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Teach instead of test

By Peter van Vliet - posted Monday, 12 May 2008

The effect of the former Howard government's higher-level citizenship test has been absolutely as predicted: educated skilled migrants, who today make up the great bulk of our immigration program, are passing the test easily. But some refugee groups from non-English-speaking backgrounds, such as those from Sudan, are experiencing failure rates of about 25 per cent.

The decision by Immigration Minister Chris Evans to review the test is therefore to be welcomed.

The test was always going to be difficult for people with lesser English language skills, who these days are mostly refugees from Africa and Asia. The previous test simply required people to demonstrate basic spoken English whereas the new computerised test requires higher-level English reading, comprehension and computer skills.


For recently arrived refugees who may have spent a lifetime in a refugee camp and may still be illiterate in their own language let alone in English, these skills may not be immediately achievable.

Now, many people are simply not sitting the test because they are afraid they will fail, a situation reflected in the substantial reduction in the number of test applicants.

The minister has also informed us that some refugees are not sitting the test because they are afraid of being deported. This fear is not quite as absurd as it sounds because one of the important rights of citizenship is the right not to be deported. Fail the test and you've basically confirmed you don't have the important rights and responsibilities that most of us take for granted.

The Rudd Government has recently announced social inclusion as its key social policy issue. This has created genuine excitement in the community sector as we grapple with the types of strategies, targets and measures we can develop to overcome social disadvantage and ensure equal opportunity for all.

But surely one key measure is that you can't be socially included if you don't have citizenship. You can't be socially included if you can't help decide who represents you in Parliament; if you can't work in our public service; serve in our armed forces; get access to some of the benefits only available to Australian citizens; or perform the mutual responsibilities that we expect from our fellow citizens.

The recent debates around citizenship as channelled through the citizenship test arose from the growing, and sometimes legitimate, concerns about the need for greater social cohesion in Australia and the desire to ensure that all Australians understood the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.


These are laudable goals. However, the new higher-level citizenship test has hindered rather than helped us attain them. The new test has excluded people who would otherwise make fine Australian citizens on the basis that they haven't quite learned English yet (think of the many Greek and Italian-Australians who helped build this country who would never have become citizens under this test).

The test has made outsiders of people who should be insiders. It has also downgraded the hugely important place of citizenship to sometimes trivial questions about our recent history.

There is a way out of the citizenship conundrum that the newly appointed committee should consider - that is through a teaching rather than a testing policy for applicants from refugee or family reunion backgrounds who have poor English language skills.

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First published in The Age on April 30, 2008.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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