English centers laugh all the way to the bank on booming IELTS demand

By Dang Khoa   April 26, 2022 | 05:21 pm PT
At 7 p.m. on a Friday in April, an IELTS center in HCMC’s Ba Thang Hai Street is packed with students coming in for evening classes.

At the parking lot, many parents stopped their motorbikes to drop off their children, creating traffic congestion. Many children, in high school uniforms, could not hide their tiredness after a long day.

Inside a classroom, Phan Quoc Cuong of District 3 was quickly having banh mi for dinner before his fourth class of the day from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

He has been extremely busy since the beginning of this year because many parents have also booked him to teach private IELTS (International English Language Testing System) prep courses.

Asides from teaching at the center, he also offers one-on-one sessions for five high school students, helping him earn a monthly income of more than VND30 million (over $1,300).

"There are days when I have to work until 11 p.m.," the 34-year-old full-time English teacher said. When he is not teaching, he spends time grading homework and developing engaging lesson plans for students of different grade levels.

Though inquiries keep pouring in, he has to decline new requests because his schedule, including during weekends, is already full.

"The demand for IELTS is skyrocketing," he says.

Students take part in an IELTS workshop. Photo courtesy of YOLA

Students take part in an IELTS prep course. Photo courtesy of YOLA

This is because more and more universities have made the certificate one of their admission priorities, making the prep courses geese that lay golden eggs for many English tutors and centers.

YOLA, an English language school chain with 16 campuses in Hanoi and HCMC, says the number of people signing up for IELTS courses has increased by 20 percent.

"Many high school students sign up for classes at weekends and at night," a YOLA spokesperson said.

Similarly, the number of IELTS students at IPP has also gone up.

Tu Pham, the head of IPP, an English language school with campuses in Hanoi and HCMC, said before universities made IELTS an admission criterion, only 30 percent of IELTS students were in high school, but the figure has now risen to 75 percent.

To capitalize on the demand, many English tutors and centers are offering a variety of courses of varying lengths.

Many centers heavily promote intensive online courses for students who want to achieve high scores in as little as two months.

YOLA offers a 30-month course with two to three classes a week for those who have just started high school, an 18-month course for those in 11th grade and a six-month course for seniors. Each course lasts an average of 80 hours, and the center charges VND200,000 per hour.

An English school in HCMC's Tan Phu District advertises that it can help students achieve a 6.5 score through a 72-hour course that costs VND5 million.

Some students who scored 8.0 and more are offering their own prep courses.

Nguyen Hai An, an English teacher in Hanoi's Long Bien District, says she and many of her colleagues have greatly benefited from the IELTS craze.

She points out that students have to spend tens of millions of dong on various courses before taking the IELTS test.

Not only English teachers and language schools, but also IELTS test centers benefit hugely since many students have to retake the test multiple times to get a desirable score, she says.

In fact, the British Council, one of the two test centers in Vietnam, is fully booked for April. It organizes weekly IELTS tests and charges candidates more than VND4.4 million.

In HCMC, the earliest available day for the test at IDP is April 30, but even that day is almost fully taken.

Alex Rieger, an English teacher in Can Tho City, says: "The IELTS exam provides students with a framework for improving their English proficiency. In many ways, it’s a key to new opportunities, so many young adults are eager to get a high score".

Sam Morris, an English teacher at Wellspring Saigon International Bilingual School, points out that a high IELTS score means students going abroad avoid spending an extra year studying English.

"IELTS also teaches students how to write an academic paper properly and speak publicly on difficult topics. These will greatly benefit students going to colleges or universities abroad".

Hungry learners

In 2017 only a few colleges had IELTS as an admission criterion. But that number increased last year when more than 30 schools incorporated it into the admission process. Though statistics are not available, it is expected that this year more schools will prioritize candidates with strong foreign language skills.

Now parents are willing to spend money and time as long as their children can get better scores.

The IELTS clamor has spread even to rural areas, with students seeking to study under city-based teachers.

"Can anyone please recommend me a reputable IELTS language center in Hai Duong Province or Hanoi?" Thao Duong posted the question on 'Tu Hoc IELTS 8.0' (IELTS 8.0 self-study), an online group with over 400,000 members where people share tips and experiences on studying for and taking the test.

Many members of this group have stated that they are willing to travel to HCMC or Hanoi's outskirts districts to attend language schools that will help them achieve high scores.

Since candidates with a score of 6.5 or higher are given preference, many parents now see IELTS as a ticket for their children to enter top universities, and are willing to spend top dollar on prep courses for them to begin training early and retaking the test to get better scores.

Speaking about her 12th-grade son's preparation for the IELTS exam, Phan Nguyen Thuy Kieu of HCMC's District 3 says she put him in prep courses when he was in 11th grade to increase his chances of admission to prestigious universities.

Though he had a solid foundation in English, she still put him in a well-known center "just to be sure". The IELTS preparation course covered all of the exam fundamentals, including vocabulary and grammar in all four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

"After completing the Pre-IELTS course, my son's writing skill was still poor, and so I hired a private tutor to work with him one-on-one," she says.

Her son has an IELTS score of 7.0, but it cost Kieu more than VND50 million.

An IELTS examiner screens candidates’ body temperatures before letting them get into the testing room in February 2022. Photo courtesy of IDPs Facebook

An IELTS examiner screens candidates’ body temperatures before letting them get into the testing room in February 2022. Photo courtesy of IDP's Facebook

Many high school students also take the test to improve their employment opportunities in the future.

Bao Tram, a 12th grader in Hanoi, began studying IELTS in grade 10 and scored poorly because she found studying at home ineffective.

"I retook the test in 11th grade after studying at a language center and got a 5.5.

"I want to improve my score further and increase my chances of admission to universities and boost my career prospects, and so I am taking classes from a private tutor to improve my writing and speaking skills".

She adds that her family has spent more than VND50 million on her preparatory courses alone.

According to experts, Vietnam's English teaching market is booming and will continue to do so, especially since more and more universities are prioritizing IELTS scores and more students wish to study abroad.

"The demand for academic English such as IELTS will increase as more schools use this test as a standard measurement of students' language proficiency," the YOLA spokesperson says.

"Moreover, people will need to learn English since it will provide them more opportunities for getting scholarships and improve their career prospects".

Rieger says: "Many travel plans were put off the last couple of years, so now those people are looking to take the test as international travel is open now. So that means more students".

Back at the IELTS center on HCMC’s Ba Thang Hai Street, a group of six 17-year-olds is in Cuong's class for a listening lesson.

They listen to a back-and-forth English conversation before the teacher gives them correct answers and writes all new words on the board.

"I registered for the test in May, and now I only have a month left to prepare," says one of the six, who hopes to get into his preferred university with a 6.5 score.

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