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“Unlimited English” for migrants, promises Australian government

Permanent residents of Australia and citizens with “poor English” will be offered unlimited English classes for free, acting immigration minister Alan Tudge has promised. The minister estimated that “close to a million” residents of Australia, half of them of working age, do not “speak English well,” based on 2006 and 2016 census data.

New draft legislation will scrap existing limits on the $1 billion-a- year Australian Migrant English Program (AMEP) – currently restricted to 510 hours of free English training, with eligibility limited to five years after arrival in Australia. Migrants will now be offered English at whatever level they need to start “vocational training”.

Tudge claimed that in its current form, the migrant adult English offering was “not having sufficient impact.” Most students using it only complete 300 or so hours out of the 510 available, with only one in five participants having a “functional level of English” at the end of their studies.

He added that the current classroom-based provision isn’t flexible enough for “employers and parents,” nor does it make use

of developments in “education technology” – hinting that more offerings would be delivered online in the future.

While the exact type of education technology referred to by the minister has not been made clear, there are fears that talk of flexibility suggests online self- study may be on the cards, an approach which failed completely when it was tried with UK migrants 20 years ago, although online taught classes may also be on the agenda.

AMEP expert Dr Sue Ollerhead, of Macquarie University’s School of Education, told the Gazette she had “reservations” about greater use of technology. She expressed concern that online tuition would mean that, “migrants will effectively be isolated in their homes, learning English via screens, and failing to develop the social capital that only comes with face-to-face social interaction.” (See full comment here.)

Unlimited English lessons will also be tied to stricter citizenship test requirements for naturalisation, including a “strengthened” statement on “liberal democratic values” that new Australians will have to sign. The move comes after record- breaking naturalisation figures for the year up to the end of August 2020 – 200,000 residents became Australians, many in virtual ceremonies held online.

In his announcement, Tudge noted that, “This is not to blame anyone whose English language proficiency is poor, but clearly full participation in the community is difficult when there are language barriers. Without English language skills, migrants are less likely to get a job, less likely to integrate, and less likely to participate in our democracy.”

He added that migrants with

poor English were vulnerable to, “malign information or propaganda… spread through multi-cultural media, including foreign-language media controlled or funded by state players.”

In a separate development, the Australian government announced in the October budget that applicants for a spousal visa, needed to move to the country in order to marry a citizen or resident, would have to first pass an English language test (see Global News on page 8 for details).

Matt Salusbury
Matt Salusbury
MATT SALUSBURY, news editor and journalist, has worked for EL Gazette since 2007. He is also joint Chair of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists and co-edits its newsletter, the Freelance. He taught English language for 15 years in the Netherlands, in Turkey, in a North London further education college and now as an English for Academic Purposes tutor, most recently at the London School of Economics. He is a native English speaker and is also fluent in Dutch.
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