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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 will have enough time to go through the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) 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 benefit 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 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 specialized language tests have entered the country recently, such TOPE (Test of Professional English), TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and BULATS.

Many administrators of these tests are cooperating with the government in order to gain a larger share of 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 its staff to take the test.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security is working with TOEIC.

China is still an importer in the educational sector. Its existing university system cannot meet the demands of the job market, said Tan Yijian, dean of Guangzhou's Alcanta College of Foreign Languages.

Certificates and degrees are highly valued by prospective employers and universities. Because China is short of domestic certificates, there is a large demand for foreign tests, said Tan.

"The sector is still at an initial stage that targets foreign company staff and students who want to go abroad. When it starts to target the numerous domestic enterprises, the real growth in the sector will come," said Ding Haoyu, dean of Guangdong Wantong TOEIC Training School.

The increasing number of tests brings a bright future for the language-training sector.

There are more than 500,000 places filled annually in training schools in China, according to the 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 new foreign tests, said Zhou Chenggang, vice president of the group.

"Besides the traditional programs for TOEFL, GRE and IELTS, we started courses on TOEIC last year," Zhou said.

He added that the company is doing market research on BULATS: "If the domestic market recognizes the test, we will soon offer the related training programs."

Zhou said start-up costs for new programs are large, including studying and analyzing the characteristics of the tests, developing teaching materials and recruiting teachers.

Zhou Yong, president of the Anglo-Chinese Education Training Center (ACE), takes a somewhat different view. "What students need is no longer a certificate, but rather the true skills that can help them achieve in their careers and studies in the future."

ACE began as a consortium of Chinese and British universities, providing a foundation year program 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-life situations. So the primary task for training schools is to improve their ability," Zhou Yong said.

Education is a long-term undertaking and no one in the industry should expect any quick money, he added.

Zhou Chenggang says that New Oriental is also developing non-test programs that aim to improve students' abilities.

(Xinhua News Agency May 31, 2004)

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