By ALLISON HORE
Sydney is a multicultural city where many migrants speak English as a second language and international students bringing in millions of dollars per year.
In central Sydney, only 23 per cent of people speak only English at home, according to the 2016 census, with Mandarin, Thai and Indonesian making up the most common languages other than English spoken in Sydney households.
In the Coalition’s new Cabinet, David Coleman has retained his role of Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs.
In Mr Coleman’s own seat of Banks, which covers Sydney’s south west, more than 40 per cent of residents speak a language other than English at home.
To be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship, migrants must prove their English language ability by completing a test, the most popular being the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam – a test which has a listening, reading, writing and speaking paper and is scored along nine bands.
Testing not an exact science
In October 2017, the Government moved to toughen the English language requirements for migrants seeking citizenship. Initially, the government wanted migrants to score six across all skills but the Senate blocked the changes and the requirement was scaled down to a “more moderate” five. Whether the Government decides to attempt the move again in this term remains to be seen.
The English language testing used to determine a student’s readiness for university or a person’s eligibility for immigration isn’t an exact science, and is big business for test providers.
Those taking the IELTS test must pay $330 for each attempt, and if they do not score the band they need in one section they must re-sit the entire test.
“I have so far spent approximately $8,000 on tests and coaching but every time I have fallen short by a very small margin. Something that I fail to understand is how come I haven’t been able to improve my writing despite having improvement in all other areas,” one candidate who has taken the test over 20 times told SBS Punjabi.
Although the candidate achieved a near perfect score in three sections, it was her writing score that prevented her getting the band she needed.
“It costs me too much because every time I pay $330 for the exam and the travel expenses, my husband has to leave work to take care of our baby every Saturday while I take this exam.”
And after completing the exam, the score earned lasts only two years, meaning candidates have to sit the test again if they want to maintain a valid score.
Greens candidate for the Queensland Senate Navdeep Singh told SBS Punjabi that he believes the system needs a major overhaul.
“It should be urgently reviewed as there are flaws in this system. Why are we forcing migrants to sit this test again and again? I wonder how your English can expire,” Mr. Singh asks.
“I know people who are under severe depression. They’re frustrated with their repeated failure to get through the English requirement. Some of them had to sit in this exam over ten times.”
IELTS isn’t the only testing system which immigration officials and education providers use to assess a person’s language ability. Other testing systems like the Pearson Test of English (PTE) are also used, but they also have their flaws and even native speakers can fall into the gaps.
In 2017, an Irish vet, Louise Kennedy, who had earned two degrees in Australia, did not reach the required English language score to apply for permanent residency in Australia. While she “blitzed” all other sections, her score on the computer-assessed PTE speaking test was not high enough for her to be given permanent residency.
English programs an investment
Last year, Mr Coleman said the government was “in consultations” to reintroduce elements of the controversial legislation which was quashed in the Senate.
“Having some English is obviously a good thing in Australian life,” he said.
“The more English people are able to speak, the more they can contribute in Australian life.”
Currently, new migrants are entitled to 510 hours of English language training to help them settle. Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi says the key to ensuring migrants and refugees can integrate and participate in their communities is not more testing, but investing in further training.
“The cost of an English program that is holistic and that provides support to migrant communities is actually not a cost – it is an investment,” she told SBS News.
“Basic access to education and employment comes through language. That is the real critical importance of these programs.”
With the Coalition back in business and Mr Coleman retaining his portfolio, time will tell whether or not stricter English language requirements will be championed again.