English tests trigger gold rush in China
Lan Lin, a sophomore university student in Beijing is busy planning her summer vacation, but does not plan to travel or do any part-time work. She will enroll in a training school to improve her English.
"I need to prepare for TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) during the holiday, so that I may have enough time to go through GRE (Graduate Record Examination) in the next semester," she said.
Lan's boyfriend, a joint-venture employee, also studies at an evening school, preparing for BULATS (Business Language Testing Service), a professional English test.
Lan and her boyfriend are typical of hundreds of thousands of Chinese who are keen on various foreign tests, which they believe will greatly help their future career and studies.
The trend has attracted the attention of foreign testers and also created huge potential for the training sector.
The IELTS alone attracts more than 90,000 Chinese to sit for the exam each year, according to statistics from the British Council, the cultural and educational section of the British Embassy in China.
Besides TOEFL and IELTS, which have been in China for many years, some new professional language tests entered the country recently, such TOPE (Test of Professional English), TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and BULATS.
Many of these tests have chosen to co-operate with the government, in order to share a larger slice of cake in the market.
The BULATS has been adopted by the Central Personnel Testing Authority and is being used by personnel authorities throughout China, according to Brendan McSharry, country exams manager of the British Council.
He told China Business Weekly that the Shanghai municipal government now requires all their staff to take the test.
The TOEIC is co-operating with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
Insiders pointed out the reason why foreign tests have their eyes on China is that the country is still an importer in the educational sector.
China's existing university system cannot meet the demands of the job market, said Tan Yijian, dean of Guangzhou-based Alcanta College of Foreign Languages.
Under the current educational system, certificates and degrees are highly valued by prospective employers and universities. Because China is short of domestic certificate brands there is a large demand for foreign tests, said Tan.
"The sector is still at an initial stage, which currently targets foreign company staff and students who want to go abroad. When it starts to target the numerous domestic enterprises, the real spring of the sector will come," said Ding Haoyu, dean of Guangdong Wantong TOEIC Training School.
The entry of an increasing number of tests brings a bright future for the training sector.
There are more than 500,000 places filled annually in training schools in China, according to statistics from New Oriental Education and Technology Group, China's largest training school.
The group, which has 12 branches throughout the country, updates its curriculum in strict accordance with the newly arrived foreign tests, said Zhou Chenggang, vice-president of the group.
"Besides the traditional programmes for TOEFL, GRE and IELTS, we started courses on TOEIC last year," Zhou said.
He told China Business Weekly that the company is doing market research on BULATS: "If the domestic market recognizes the test, we will soon carry out the relevant training programmes."
Zhou said there is a large cost to start new programmes, including studying and analyzing the characteristics of the tests, developing teaching materials and recruiting teachers.
"Our aim is to offer the best programme to the students, and help them achieve their best in exams," Zhou said.
"No other training schools can compete with us in respect of preparing for exams, no matter if the school is local or foreign-funded," he said.
Zhou Yong, president of the Anglo-Chinese Education Training Centre (ACE), does not agree with Zhou Chenggang's comment.
"What students need is no longer a certificate, but rather the true skills, which can help them achieve in their careers and studies in the future," Zhou Yong said.
ACE is operating a consortium between Chinese and British universities, providing a foundation year programme in China's five cities.
The company recently enlarged its partners to include Australian universities.
"It happens widely that Chinese students achieve high marks in IELTS or TOEFL, but they find it extremely difficult to communicate with English speakers in real situations. So the primary task for training schools is to improve their ability," Zhou Yong said.
Education is a long-term industry, and no one should expect any quick money, he added.
Zhou Chenggang agrees, saying the New Oriental is developing non-test programmes, which aim to improve students' abilities.