The use of IELTS for assessing immigration eligibility in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom


Glenys Merrifield

Date Published:

12th April 2012

Over the past 20 years, the IELTS Test has been taken up by private bodies, professional associations and governments to fit a number of different purposes requiring assessment of language. One of the more recent uses of the testing system has been as a gateway for people seeking to immigrate or to work or study in a foreign country. This study examines the use of IELTS by immigration authorities in four English-speaking countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The key issues examined in the study were the rationale for the use of language testing for immigration purposes, and the history of the use of IELTS and any alternative language assessment systems accepted by these four countries. Decision-making policies and influences on policies were also examined. The study included: desk research of immigration policies and documents; analysis of alternative examinations and assessment systems; and semi-structured interviews conducted face-to-face, by telephone and by email.

Immigration authorities differed in the range of language assessment systems they accepted and their decision-making processes. Australia and New Zealand officially accepted only IELTS and the occasional Occupational English Test. Canada had approved IELTS and the CELPIP, both benchmarked against the Canadian Language Benchmarks. The United Kingdom Border Agency, on the other hand, had over 30 language assessment systems on the officially accepted list, with many of these having no limit of validity. Of the four countries, New Zealand and Canada had the most established and transparent decision-making systems.

The study found that there was general congruence in the stated purpose of language testing in all four countries. All considered that easier settlement, integration into the community and contribution to workforce knowledge were important outcomes of good English language skills. It was also found that language proficiency thresholds could be manipulated to limit numbers of immigrants and relieve pressure on funding of community support organisations. Regular changes in government policy in threshold language skills were being made during the course of the study in the case of Australia and the UK, aimed at adapting to changes in immigration patterns.

IELTS support services, particularly in relation to security and fraud prevention, are likely to be a major factor in the continued use of the Test for immigration.