The attitudes of IELTS stakeholders: student and staff perceptions of IELTS in Australian, UK and Chinese tertiary institutions


David Coleman

Sue Starfield

Anne Hagan

Date Published:

17th April 2003

This report presents the findings of a three-nation study which examined stakeholder attitudes to the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). With research undertaken in Australia, the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom, the perceptions and perspectives of university staff and students were measured via quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Staff and student surveys were distributed, culminating in a total respondent group of 624. To triangulate the data, 37 qualitative interviews were conducted. The student group consisted of currently enrolled tertiary degree students who had provided an IELTS score in partial fulfilment of university admissions. The staff group consisted of persons in academic and administrative positions at the focal institutions.

As an inductive study, various themes were highlighted in the research instruments. These included: knowledge areas; perceptual/attitudinal areas; beliefs regarding the predictive nature of IELTS vis-a-vis university demands; the appropriateness of entry levels; and perceptions of unprincipled activity. In general, the greatest areas of difference existed between the staff and student groups, irrespective of institutional location. Students were, on the whole, more knowledgeable than staff on a wide range of themes related to the IELTS test. Both staff and students indicated that the purpose of the IELTS test is primarily functional (ie university entry), with a secondary learning/skill improvement role.

Overall, respondents perceived the IELTS test to have high validity, but staff and student respondents differed over the predictive nature of the IELTS test score in relation to English levels required for university study. Students were generally satisfied with the IELTS entry scores used by their institutions and were, on the whole, positive regarding the relationship between English language skills demonstrated by an IELTS score and language abilities necessary to succeed in a university environment. In contrast, staff respondents generally wished for an increase in their institution's minimum IELTS entry score, and were on the whole less satisfied with English language abilities.

There were some perceptions of unprincipled uses of the IELTS test. This related particularly to the admission of students with IELTS scores below the institutional minimum entry cut-off value.

Among the general conclusions, it is suggested that past IELTS participants should be included in policy reviews of institutional English language standards. Greater effort should be made to educate tertiary staff about the form and function of the IELTS test, and about the meaning of IELTS scores. Research into the evolving nature of authentic classroom genres is suggested and it is proposed that the washback effects of IELTS might be used to better prepare students for the complex 'real-world' academic language tasks they will encounter.