeholders. Conrad said he hopes his peers will take a collaborative approach to address the looming admissions crisis, and keep an open mind.  

"There’s resistance to newer tests, but there’s been a slow acceptance as well, driven by the fact that we need enrollments," he said. "So why wouldn't we go for something like the DET, which has proven it can bring in students?"

"Students are important stakeholders, as well." 

Alina said that when it comes to choosing tests, decision makers should consider multiple users and stakeholders: the English department, the teaching department, the admissions department of course—"but not forgetting the students themselves," she said. "Students are important stakeholders, as well."

Chris agreed that at the end of the day, institutions should be motivated to offer choice, because this is what newer generations of students have come to expect. He drew on his own experience as an international student to point out that offering testing options is about more than an institution’s bottom line: "We must remember that for students, this is the investment of a lifetime."