Intermediate English language proficiency: the new requirement for international students

What is the minimum level of English you’ll need to get a student visa

22 August 2011.

From 21 April 2011, students coming to study at degree level will need to speak English at an 'upper intermediate' (B2) level, rather than the current 'lower intermediate' (B1) requirement on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR), in each of the 4 components: speaking; listening; reading; and writing.

UK Border Agency staff will be able to refuse entry to students who cannot speak English without an interpreter, and who therefore clearly do not meet the minimum standard.

The ability to meet the level of English language proficiency required from a student applying for a course held in the UK is mandatory.  If you cannot meet this level, your application will be refused.

The level is measured according to the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). From 21 April 2011, the required level for Tier 4 (General) students is intermediate: upper intermediate (level B2) for degree level studies; lower intermediate (level B1) for non-degree level studies or pre-sessional courses.

All Tier 4 Sponsors are to assess their prospective students’ level of English proficiency as part of their academic competence test to gauge the student’s ability to follow a particular course.

If you are to attend a degree level course at a higher education institute (HEI), your CEFR level B2 of English proficiency in all 4 components (speaking; listening; reading; and writing) will be vouched for by the HEI in the confirmation of acceptance of studies letter (CAS), according to their own methods of testing.

If you are to attend a below-degree level course, your CAS will need to include your Secure English Language Test (SELT) certificate that proves your CEFR level B1 of English proficiency with the scores of all 4 components.

If you were assigned a CAS before 21 April 2011, based on an assessment of your English language ability under the requirements in place before that date, you may use that CAS as the basis of your application under Tier 4 (General).

Let’s go through the details of the current requirements.

Degree level studies:

For students planning to study at a higher education institution (HEI) at NQF/QCF 6 (SCQF 9) and above, a Secure English Language Test (SELT) certificate is not required: the HEI can vouch on the conformation of acceptance for studies (CAS) that you have attained B2 level on the CEFR in all 4 components.

The HEI must be satisfied that level B2 has been attained, through whichever method of assessment they deem appropriate.

If the HEI is using a test offered by a provider on the UK Border Agency’s approved list to assess English language, and the student does not meet the minimum scores for B2 in all 4 competencies, they may be able to come for a short pre-sessional course to bring their level of English up to B2 level, or they may be re-tested.

Where the student will be undertaking a pre-sessional course of up to 3 months’ length, and has an unconditional offer to progress to a degree- level course, a single CAS can be issued for the pre-sessional and the main course; the HEI can vouch on the CAS that the student has attained B1 level on the CEFR in all 4 components; and a single grant of leave will be issued to cover the pre-sessional and the main course.

The English proficiency requirement may be waived for gifted students if the HEI believes that the student is outstanding in their field and, because of the nature of the student’s course of study, English language proficiency is not integral to that course and a pre-sessional course would be inappropriate or not possible. These cases however are to be exceptional and very few in number each year.

Below-degree level studies:

Students planning to study at NQF/QCF levels 3 and 5 (SCQF 6-8) will need to produce a Secure English Language Test (SELT) certificate from a UK Border Agency approved provider, showing that they have achieved level B1 on the CEFR in all 4 components.

If a below degree-level CAS is being assigned by an HEI, it must include all SELT component scores in the CAS.

Exceptions to the English Language requirement

A student will automatically meet the English language requirements if he or she:

• is a national of a majority English-speaking country, that is: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Christopher (Kitts) and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States of America; or

• has completed a qualification equivalent to a UK bachelor's degree or above, taught in English in the UK or in a majority English-speaking country (except Canada); or

• has successfully completed a course in the UK, which must have lasted for at least 6 months, and must have ended no more than 2 years before the date when the sponsor assigns the CAS letter as either:

– a Tier 4 (Child) student; or
– under the student rules that were in force before 31 March 2009, if they were given permission to stay in the UK while they were under 18 years old

All levels: interviews by Entry Clearance Officers/Border Force Officers

As part of your application or when entering the UK, , entry clearance officers/border force officers may ask you to attend an interview to assess whether you are able to answer very basic questions in English that a person proficient at level B1 or B2 would be expected to know. The officer will not judge whether level B1 or B2 has been obtained, only whether you can hold a simple conversation without an interpreter.

If you have been assigned a CAS on or after 21 April 2011, and you cannot hold a simple conversation without an interpreter at an interview, the required level of English has clearly not been attained: your entry clearance application will be refused or you will be refused permission to enter the UK, regardless your SELT certificate.

English language courses for beginners

Beginners may apply for a student visitor visa to study courses below level B2, for a maximum of 6 months and with no entitlement to work. The student visitor visa is not part of Tier 4.

The Student visitor route is designed to accommodate short periods of study. Students wishing to pursue longer courses need to do so through Tier 4 of PBS where they qualify.

22 August 2011
Greenfields Solicitors
Edited by Federica Gaida

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  Disclaimer: The above article is meant to be relied upon as an informative article and in no way constitutes legal advice. Information is offered for general information purposes only, based on the current law when the information was first displayed on this website. 
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