Australia should tread cautiously on UK-inspired English language tests

The UK requires that new citizens know English. It formally tests for competency. EPA/Andy Rain

One reform the Abbott government is considering as part of sweeping changes to Australia’s citizenship regime is the introduction of English tests for all new citizens.

Migrants learning English can be crucial to integration, whether in Australia, the UK or any other Western country. But Australia should be cautious in how closely it follows the UK in this reform.

The UK experience

Britain has formally required for more than a century that all new citizens know English. The Secretary of State had to be satisfied that new citizens had a satisfactory knowledge of English and “life in the United Kingdom”.

The latter became the “Life in the United Kingdom test” for citizenship. Launched in 2005 by then-prime minister Tony Blair, I have previously likened the test to a bad pub quiz for its long list of errors and omissions.

The UK’s requirement that new citizens know English was not formalised into a test until more recently. New citizens had to pass either the citizenship test or an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with Citizenship course.

The latter course taught English through citizenship lessons, in an odd introduction for anyone coming to study English for the first time. The first quiz asks about the Houses of Parliament instead of how to greet a stranger or how to order lunch from a menu.

The UK tightened its policy almost two years ago. The level of satisfactory English all must demonstrate was raised, aimed at making it more difficult to qualify for citizenship. Previously, someone with no English need only improve by one level of competency. Now, all must prove they have conversational English at an intermediate level.

This will be a more challenging hurdle for many to pass. And this will be especially true for people who are illiterate in their native tongue, but must exhibit literacy in a new language. Applicants must normally pay their own way – and a higher standard will mean greater costs for many.

The government claims improving standards will further integration. And maybe they will. But the problem is how the UK government manages this requirement. Australia should learn from the UK’s mistakes if it is to take this leaf out of its book on citizenship reform.

The problems with exemptions

The new English language rules are subject to about a dozen exemptions. Some of these are reasonable for children, persons aged 65 years and above or victims of domestic abuse. Anyone meeting these criteria is exempt from having to prove knowledge of English.

But many other exemptions are not reasonable. One set of exemptions is for nationals from a list of countries. Some of this list are de jure English-speaking countries, like Australia and New Zealand, where English is the official language. Others on the list are de facto English-speaking countries, like the US.

What’s unreasonable about this exemption is two-fold. First, a person’s nationality is no guarantee of English fluency. The US has tens of millions of citizens for whom English is not a first or even second language. The UK’s new rules would deem them sufficiently fluent in a language they might not know well.

Second, there are no clear criteria for how countries were selected. Not all de jure countries are included (such as India) or de facto countries (like Singapore). If there is to be an exemption on nationality, then there should be some clear rationale for choosing some and not others. But this is not given.

A further problem is that there is a further blanket exemption for individuals who hold a degree taught or researched in English, even if the degree is obtained in a university not on the nationality exemption list. This is even more surprising given the variability of English competence that will be held to satisfy the English language requirement.

With so many degrees awarded in English around the world, this may permit individuals to be exempt from the requirement because of a false assumption about English fluency.

The way forward

The lesson Australia can draw from this is to introduce a standardised English language test that is subject to fewer restrictions, and show the UK how it should maintain a fairer and more consistent policy.

One way Australia might do this is by not endorsing exemptions based on nationality or for holders of degrees taught in English gained elsewhere. If the goal is to better guarantee more new migrants possess some competency in English language skills, this would be one important step to achieving this goal.

Maybe then the UK could learn lessons from Australia when it sees how this more fair, consistent and strategic approach works much better.