Members of the government are surprised by the recent revelation that approximately 820,000 Australian adults from non-English speaking backgrounds do not have a competent grasp of English. It’s reported that this compares with only 300,000 in 1981. What is surprising is that they are surprised. Surely they are aware that government policy has been responsible for the significant decline in quality of the key English language program targeting new arrivals, the Adult Migrant English Program.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Australia was internationally recognised for being the only country in the world to have a national program that delivered English language and settlement programs to adult migrants and refugees. It had been successfully coordinated and funded by the Commonwealth and state governments from 1948. People came from overseas to learn from our model - a model that was constantly evaluated and underwent ongoing quality improvement. In 1988 a National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research was established at Macquarie University with funding from the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. All this added up to a world class program.
During this period, with the support of education unions, increased permanency of the workforce was achieved and career pathways developed. Contract teachers provided flexibility as required but the core programs were staffed by a stable cohort of highly-qualified, experienced staff. By 1998 the Adult Migrant English Program celebrated 50 years of successful development and delivery, through targeted classes, radio programs and the Home Tutor Scheme. But regretfully it wasn’t to last.
In 1997, the Howard-led coalition government, heavily influenced by the recommendations of the Hilmer Report, decided to promote competitive tendering in relation to the delivery of government services. Hilmer’s recommendations in relation to competition policy sat comfortably with the coalition’s commitment to the private sector. Regardless of how efficient and effective programs were, the government’s mantra was that competition would drive “greater efficiency and better outcomes”. Time has shown that efficiency in this context really meant cost cutting. Sadly, government funding of the national centre was wound back after 2004 and its leadership role in relation to the English program ceased soon after.
The tendering process caused significant collateral damage. It has created confusion and dissatisfaction among many clients, their families, teachers and other stakeholders. Every few years when there is a tendering round, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent by providers to create competitive submissions. Goodness knows how much the process costs the government. When the outcomes of the process are announced, there are changes in providers, location of services, staff, procedures relating to the delivery of language courses, and so on. All of these issues destabilise clients at a time in their settlement process when they are struggling with the challenges of adjusting to a new country, a different culture, and the everyday pressures of family life. Who could blame them for dropping out of English classes?
Adult Migrant English Program teachers nowadays are mostly employed on insecure contracts. Career paths are pretty much non-existent because service providers cannot guarantee ongoing employment. Hundreds of outstanding teachers have lost their jobs because their employers have lost contracts. In addition, hundreds of specially trained and dedicated volunteer home tutors, assisting some of the most vulnerable new arrivals, feel confused and disenfranchised and subsequently drop out. This is not efficiency but a waste of valuable resources.
I’m not a dinosaur. I have always embraced change for the better. And competition - healthy competition, not the destructive type. And efficiency - but not to the point of ‘cut and bleed’ which isn’t efficient at all in the long-run.
After tendering was introduced to the Adult Migrant English Program in 1997, I was responsible for drafting the first two tenders for the ACT program, which secured more than 10 years of funding. It was a challenge to maintain quality standards under the pressure of funding cuts. We worked with the threat that our program could go to another provider if we didn’t meet the requirements, despite the fact that we were considered to be one of the best performers in Australia, as measured by the evaluation criteria used by the department at the time – reach, retention and results.
When I retired from the program after 27 years it was most satisfying to be awarded a Public Service Medal on Australia Day 2004. It recognised the achievements of a hardworking team - the dedicated, highly-qualified and experienced staff based at the Canberra Institute of Technology and hundreds of home tutors. Unlike providers today, we were fortunate to work within a framework of support and excellence provided by numerous bodies. We also had the generous support of ethnic communities, relevant community organisations and CIT broadly. I don’t think these opportunities would present themselves these days which is a pity.
The race to win tenders in a cost-cutting environment is counter-productive. Over the last 15 years I’ve observed a severe decline in the quality of the Adult Migrant English Program which was so effectively developed and improved over 50 years. If current practices continue, I won’t be surprised if, in a year or so, nearly a million adults in Australia from non-English speaking backgrounds don’t have a competent level of English. Will you?
I expect a common response to my comments will be: “there’s no money". It seems to be an excuse for saying, “it’s too hard” or “we can’t be bothered to do anything about it”. How often do the polls say that the majority of Australians want greater investment in education, health and infrastructure that is of benefit to the community as a whole? What do we usually end up with? More often than not, it’s dribs and drabs of funding here and there, via a process of smoke and mirrors and no serious long-term planning.
It’s time to be serious if we want to achieve better outcomes and international recognition of our English language and settlement programs once more.
Jenny Osborne is research coordinator for the International English Language Testing System, Australia. She was awarded an ACT Public Service Medal in 2004 for 27 years of leadership and service in the field.