English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

The ConversationEquating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Not all English tests for foreign students are fraudulent

Sarah Michelotti, University of Surrey

Revelations of fraudulent practices allowing bogus students to obtain visas to study in the UK have been received with shock and disbelief by English language teachers.

An investigation by BBC’s Panorama focused on the sale of fake examination certificates and bank statements to enable students to gain visas to study in the UK. The students then only had to put in an occasional appearance at their college while simultaneously holding down a job.

As an academic working in English Language testing, I was stunned by what I watched on Panorama. It was hardly credible that an invigilator could actually stand in an examination room and read out the answers to a multiple-choice test paper. Equally mind-boggling was the sight of examination candidates making room for surrogate candidates to take their place and complete their exam for them.

The test in question was the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). But this is not the most commonly used test to generate a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), a pre-requisite for people applying for a student visa for the UK.

Stringent anti-fraud measures

There is now a growing fear of the reputational damage the Panorama investigation could have on all English language tests among teachers.

The University of Surrey, like many other higher education institutions, is a centre for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). This system is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP:IELTS Australia, a subsidiary of education company IDP, and the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment. It is one of the most commonly used tests of English for entry to degree programmes in the UK, with more than 2m people taking the IELTS test in 2013.

Over the years, IELTS has introduced a series of security measures aimed at detecting the increasingly ingenious attempts of unscrupulous test-takers to cheat the system. Since 2012, biometric measures have been implemented to assist in combating imposters. These include finger scans and a high-resolution photograph of the candidate that appears on their certificate.

IELTS test centre staff are also trained in impostor detection and fraudulent document recognition. The authenticity of certificates can also be verified online by all recognising organisations that accept IELTS scores.

Examiners, invigilators and administrators at Surrey’s IELTS centre are now concerned that the international reputation of IELTS could suffer as a result of the negative publicity for English language tests. This seems intensely unfair. There are more than 900 locations worldwide, including Surrey, where IELTS is administered and the same high standards of security are demanded in each one.

Value of international students

Many sectors of the population worry about immigration and probably many of their concerns are justified. As usual, it is the law-abiding, bona fide majority who often suffer as a result of the misdemeanours of the minority. In the current case, this minority is a group of opportunistic, profiteering businessmen with extremely dubious notions of ethics, intent on making money out of bogus students.

It is no surprise that the home secretary, Theresa May, wholeheartedly condemned the fraud. The investigation made a mockery of the stringent security measures the government has been applying in an attempt to win voters’ support on the immigration question. And there are some serious implications which go the heart of the higher education sector.

Statistics recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency put the number of international students in UK higher education at 425,265 in 2012-13. These students are highly valued members of our universities – not only for their financial contribution.

Universities UK estimates these students bring in £10.2 billion a year, projected to increase to £17 billion by 2025. But they also make an important contribution to the educational environment in terms of their linguistic and cultural heritage. They create an enriching multicultural experience for all UK students, and bring fresh expertise to our research communities.

They can facilitate links for our UK graduates as they enter the competitive global marketplace. And after graduation, international students retain strong, positive links with the UK. In a 2013 research paper setting out the wider benefits of higher education, the UK government said this “growing ‘army’ of alumni” are going on to act as informal ambassadors for “brand UK”.

The ties forged through the emotional bond created by these students while they are in the UK can have important implications for future social, economic and political collaborations.

So, although government authorities, educationalists and the general public are right to be alarmed by the fraud exposed by Panorama, the vast majority of bona fide international students and English language test providers should not be forgotten. Their contribution to the social and economic fabric of the UK should remain valued.

The Conversation

Sarah Michelotti, Senior tutor, School of English and Languages, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.