Are IELTS requirements too low for international students in the UK?
International students are significantly held back by low IELTS scores, study shows. Source: Shutterstock

Recent research indicates that the UK government’s minimum IELTS score should be higher, as the current requirement of 5.5 is leading to international students not understanding course content and unable to obtain top grades.

The study found that international students with IELTS scores between one and two points above the minimum requirement of 5.5 were significantly disadvantaged compared to domestic students.

Although the 63 newly arrived Chinese students and the 64 domestic students showed similar non-verbal intelligence levels, the study revealed Chinese students had about half the vocabulary as their UK peers.

This language barrier led to the Chinese students taking twice as long to understanding academic texts and difficulties in summarising ideas in their own words.

Chinese students are significantly disadvantaged compared to those from the UK. Source:

“They were at a striking disadvantage regarding the language skills that are essential for academic success, despite arriving with a proficiency well above the government’s minimum threshold,” the report’s co-author, Danijela Trenkic, wrote in an opinion piece for the Times Higher Education.  

“To put this in context, their difficulties with reading and writing were far greater than those reported on the same tests for home students with dyslexia.”

The researchers repeated the study at the end of the students’ first academic year to see if a year of language immersion had improved their proficiency. The findings were unchanged.

“Greater caution is clearly required in setting language entry requirements; assumptions that students will quickly catch up when immersed in the environment are unrealistic even when dedicated language support is provided,” wrote Trenkic.

To help bridge the language gap between international students and their UK peers, universities could give students extra time in exams and allow them to use a dictionary, and increase teaching time to reflect their slower learning patterns.

Trenkic notes that international students who achieved 7.5 in their IELTS were likely to score a whole degree classification above those who scored 6.5, despite the government requirement being 5.5.

An international student who is coming to study in the UK may assume their language will not be a barrier to their academic success if they have met the requirements. However, this study tells a different story.

“International students are hugely important to UK universities, financially, culturally and academically. It is only right, therefore, that the sector and its regulators do not turn a blind eye to the differential attainment problem they face – and to the important role that language plays in it,” she concludes.

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