HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 8 DECEMBER 2020
The Adult Migrant English Program has existed since 1948. Over that 72-year period, two million migrants have benefited from the AMEP. Learning English is an important part of nation-building. When Australians are surveyed as to what they believe it is that makes an Australian, most don't say it's being born here, but many do say it's speaking English. Speaking English is an important part of being an Australian and being able to contribute politically or in business circles and to engage with your neighbours.
Australia, in the main, does settlement well. We have differences in this House over asylum seeker policy, but, when people are accepted to come to Australia, the settlement services are as good as in any other country. In 2009 the then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that Australia had 'one of the best refugee resettlement programs in the world'.
But, as an important report written by James Button for the Scanlon Foundation has noted, Australia's record of helping migrants learn English is threatened today. That report notes that the groups most at risk of not speaking English well are sections of the Chinese community, refugees and some women. It points out that the AMEP, which has been a world leader in language learning, suffers from a lack of clarity in balancing its employment and settlement objectives. It recommends additional government funding for independent research on the AMEP and a diversity of ways to deliver AMEP, notably in online and distance formats. It recommends the uncapping of the AMEP Extend subprogram—and those additional hours in the bill are welcomed. It also recommends extending the time in which migrants can enrol in and complete the AMEP, recognising that, for some, 300 hours would be enough to enjoy good English proficiency and, for others, it might be closer to 3,000 hours.
As Labor senators have noted in their report on the Immigration (Education) Amendment (Expanding Access to English Tuition) Bill 2020, there are concerns that have been raised by stakeholders. One is whether the increased threshold for eligibility to 'vocational English' will have a meaningful impact to increase participation and retention in language learning. There have been concerns about the movement of AMEP from the Department of Education and Training to Home Affairs. This is fundamentally an education program, and many stakeholders were uncomfortable about that shift.
Among the submissions that were made to that inquiry said:
FECCA would welcome greater transparency and more detail when it comes to evaluation and testing of people’s English levels, especially related to partner visa.
RACA wishes to make clear that its support for this bill does not extend in any way to support for future measures restricting access to permanent visa pathways for migrants.
ASRC’s support of the bill does not extend to support any possible future measures restricting access to permanent visa pathways for migrants.
Helen Moore, the vice-president of the Australian Council of TESOL Associations and ACTA spokesperson on English language provision for adult migrants, has expressed concerns to me about a range of aspects of AMEP. She noted in particular that a strong focus on competition may prevent providers from collaborating on, for example, student referrals. Others have expressed a concern to me that the department's desire to write contracts at a higher level takes away the ability for fine-grained local provision of AMEP education, and that may prevent, for example, a provider who specialises in teaching English in the Chinese community.
Labor takes multiculturalism very seriously. I was pleased to join with my colleagues the members for Werriwa and Wills in a meeting of Labor's multicultural task force with representatives in the ACT community. I thank Mainul Haque, Naresh Gunasekere, Sandra Elhelw Wright, Hong Sar Channaibanya, Shobha Varkey and Cong Le for their thoughtful contributions to our conversation on multiculturalism. AMEP has played a vital part in Australia's multicultural story and it is vital that it is strengthened and continues to play an important role into the future.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.