Building on shaky foundations: China, IELTS and the dash for cash

In 2008, a devastating earthquake measuring around 8 on the Richter scale hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing over 70,000 people. Despite their initially sterling work in responding swiftly to the disaster, the government soon started to come in for stick as details emerged of the thousands of inadequately engineered schoolrooms that had collapsed when the quake hit. The Chinese themselves coined a new phrase that translates as tofu-dregs schoolhouses to convey their disgust at the death traps that had claimed so many young lives. Parents around the province accused local officials and builders of cutting corners in school construction, citing that after the quake other nearby buildings weren’t damaged anything like as badly. In the aftermath of the quake, many local governments promised to formally investigate the school collapses, but little official word followed.

The artist Ai Weiwei started posting the names of dead children on his blog until the content was officially ‘harmonised’. He later made a heart-wrenching installation entitled Remembering on the facade of the building where a retrospective show was held in Munich. It was constructed from 9000 kids’ backpacks and spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake.


A year or so later, a film called DISTURBING THE PEACE emerged and is now available both on DVD and online. The film follows Ai Weiwei’s attempt to attend and protest against the trial of Chinese activist Tan Zuoren, who was charged following his research into the collapse of schools and into student casualties. Should you be interested, you can watch the whole thing here.

Now, you’re doubtless wondering why I’m telling you all of this, aren’t you? Perhaps this is a crass and clumsy metaphor, in which case I apologise in advance, but the issues of cutting corners, building on shaky foundations, purported fast tracks that turn out to be dead ends, the dash for cash and China have all been on my mind of late as my place of work has had a bunch of Chinese students fail their eleven-week pre-sessional courses, be denied access onto the degree courses they had been hoping to take and find themselves instead on General English courses. I’m teaching some of them; colleagues of mine are teaching more. And what’s most notable about them is the fact that they’ve so clearly been hot-housed to pass IELTS that they’ve experienced the linguistic equivalent of stunted growth. Seemingly fed from the very onset of their language-learning careers with the academic word list and Chinese equivalents for each item, along with endless memorised blueprint examples of writing for the different possible permutations of the writing section, they can more or less string groups of abstract nouns together and produce answers to the Writing 1 part of the exam that might just about scrape a 4.5 in the exam, but cope so poorly with everyday English that the bulk of them have ended up in Pre-Intermediate and are having to come to terms with the fact that they’re facing at least a year of intensive General English before they’ll be anywhere near ready to take the test again.

At this stage, I should state categorically that I teach lots of Chinese students and for the most part, love doing so. I’ve learned a lot not only about China, but about life in general from teaching them; I’ve been made to laugh uproariously on more than a few occasions by them; I’ve socialised with them, been to their houses and had them come to mine and stayed in touch with them after they’ve returned home. That’s all by the by.


The crux of the matter is this: now that British universities have introduced fees that exclude large numbers of home students, there’s a dash to attract more foreign students, and obviously this ideally means more foreign students with cash. This in turn means increasing pressure on the institution itself to gear up to processing students through the language training part of their studies so they can get onto the more lucrative under- and post-graduate courses. Inevitably, this means there is at least a temptation to try to force lower-level students through the system. If you add to this the fact that there have been repeated questions about the validity of many IELTS scores, then it should come as no great surprise when institutions such as London Met find themselves in hot water for being unable to produce “proper evidence that the students’ mandatory English levels had been reached”. It’s a slippery slope and if you work in higher ed in the UK, one you’re doubtless also on.


At the same time, schools have emerged around the world – and I’m certainly NOT, by the way, suggesting these issues are in any way unique to China. It’s simply that our latest cohort originate from there – offering short cuts and easy routes to academic success. One of my older Chinese students was telling me recently that many schools advertise themselves as being able to get students from IELTS 0 to 4.5 in a short period of time. However, this is clearly not simply a speedy route to somewhere useful down the line; rather, it’s leading students into dead-ends from which they struggle to retreat.


In much the same way as teachers who have experience in, say, rough inner-city secondary schools and who then embark on CELTA courses often struggle more than the fresh-faced raw recruits simply because they have to unlearn much of what has become ingrained before they are even at the starting point the others begin from, so too this new breed of learner at some point has to come face-to-face with the facts and realise they’re miles from where they need to be, and that to go forward, they first need to go back (to basics) and learn, for instance, that we say DO you enjoy it, not ARE you enjoy it because ENJOY is a verb not an adjective.

Anything that we as teachers can do to dispel the notion of quick fixes and magic bullets and to gently break the news of the long, hard slog ahead to the already disheartened can only be for the good.

As the old saying has it, the road is made is walking.


12 responses

  1. Hugh,

    Powerful and well-worded post – esp. that 2nd to last sentence of yours.

    Magic bullets, quick fixes and miracle cures – the heart and soul of so much of the so-called “content” on the internet and ELT blogosphere. As you say, not only a Chinese problem – not at all.

    Sadly, many other organisations (even the ones we might expect more from – esp. when we read their “ethics statements”) are putting profit before LEARNing – and their currency is usually “promises” that can never be filled.

    Take care,


    1. Hi Tony –
      Thanks for reading and for the comment.
      As my granddad always told me, the best way to ensure you always keep your promises is to never make any!
      I see this desire for results asap reflected in students all too often.
      I recently had a guy come in who wanted his wife to pass IELTS at 6.5.
      She’s been in the country for a year, studying, and had taken the test four times (apparently in the hope that it might on at least one occasion be an easier version!) and had got 5.5 every single time. He told me she needed to go up one whole point and asked when we could promise to get her to this exalted position. I asked when she needed to be there and was told “Yesterday!” I laughed, said that might not prove possible and was then told “OK. Tomorrow”.
      I gave my standard schpiel about 150 hours minimum study time being necessary for even a 0.5 increase and lost the customer as this wasn’t what they wanted to hear. I’m sure they found somewhere else that is willing to make those promises – and am equally sure she’ll get 5.5 next time around!

      One interesting – and slightly worrying – thing connected to all of this is quite how much vitriol there is out there online directed towards the British Council for what some see as its role in raking in the cash. Slippery slopes indeed.

  2. Hi Hugh – maybe slightly off topic ( and apologies if so) but I think it’s undeniable that many UK universities are seriously compromising their reputations by accepting foreign students whose English is simply not up to scratch. Anecdotal evidence I know, but my son is currently studying at a UK uni ( and one which is regularly in the top 20 of those various Good Uni Guides, incidentally). He recently had to do a seminar presentation where the students had to collaborate in groups of 4. Great idea, but as he said, in an offhand way, ” but 2 of the other guys are Chinese and can’t really speak English so me and X are going to prepare it and then give them their bit to read out”. The uni publishes statistical breakdowns of the cohorts of students who get a mark in each percentile for assessed coursework (21 students got between 50 and 60 % for example) and a staggering number are awarded marks of below 20% which for a social science degree means their work is virtually incomprehensible. What happens to these students at the end of their degree, after they’ve shelled out 60 or 70,000 quid for the privilege of attending a UK university? Frankly, I think it’s scandalous.
    Cheers, Tim

    1. It would seem that your son is not alone Tim!
      I have some sympathy in some situations as I know from experience that despite the language issues some of the people let onto degrees with relatively low scores are still (a) very bright and (b) often well versed in the actual subject – unlike native-speaker undergraduates – as they’ve frequently already done degrees in a similar field in their own language.

      My fear is partly that universities will be forced (or are already being forced) to accept weaker students, as I said here, but also I suppose (1) that lecturers are not being aided or assisted as they have to learn how to adapt their own styles and to present in English as an International Language – or English for foreign students who may not have great language levels, as I prefer to think of it (2) that the students, even if they do manage to get IELTS 6.5, have been so busy focusing almost exclusively on the exam that they’ve not had time or opportunity to learn any of the kind of social English that’d help them integrate better and make friends with exactly the kind of native or more fluent non-natives they most need to know if they’re going to get support!

      As for what happens to these students at the end of their degree, the bottom line is clearly that the vast majority of them pass!
      This has been flagged up and highlighted time and again in recent years, and not only serves to debase the qualifications of offer and alienate bright more fluent students, but also does a profound disservice to the less fluent overseas students who, as you so rightly point out, shell out serious bucks for all of this, often getting very little language support in return, hence the inevitable survival tactics of plagiarism, cutting and pasting and buying whole essays online.

      What I’d really like to see happen – and I know this is pie in the sky as it’s more time and money-consuming – is a far longer run-on period for students. if they turn up with IELTS 4.5, they basically need more like two years intensive English. They may get somewhere near 6.5 after a year or so, but another year would allow time to build up social English / campus English, improve their ability to understand a range of accents, work on core lexis of their own specific fields, really work on their writing and learn more about the UK from a cultural perspective too. Anything less and all concerned are really getting an inferior experience.

      One can but dream!

      1. Agree whole-heartedly will all this, Hugh, and thanks for such an exhaustive reply.

      2. You’re most welcome.
        It’s the post-post chit-chat that makes it all worthwhile!

  3. Good post Hugh. I think there are two main issues – students see IELTS as the end point, as it is of course the ticket to most courses. But getting the score needed should be the starting point of their language development. The second issue is the test itself. It has become very dominant and as a result, it is not really questioned much. However, I am not really convinced the tasks really represent what students need to do at university and the scoring system is very odd. There is a nine point scale but effectively only 5, 6,, 7 have any meaning or use. I think these things should be revised.

    1. Hi Chris –
      I think you’re totally right about the vast majority of students seeing IELTS as the destination rather than the starting point, for sure.
      I’ve also found that for many students, the obsession with actually getting the IELTS blinds them to the route there – the run-up to the starting point, to stretch the metaphor!
      It’s like they’re so focused on the end result that they simply can’t knuckle down and do the hard steps needed to get there.

      The issues with the test itself are worthy of at least a few posts on their own, for sure.
      It’s the problem with much EAP, to be honest. We’ve been forced to invent a kind of ‘general EAP’ which leads to the mad situation of students who’ll be going on to do Computing degrees or Master’s in Philosophy having to slog through dense texts on, say, vehicles fueled by sugar cane derivatives in Brazil or whatever! Any sane institute would be putting students into subject-specific run-up courses where students focus very much on the discourse and lexis of their own specific fields.

      With things like Writing 1 in IELTS, it’s generally a totally fictitious genre of writing.
      I mean, why simply describe random visual data. It’s there as VISUAL DATA and thus doesn’t need describing!
      If anything, at least allow or encourage interpretation!

      I could of course go on . . .

  4. My students are sick of hearing my catchphrase, “No es magia” (it’s not magic!) whenever a student hasn’t done the online component of our blended courses before class, or whenever one of them walks in to class late (often with a stupid grin). But, I think, as some of them struggle through the course and battle to get to grips with some of the new language, they’re coming to see my point. It’s hard work, study, and making the most of our class time that us the recipe for success.

    Saludos from Mexico, Hugh.

    1. Welcome to many of my fears for the current enthusiasm for the flipped classroom, Mark!

      In many ways, much of what’s being suggested by flipping gurus is simply a more glamorous word for homework, and that’s great for those that are keen to study outside of class, but the harsh reality is that it’s STILL going to be a grind to do the hard hours, whichever way the work is dressed up.

      You’d think that as the students I get have decided to invest large sums of money in coming to live in London in order to try and learn better English, they’d all be desperate to do homework, but humans being what we are, some are – and do the slog – whilst plenty others simply don’t have the time (work, kids, etc.) or the focus (trying to read articles in the Telegraph online instead of graded readers, etc.) or the need (I can get by, so why bother).

      Never has the answer “Well, it depends” been more appropriate than in response to the frequently asked questions about when students will be ready for FCE, say, or able to attain IELTS 6.5.

      All we can do is teach the best we can, guide and focus student study outside of class as best we can – and keep encouraging them as they engage in the Sisyphean task ahead of them.

  5. Excellent post, Hugh; well done for addressing this very important issue with your usual calm but critical voice. Great to see a blog that’s got that fine blend of easy, entertaining reading and serious attention to academic and political ELT matters.

    Tim Julian makes a good point about what’s happening in so many UK universities, and I agree 100% with your reply.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. […] In 2008, a devastating earthquake measuring around 8 on the Richter scale hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing over 70,000 people. Despite their initially sterling work in responding swiftl…  […]

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