Saturday, 16 August 2008

Nowhere left to hide: rampant privatization in EFL

A creeping development in recent years in Greece, at least, has been the privatization of EFL exams. In the good old days in the early 90s there was really only one set of exams in this corner of the Mediterranean: those from the University of Cambridge, and there was only one organization administering them: the British Council.

Now there is a glut of new exams and even more of a glut of organizations competing to administer them. It is getting hard for a conscientious teacher to keep up to date with just what is on the market, how good it is and whether or not it is recognised by the bodies that need to recognise these sorts of things.

The confused teacher almost inevitably begins to wonder if the free market is really an ideal home for EFL exams.

Why not? Doesn't it improve choice? Doesn't it empower the educational consumer who can turn his back on an old-fashioned product that he dislikes because it reeks of stuffy, old, literary England?

But what about the flip side?

If exam boards have to compete with each other in a cut throat market, there is an inevitable tendency to "satisfy the consumer". Now the consumer in this case is more often than not the school (given that most registrations are made through schools). And what, I wonder, do schools want? Since their reputation stands or falls with their pass rate, they obviously want their charges to be given the certificates that are the be all and end all of their expensive education. Perhaps this is the reason that the Michigan exams in Greece are now more popular than the Cambridge exams. They are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be easier - to be a surer bet. Of course an exam must have a certain level of difficulty to be taken seriously as a measure of competence, but there is a grey area which can provide a smokescreen for undesirable developments.

And how did it come about that school owners can turn their schools into examination centres for their own pupils? Of course this cuts costs, which might mean that exams can be offered at a more competitive price, but does it not introduce certain tempations? I am sure that all my colleagues in Greece are spotless and would never allow anything to happen that might give their own students an unfair advantage, but it is easy to imagine a parallel universe in which people with less moral fibre give into temptation and bend the rules in collaboration with examiners who know that their trusted customers must be happy and if they don't do it someone else will.
And then there is the problem of students having to prepare for two exams at the same time. It seems obvious to many school owners that to maximize their students' chances of passing an exam they should be entered for more than one, and must consequently prepare for more than one at the same time. Admittedly, this benefits a few very able students who, quite by chance, have a bad day when it is time for the one exam they really wanted to pass, but my own feeling is that these cases are outweighed by the opposite ones. Aren't quite a lot of pupils stretched too thinly when they are obliged to prepare for two different exams? Wouldn't it be better to concentrate on one and prepare for it more thoroughly?

So what was the reasoning behind this opening up of the market to all and sundry? Was it supposed to be an improvement - a raising of standards in the world of EFL - or was it simply an ideological insistence that there must be no limits to economic liberalization?

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