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Language tests used to determine admissibility into Canada are a ‘money-making machine,’ critic says

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter Canada annually are required to take a language test. But their scores expire within the next two years — one of many problems critics have with the test. 

The Canadian government invited 431,645 permanent residents into the country last year — a record high. Most are required to be proficient in either English or French. 

Applicants can attempt either of the two tests recognized by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) — the Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program (CELPIP) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Both cost more than $250 and the results are only valid for two years. There are also French tests that have the same validity period and cost about the same.

Results from a language test are also sometimes required when immigrants enrol in university or apply for work permits. 

The price of the exam, and potentially having to pay to take it multiple times, is just one issue advocates and prospective residents have with the test. Some see it as an insufficient way of assessing someone’s candidacy for residence in Canada. 

Language abilities ‘being called into question’

Ukwori Ejibe, now an Alberta-resident, moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2020. She holds an undergraduate degree from the U.S. and two master’s degrees — one from Paris and one from Singapore.

But before moving to Canada, she attempted the IELTS test twice in Nigeria, where English is the official language.

Language test scores are assigned a point value. Applicants also get points for things like education and work experience. The more points an applicant has, the greater their chances of becoming a permanent resident.

Ejibe’s first scores in 2016 were not high enough to gain permanent residency. After her second attempt, she was invited to immigrate.

She says she was “quite upset” to learn she’d have to take the test a third time to gain admission to the university program she wanted to attend in B.C. 

“It’s definitely an expensive process to move to Canada, and one of the reasons why it’s so expensive is because the IELTS is not like other processes, that you, hopefully, just do once,” she said.

When Ejibe took the test for the third time, she said she didn’t prepare as much as she had before, but still got a great score. 

“You feel like you’ve gone through all the hurdles and your English abilities are being called into question, and this is for someone who went to school in the U.S. and got educated in Nigeria in English.” 

Tens of students sitting in a class writing an exam.
Filipino workers, including nurses applying to work in United Kingdom, attend a lecture at a review centre for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in Manila, Philippines, in 2019. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

Concern about validity period

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says most people they work with have difficulty passing the test on their first try, even if English is their first and only language. 

“It is a massive money-making machine,” he said, noting the fact that the tests have a two-year expiry date before they have to be taken again makes it apparent that the exams are cash grabs. 

“It just goes to show it’s just a way to get money out of people and not really assess people’s ability to work or live in Canada,” he said. 

The application for permanent residency costs $1,365. Ejibe says she has spent roughly $1,000 on tests alone, and says they just add onto an already expensive process. 

Unlike permanent resident applicants, those seeking citizenship don’t need to take the test again if they’ve passed it once. They can submit their test results even if they’ve expired. 

Ejibe wonders about the rationale behind this.

“If they can do this for citizenship, they should consider it for immigration purposes, too,” she said. 

Elena Ashford, an Ontario-based immigration lawyer, says these English language test scores play a significant role in a person’s eligibility to move to Canada and considers the cost of the tests to be an issue. 

“Many individuals have to retake the test and that’s a lot of money. I don’t understand why the test expires within two years,” she said. 

A man in a black shirt with a mic in front of him, surrounded by banners and flags.
Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, speaks to demonstrators in August 2020 during an event supporting the rights of migrant workers in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in downtown Toronto. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Maintaining proficiency ‘critical’: IRCC

British Council, the U.K.-based organization that offers IELTS, recommends test results remain valid for a period of two years. IRCC says it has followed this recommendation in its policy since it first began using third-party language testing.

IRCC said via email that the two-year validity period is meant to take into consideration factors like how often people actually speak the language they’re supposed to be proficient in, how recently they’ve had instruction in the language and if they’ve maintained their level of language proficiency.

“It is critical to ensure that their language proficiency does not deteriorate over time, prior to landing,” the email said. 

In its emailed response, IRCC said language proficiency is strongly associated with positive economic outcomes and has been shown to have a direct impact on increased earnings and finding suitable employment. 

But some still say the language tests aren’t a reliable indicator of how well a person will do after immigrating to Canada. 

When the temporary resident to permanent residency pathway was introduced in 2021, Hussan says traffic on the language testing sites was so heavy the websites crashed. 

He says using the language tests to determine a person’s ability to thrive in a new country is baseless and thinks it would be better to update the assessment system entirely.

“If you’ve been working in Canada already, that should be proof enough, if you’ve been studying here, that should be proof enough.”

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