Expert advice

Workforce: The irony of easing the language test for overseas nurses

Barriers for non-EU nurses are falling to help solve a self-made shortage, says James Buchan

The barriers for non-EU nurses are falling to help solve a self-made shortage, says James Buchan

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Christmas has come early for some overseas-trained nurses. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has lowered the pass mark in the written English language test for international nurses applying to work in the UK.

This means that an estimated 1,000 overseas-trained nurses who have failed the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) written test in the past two years may now become eligible to join the UK register. Lowering the bar will also help new international applicants.

The NMC had come under increasing pressure from recruitment agencies and employers, who argued that the written language test was too difficult and was a barrier to international recruitment. Even native English-speaking nurses from countries such as Australia were reportedly failing the test.

Vacancies increase the pressure

The NMC resisted at first, arguing that the IELTS test was calibrated at a similar level to those for other health professions, and stressing that it was not its role to solve the UK nursing shortage. But 40,000 vacant nursing posts are difficult to ignore, and the recruiters have now achieved their aim of making the written test less stringent.

In the same week that the NMC announced its easing of test requirements, it was also reported that the UK government will relax its immigration requirements to allow more doctors to be recruited from non-European Union (EU) countries. The NMC is reducing the IELTS written test pass score from 7.0 to 6.5, though a minimum score of 7.0 will still be required in tests for reading, listening and speaking.

Brexit uncertainties

At a time when the broader political landscape remains clouded by Brexit uncertainties, driven by the prime minister’s stated aim of ending free movement, it is not difficult to find a deep irony here.

The UK is becoming increasingly reliant on recruiting nurses from non-EU countries. The number is up from 2,500 in 2016-17 to more than 4,000 in 2017-18, and likely to rise further.

Not for the first time, UK employers are aiming to use the ‘get out of jail free’ card of international recruitment to solve a self-made, domestic nursing shortage.

James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh



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