If you ask people what it means to be Australian, one answer stands out: the ability to speak English. In this 2015 ANUPoll, 92 per cent of respondents said being able to speak English was important to being Australians.
For those who argue the Turnbull government has no political nous, the proposed changes to Australian citizenship suggest this thesis is at misguided at best. Modifying citizenship, including appealing to “values” but more substantively, by formalising an English language test, will prove to be a popular decision. But what will the broader effects be on migrants?
In his press conference, the Immigration Minister said, “There’s a significant change in relation to the English language requirement which at the moment is basic. We increase that to IELTS Level 6 equivalent, so that is at a competent English language proficiency level and I think there would be wide support for that as well.”
He’s not wrong. This is not just a significant change, it is a fundamental break with established norms. To see why, you have to understand how high a barrier IELTS 6 is for many new migrants.
In 2015, ACIL Allen evaluated the Adult Migrant English Program, or AMEP. Their report is the most up to date assessment for the English literacy of recent migrants. Unfortunately, the AMEP does not use the IELTS system so a clean comparison of new migrants scores isn’t possible. Instead, we need to translate the AMEP system – called ISLPR – into IELTS equivalents:
- In a 2006 Senate Estimates question, the Department of Immigration said an “ISLPR 2” is approximately equal to IELTS 4 or 5.
- In the ACIL Allen review, an AMEP service provider is quoted saying an “ISLPR 2” is equal to IELTS 4.5.
- And finally, Dr. David Ingram, the person who invented these language testing systems, references “Universities that require IELTS 6 for entry to particular courses usually require 3 in all macroskills on the ISLPR” in his submission to the Productivity Commission’s migration intake inquiry.
From this evidence, we can infer IELTS 6, the level of English proposed by the Turnbull government to be eligible for Australian citizenship is equal to ISLPR 3.
What proportion of new migrants get a score of ISLPR 3 after completing their government-allotted 500 hours of English training in the AMEP?
None. Zero per cent.
Based on the enrolments of AMEP from 2004 to 2012 who completed 500 hours of training, 0 per cent of new migrants reached the level required for the new citizenship test.
As per the review, “28 per cent of AMEP clients leave the programme with 0 or 0+ on all four ISLPR elements” and 7 per cent of clients after receiving 500 hours exit at ISLPR 2 (the equivalent of IELTS 4.5).
In 2004-05, about 20,000 new migrants enrolled in AMEP, a number which grew to about 30,000 in 2011-12. 60 per cent of these new migrants in AMEP classes are women and children. Of course, many new migrants do not attend AMEP classes for a variety of reasons. In 2014-15, about 80 per cent of eligible humanitarian migrants attended AMEP, 20 per cent of eligible family migrants and 8 per cent of eligible skilled migrants.
What these figures show is somewhere north of 30,000 people each year will be ineligible for Australian citizenship. While a proportion will increase their English proficiency with time (and outside the classroom), this is a slow and grueling process according to language proficiency literature.
Using conservative estimates of AMEP enrolment trends, the rate of English proficiency improvement over time, and net migration trends, anywhere between 30,000 and 40,000 new migrants each year are highly unlikely to meet the proposed English proficiency level for Australian citizenship in their first decade of settlement.
Over time, this will generate a growing population of people simply excluded from citizenship. It’s impossible to say with any certainty what this will look like over the long-term but available evidence suggests a substantial number of people will never receive Australian citizenship.
Some people might say these new migrants will simply have to learn and this is a good incentive to get it right. A tough love approach. This argument should be called out for what it is: contentment to see people permanently excluded from our society. No voting. No standing for public office. Exclusion from public service employment in many instances. The potential for expulsion from Australia by visa cancellation.
When 35 per cent of humanitarian migrants score the equivalent of an IELTS 2 after their AMEP classes finish, this argument also amounts to specifically refusing citizenship for a proportion of refugee migrants to Australia. This is despite the fact refugees love Australia more than any other group of migrants if you judge this by the number of eligible people who become citizens.
Others might say this means we need to completely tear up English language support and training so people are given the support they need. Perhaps this is true. But we also need to recognise coming to a new country is really difficult. It’s hard enough for rich, English speaking new migrants. Think about a Sudanese single mother with four children who is illiterate in her own language. A formal English language test requiring IELTS 6 is government policy telling this woman she is not welcome as an Australian citizen. And if you think this is a handpicked example on the margins of our migration program, Australia granted 1,277 “Woman at Risk” visas in 2015-16 as part of the annual humanitarian program, for “protection of refugee women who are in particularly vulnerable situations.”
And this doesn’t even get into the issue of married couples separated by an English language test, or children who can easily pass but have to watch their parents excluded.
IELTS Level 6 is by no means perfect English. You can read this practice essay and probably scoff at the simple spelling errors highlighted. The official definition is: “Generally you have an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. You can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.”
But the practical effects are enormous. It amounts to deliberate exclusion of thousands of new migrants from Australian citizenship. Back in 2015, on the same topic, I wrote, “The worst outcome is permanent exclusion from society because barriers to entry are too high. An English language test for citizenship would be such a barrier. This exclusion would occur despite an indefinite right to remain in Australia. A tiered, broken system of residency with little long-term hope.”
While almost all Australians believe speaking English is an important part of what makes someone an Australian, is this the type of society we want to live in?