Reporter: Jennifer Macey
LISA MILLAR: Employer groups have sounded a note of caution about new research showing that the English language skills of foreign students on graduation aren’t good enough to get them full time work.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is concerned Australia may miss out on much needed skilled migrants if the standard of English language skills is set too high.
But the man behind the study, Monash University’s Dr Bob Birrell, says it’s more worrying that students are missing out on professional jobs because of their poor English.
Jennifer Macey reports.
JENNIFER MACEY: The Prime Minister John Howard says he’s concerned about new research that shows more than a third of foreign students are leaving university with inadequate English language skills.
JOHN HOWARD: I will be getting some advice from the vice chancellors and be getting some advice from my education minister as to how accurate they and she believe the research to be.
Bob Birrell is a very good researcher, he’s got quite a reputation when it comes to immigration and demography, but I’d like to look below the headline of that research before saying other than that, on the face of it, it’s concerning.
JENNIFER MACEY: Dr Bob Birrell, from Monash University, who conducted the study of more than 12,000 overseas graduates, says a large proportion can’t function at a professional level.
He recommends increasing the entry standard for foreign students from a band five to a band six on the international English language testing system, or IELTS.
BOB BIRRELL: Because of the importance of good English in professional settings we recommended that those students who could attain level seven, which is about the point where people are able to think in English and follow a sophisticated professional discourse, that they should get additional points for that standard of English and that it should be an important factor in decisions about whether to allocate a skilled migration visa.
JENNIFER MACEY: However these recommendations have triggered alarm bells among some employer groups.
The Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Hendy, warns Australia may miss out on valuable overseas labour if the level of English required for the skilled migration program is set too high.
PETER HENDY: We have a skills shortage across basically every sector of the economy. Industry, business is crying out to fill these skill shortages across Australia and we just need to be careful when debating this issue about English language proficiency of migrants, that we don’t deny ourselves some very skilled migrants by raising the bar too high.
JENNIFER MACEY: Mr Hendy says different jobs require vastly different language skills.
PETER HENDY: What we need to do is ensure that the level of English proficiency relates to the job that these people are eventually going to do in Australia and there are different levels of that.
If you’re a tradesman there is a certain level you need. If you’re a professional, say in the health profession, a doctor or a dentist or something like that, you would expect a much higher level of proficiency.
So, when the Government sets the mandatory requirements it needs to be tailored to what profession or trade people are doing.
JENNIFER MACEY: But Dr Birrell says migrants who can’t communicate on the job aren’t going to plug gaps in the country’s skills shortage problem.
BOB BIRRELL: My discussions with employers and the survey work done by DIMA (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) itself, indicates that students with poor English skills are simply not gaining professional managerial positions. I mean it’d be very surprising if they did, given the importance of communications even for accountants and information technologists.
So, the reality of what’s happening at the moment is that the Government has increased the migration program significantly, reflecting employer pressure, and rather than training Australians, turned on the immigration tap in the hope of filling these positions, but because a significant proportion of these migrants have limited English skills, they’re not actually working as accountants. So we’re just chasing our tail.
JENNIFER MACEY: International student organisations acknowledge that some students’ English skills may not be up to scratch. But they blame universities for accepting overseas fee-paying students anyway due to funding pressure.
Julian Ochoa is from Colombia and studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Sydney. He’s the General Secretary of the University’s Student Association.
JULIAN OCHOA: That’s the other problem. That universities bring the international students and then they just let them loose and sometimes they don’ t know what to do so they just look for the people that can speak their own language because they just feel a bit isolated here. So that’s when they actually don’t practice English as well.
JENNIFER MACEY: Mr Ochoa says some international students simply come to Australia to study and return to their home countries to work.
He says these students are less interested in improving their English and shouldn’t be included in the statistics.
LISA MILLAR: Jennifer Macey with that report.