New Australians

Testing skilled migrants’ English: ridiculous and insulting

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Assistant Professor Jeroen van der Heijden was compelled to take an English language test this morning by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as part of his visa requirements — he wonders why it was required.

AUSTRALIAN immigration policies are subject to ongoing and incremental change, rather than to abrupt and full-scale reforms. This is not specific to migration policy. Almost any policy today can be understood as a layer upon layer of rules, requirements, laws, and political preferences.

Unthoughtful changes and unskilfully added layers, however, may eventually backfire. In the case of immigration policy, it may make skilled migrant workers decide to leave Australia aside as a preferred destination. This would be a lost opportunity for a country that is built on the ingenuity of (skilled) migrants.

Let me illustrate my argument with the case of testing skilled migrants’ English language skills — a requirement in immigration policy since June 2012.

Test requirements

According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection

‘… it is important that [skilled migrants] can speak, write and understand a sufficient level of English while [they] are in Australia.’

Under current Immigration policies, all skilled workers applying for a 457 business (working) visa, therefore need to evidence their English language skills.

The requirement ‘sufficient level of English’ implies passing an IELTS test with a score of 5 out of a maximum score of 9 or, in specific cases, passing an Occupational English Test. This requirement applies to all non-native English speakers not educated for five years or longer in English. There is only one exemption to the rule — an annual salary of $96,400 or more.

The test assesses speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. This is a ridiculous requirement for exactly highly skilled migrant workers.

Take my case. I am a skilled migrant and have to take the test to see my current 457 visa renewed. My situation is illustrative for many 457 visa applicants.

I have been working for the Australian National University for almost three years now. In the week of my test I was interviewed by two Australian radio stations about an opinion piece I published on a leading Australian opinion website the week before my test (English speaking skills: tick). I have published two books in English, am working on a third, and have published over 20 articles in English in peer reviewed journals  (English writing skills: tick). I am regularly invited to review journal articles and book manuscripts by top-end academic journals and publishers (English reading skills: tick). Finally, I have been supervising MSc and PhD students in English for more than 5 years now, almost three years in Australia (English listening skills: tick).

My ability to communicate in English is one of the reasons why my employer ‒ one of Australia’s prominent universities ‒ hired me. Nevertheless, Immigration requires that I take a test to evidence that my English language skills are at least ‘sufficient’.

Intriguingly, my IELTS test results will only be valid for a period of two years. After that, I will have to take and pass a new test if I have to apply for another 457 Visa. Because, who knows, my English language skills may go downhill if I communicate too much in Australia and with Australians. I may pick up saying things such as “Fack the gav’nment!” to express my criticism, instead of writing an opinion piece like this.

Test process and setting

The test application process is intriguing.

Upon delivery of the necessary forms, passport sized photos, evidence of identity and after paying $330, applicants are not directly given a test date. Only one week before the actual test is this date confirmed.  

Being a highly skilled migrant worker with a job to do, I was worried that my test would be on a working day. “Luckily” on Tuesday December 9th my test date was confirmed for Saturday the 14th. This gave me five days to change my plans for the weekend.

The test setting is even more intriguing.

There are clear rules. I have to be at the test location at 7.50am (on a Saturday). Here. my passport will be checked, my fingerprint taken and I have to sign a form confirming my identity. I have to bring a pencil, an eraser and a pencil sharpener in a transparent container. I am not allowed to bring any food or drink, except for water in a transparent bottle with no writing on it. Participants are not allowed to eat during the test.

Being an educator myself, I do understand such requirements. You do not want people to cheat by printing full dictionaries on their water bottles or hide translators in their food containers. But some of the other rules seem over the top.

Nothing to eat? The major part of the test is going to take four hours, nonstop. I am 6ft2 and rather athletically built. This is, normally, a sign of a high and healthy metabolism. If I do not eat for four hours I get very, very grumpy — just ask my (Australian) partner. This is unlikely going to be a positive influence on my test results.

Test assignments

Let me paraphrase only two examples from the test’s test material to show that the test does not take highly skilled migrants seriously:

‘write a 250 word letter to the Mayor and lodge a complaint about X’


‘write a 150 word letter to retailer Y to show your interest in their products.'

Note: participants have to write these letters by hand; no electronic word-processing is allowed.

Write a letter to the mayor? Show interest in a product through a letter?


How exactly is this testing my capability as a highly skilled migrant worker to communicate understandably with Australians? Also, can anyone please tell me how many Australians still take the effort to write a letter to the Mayor or a retailer, and post it? Where is the 21stcentury in all this? The test seems a relic from the past.

Likewise, writing by hand? Without a spell-checker? Can anyone please tell me how many Australians are still capable to write 250 words faultlessly if they are not supported by their iPhones or word-processors? I only have to look at my (Australian) university students to be not all too hopeful about that. And I only have to look at comments to entries on this website to get really concerned.

In conclusion

The requirement for an English language test for highly skilled migrants is not only ridiculous, it is an insult as well. The test application process, test date confirmation procedure, and test setting make that I do not feel taken seriously as a highly skilled migrant worker. Nor does it make me feel that this country (that I love) wants or even appreciates me being here. Not at all. I feel judged, intimidated and my integrity questioned.

This is but one example skilled migrants face in their visa application processes. With Immigration policies being continuously ratcheted up, I wonder whether requirements like these will one day make skilled migrants decide to leave Australia aside as their preferred destination. Would they do then Australia misses out on the economic and intellectual potential they bring.

The specific rule could be a bureaucratic slippage by generally applying a rule that was designed for a specific group of migrants. It may also be a result of a policy maker lending its ears a bit too much to the unions. Whatever the case, this unskilfully added layer has only complicated the already byzantine immigration policies even more. It had not added anything, except for another $330 per skilled migrant for the English language testing centres.

Maybe it is time to stop changing Migration policies one rule at the time and redesign the system as a whole.

Update: the test

So there I was, 7.50 sharp.

Contrary to my expectations, there were not a few, but about 150 candidates for the test (ka-ching!, that makes for about $50,000 in fees a day). About 60 per cent students, the rest the normal worker bees like me and people en route (pardon my French) to a permanent residency or other visa.

I haven’t experienced as many nervous people and people that nervous since my high school exams. Some of them told me this was their fourth test this year and were worried about not passing, again. Others let me know how well prepared they were. You can take IELTS-run preparatory course to increase chances of success for these tests. The course costs about $950. A quick talk with other participants told me that about a third of them had taken this or a comparable course for this Saturday’s test (ka-ching!, that makes for about another $50,000 — given that the course in Canberra only is run 48 times a year there’s big, big money in this I realised today).

The actual test was indeed as ridiculous as expected (I invented a cheese making course to follow on a holiday and invited a friend to join me because he is really into bicycle repairing, which makes him almost Dutch and thus into cheese, so I argued).

Yet, to my surprise, I also found that the test is not only about assessing language skills. It’s testing the capability of people to visualise spoken text and read maps (we had to fill out a map for a recreational site based on a recorded discussion with the site-manager), to process text to numbers (a 10-digit phone number given only once in a 2 second time-span as "0456double23875" is pretty nasty — “was that a double two?”, you’d normally ask), and the four hour session asks quite a bit of one’s attention span and mental stamina. I can see why people, that I had very nice and understandable chats with, do not pass this test. Finally, all the lining up, being drilled what rules to follow, and the hoarding of that amount of people makes it all but a day I’d like to remember.

The thing that troubles me most about the whole experience, however, is that this is most likely but a glimpse of what people less fortunate than me (say, not having a passport from a Western country, or a passport at all) have to go through when they seek entrance to this country. A country which appendix-island is three times as large as the country where I am from, and a country that only houses five million people more than where I come from (yes, you hear this right: in Dutch population density, 51 million people would live on Tasmania only – and they would make it work and be happy with it).

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