Most international students enrolling in UK universities have to prove they’re proficient in English

28 July 2023
What was claimed

The UK is one of the only countries in the world where you don’t have to pass an English language proficiency test to study at university.

Our verdict

This is misleading. Although there are a few exceptions, most international students are required to prove they are proficient in English before enrolling at a UK university, and many must take a test in order to do that.

We're one of the only countries in the world [where] you don't have to pass an English language proficiency test to come to university here.

On the BBC’s Politics Live show on 3 July 2023, Reform UK politician Alex Phillips claimed that international students can study at universities in the UK without passing a test to show they are proficient in the English language. 

This claim is misleading, as virtually all international students will either have to pass an English language test or otherwise demonstrate their proficiency before being allowed to enrol on a course. 

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Test requirements

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), proficiency tests are required for those wishing to study in the UK who do not have English as their first language. It adds: “Most courses demand high standards of language skills, which is why they ask international students to take an English language test.”

In addition, government guidance on those wishing to come to the UK on a student visa states that in order to apply: “You must prove you can read, write, speak and understand English to a certain level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale.”

For those wishing to study at degree level, the current requirement is to achieve CEFR level B2 or the equivalent. 

This means a potential student should be able to “understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.”

They also need to show they can: “interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.”

Candidates must also be capable of communicating through the written word and able to produce: “clear detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.”

Those arriving from countries where English is one of the official languages, such as Australia, Malta, Jamaica, St Lucia and the USA, do not have to prove their English proficiency. However, such students still need to provide English language test grades or acceptable evidence to meet the English language requirements for the individual course they wish to study.

Heather Knight, Head of Advice and Training at the UK Council for International Student Affairs told Full Fact: “All international students applying to study in the UK under the Student route are required to meet English language requirements. Educational institutions who sponsor students to apply for a Student visa must assess the English language level of all such applicants. They must be satisfied that a student meets the required level of English language ability, and that this ability is demonstrated through formal English language tests or in other ways detailed in the immigration rules.” 

Among the tests for overseas students accepted by UK universities are the PTE Academic and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Although some online sources suggest that it is possible to join a degree course without passing these tests, such offers are conditional on attending a pre-sessional English course or proving proficiency through some other means, such as an online interview. 

We contacted Ms Phillips about her claims but have not yet had a response. We will update this article if she replies. 

Image courtesy of Cole Keister

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