The discursive construction of “security”: An analysis of the UK Secure English Language Testing policy

Johann Unger, Luke Harding, and Tineke Brunfaut

Project description:

Current conceptualizations of language assessment would hold that the central concern of assessment should be construct validity: the adequacy of inferences based on test scores for decision-making. From this perspective, the quality, fairness and ultimate usefulness of a language test for a specific purpose or context should be determined through careful, evidence-based reasoning. However in many policy contexts other considerations might overshadow this approach to the judgement of whether a test is fit for purpose. One such example is the emergence in recent years of policy surrounding “Secure English Language Tests” (henceforth SELTs) in the United Kingdom (UK), which are recognised, and condoned, by the UK Home Office as suitable tests for immigration and visa purposes. In place of discussions of test quality and usefulness, the notion of “security” has emerged as a significant feature in the discourse of politicians, in official documentation on UK Home Office websites, and subsequently in the news media. At a basic level, “test security” is connected with vigilance against cheating and fraud, the provision of biometric data through which to determine identity, and with secure processes for data handling and reporting of results. However discourse surrounding SELT policy has frequently linked test security at the technical level with issues of national security, in effect drawing language testing into a broader narrative of security in UK immigration policy.

Our research seeks to apply a critical discourse studies approach to a language testing issue. A range of documents relating to the SELT policy in the United Kingdom are analysed through a discourse-historical lens (see Reisigl & Wodak, 2009), with a view to revealing the manner in which security has become a prominent concern in the development of language proficiency requirements for immigration purposes. We have explored the background to the SELT policy and analysed documents including UK Home Office website information, parliamentary records, news media, and the documents provided in the most recent (2014) tender round for selecting Secure English Language Tests (which have been acquired through the Freedom of Information Act). The analyses illustrate how security has been constructed across different government channels over time. We argue that the proximity of questions of language test security with broader issues of national security in public discourse on language testing suggests that “security” is functioning as a topos – a generalised warrant that does not need detailed explanation to be persuasive in arguments – to support claims of the strength and fairness of immigration policy more broadly.

Publication (open access): Harding, L., Brunfaut, T., & Unger, J. W. (2020). Language testing in the ‘hostile environment’: The discursive construction of ‘secure English language testing’ in the United Kingdom. Applied Linguistics, 41(5), 662-687.

Presentation: LTRC 2016 (Palermo, 23 June 2016) Work-in-Progress presentation