Proposed English language testing of Australian sponsors and partners

Apr 2, 2021

In the 2020 Budget, former Acting Immigration Minister Tudge announced the Government would introduce English language testing for partner visas – that is when an Australian sponsors their non-Australian partner to become an Australian permanent resident.

The Department of Home Affairs has now issued a public consultation paper on the proposal. This paper does not ask for views on whether it should introduce a test for the English language skills of Australian sponsors and their partners. That is taken as given.

The consultation paper seeks views on the level of English that should be required. The paper states “the new English language requirement for Partner visa applicants and permanent resident sponsors will encourage and support English language acquisition. English language skills assist partners to gain employment, independently access government services and seek help in emergency situations, such as when facing family violence at home or during medical emergencies.”.

It appears the test will not apply to sponsors who are Australian citizens.

The consultation paper asks questions such as:

  • The level of English language proficiency that should be required?
  • What should constitute a reasonable effort to learn English in terms of participation in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)?
  • What other means should be available to demonstrate adequate knowledge of English (eg holders of various passports may be exempt from a test)?
  • What other strategies can the Government adopt to support prospective Partner visa applicants and their permanent resident sponsors to prepare for the new requirement?

To properly respond to these questions, however, requires some understanding of the policy problem the Government is trying to address.

For example, the consultation paper states that the Department’s 2018 Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants (CSAM) finds “84.4 percent of partner migrants self-declared that they spoke English well very well, as their best language or as their only language, six months after settling in Australia”.

The CSAM surveys migrants 6 and 18 months after arrival. The 2018 survey finds that 60.3 percent of Partner migrants were employed at both stages. Moreover, 9.3 percent of Partner migrants moved from being either unemployed or not in the labour force to being employed while 5.7 percent moved from being employed to being unemployed or not in the labour force. Given the age structure of Partner migrants, the latter may well include migrants who choose to start a family.

The CSAM also found 16.4 percent of Partner migrants obtained an Australian post-secondary qualification during the 12 months between the first and second survey. They were obviously motivated and busy. Moreover, 51.7 percent of Partner migrants have a university degree compared to 26.0 percent of the Australian population. Partner migrants are highly qualified and have a strong desire to build on their qualifications after arrival.

Thus it would be reasonable to conclude that Partner migrants have relatively good English, are highly qualified compared to the existing Australian population and have a high employment ratio.
Against this background the Chair of the NSW Multicultural Communities Council, Dr Tony Pun, asked the Department of Home Affairs for more details on the policy problem the Government is trying to address with this proposal. Unfortunately, the response from the Department totally ignored this question and repeated the request for the level of English language proficiency that would be appropriate.

For example, the Department could have advised on the demographics of Partner migrants who are allegedly failing to make reasonable efforts to learn English given that only a very small portion of them do not speak English well or very well. But no – the Department and the Government remain silent on this question.

While the Government notes with some approval the initiative of the UK Government to introduce an English language test for Partner visa applicants, it still has not made the case for a similar initiative in Australia. Indeed, its own research suggests the proposal would be an unnecessary cost and time delay burden on mostly young people. Given the very significant costs associated with migration, including a visa applications fee that is approaching $8,000, this is not a trivial matter.

The Government states that the English language requirement will not be used to refuse any visa applicants but merely to encourage them to make reasonable efforts to learn English after arrival.

With the lack of any evidence to support the Government’s view that Partner migrants are not making such efforts, it is hard not to be cynical about the Government’s motives in this regard after the many years it has deliberately (and unlawfully) restricted places for Partner visa applicants leading to a massive blow-out in processing times and an application backlog of around 100,000.

Australia’s history with the Dictation Test would suggest Government would be more careful in this space?

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