Doorstop Interview, Hobart
Topics: English language testing standards for international students; Automated marking of NAPLAN tests

Phil Honeywood: Ladies and gentlemen, for the third year in a row we’ve had the privilege of hosting the Minister here at the largest international education conference in the southern hemisphere, and the Minister has set forward today where we’ve come from as a sector and where we hoped we would be in a year’s time and 10 years’ time. It’s an incredibly successful industry, international education; only last week, we heard from the ABS that we now are very definitely the third largest industry in Australia after iron ore and coal. But unlike iron ore and coal, we actually provide some incredible value for social impacts and for soft diplomacy, apart from the revenue generated.

The Minister’s outlined today that we are going one more step in the quality assurance package to ensure that Australia is seen not just as a safe and affordable study destination, but as a very- a destination that emphasises quality in everything we do. In that regard, he’s outlined today new national English language standards that will really set the benchmark for international students to know that if they come to study in Australia, on the one hand, they’re going to be provided with the highest possible quality English language programs; on the other hand, that we expect them to be able to have appropriate English standard before they can press on to their next qualification in this country.

So, I’ll hand over to the Minister to explain more detail on some of the initiatives he’s announced today, including two new working groups for the world’s only national Council for International Education, which brings together six federal ministers, 11 non-ministers, and we’re progressing on the agenda for enhanced students service delivery for the 600,000 plus international students studying in this country.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Phil, and thank you and congratulations to your association on the conduct of this Australian International Education Conference, which is bringing some 1300 delegates here to Hobart and really is emblematic of the impact that international education has across Australia. This week, as Hobart restaurants, hotels are full of international education delegates discussing the way in which we can strengthen and enhance our significant international education sector, is just a microcosm of the overall impact that international education has across Australia.

It is now, as Phil indicated, Australia’s third largest export earner, underpinning some 130,000 Australian jobs, and that is because we give a high quality education experience to those who come and study here, whether it’s to learn English, to go to a TAFE or vocational education provider, school, or a university or a higher educational provider. And essential to that is that we guarantee a continuance of that high quality, of that strong reputation, because reputation is what drives students and attracts students to Australia and it is why we must safeguard and protect that reputation at all costs into the future.

The Turnbull Government takes international education incredibly seriously, as you would expect for a sector with such a significant economic impact. That’s why we released a national international education strategy; it’s why we convened a national council that brings together leaders in the sector of leading minister across the country to ensure a focus on the policies of success of international education. It’s why we’ve also taken various steps to strengthen and safeguard regulation across the international education landscape, and today, we’re announcing new standards in relation to English language skills and literacy.

It’s been indicated that many students, tens of thousands of students, each year come to Australia and enrol in English language courses, frequently as preparation for further study in vocational or higher education. What’s been lacking, though, is a clear benchmark of assessment at the conclusion of those English language courses. Under the Turnbull Government’s reforms, students who complete one of those English language courses will also have to be assessed at the end of that to prove and guarantee they have the English skills to go on and succeed at university, TAFE, or other educational institutions.

This is essential for the experience of international students and Australian students studying alongside them. Australian students benefit from the international education because of the richness and cultural experience and diversity of engagement they get from studying alongside international students. But both Australian and international students deserve to know that everybody in a classroom, a lecture theatre, or a group work scenario can fully participate in the learning experience, can fully contribute and to do that requires good English language skills. That’s what we’re guaranteeing today: a further step of safeguarding and protecting our good reputation and standing as an international education provider, a further step to ensure that Australia continues to be a destination of choice for students from around the world.

Journalist: So language courses at the moment aren’t providing that benchmark?

Simon Birmingham: The vast majority of language courses are providing high quality outcomes, which is why more than 90 per cent of international students report high levels of satisfaction with their study experience in Australia. But some slip through the cracks and it’s unacceptable for that to occur. So that’s why we’re taking the step to guarantee that, in future, if you enrol in an English language course and you’re undertaking it as preparation for further study in Australia, you must meet the benchmark for study in those further enrolments that you have.

Journalist: Has this been well received by the international community?

Simon Birmingham: This has been developed in consultation with English Australia, with the International Education Association, with providers to make sure that we get it right, that there is the right standard applied in an appropriate way. But our high-quality providers recognise that their reputation is their most valued asset, and that’s why if they want to protect it as much as the Government wants to protect it.

Journalist: Is this not just giving an excuse to all of those people who are looking to maybe go somewhere else, there’s already nerves about what’s going to happen to the Australian HE sector; why students not going to go to somewhere like the UK or Canada if they have to do another test here?

Simon Birmingham: This should give absolute confidence to international students wanting to come to Australia that when they come to Australia, they’ll get the English language skills to succeed and then be able to transition into a high-quality educational experience at a higher education or vocational education institution. This is about protecting international students and ensuring that they get the education and training they deserve.

Journalist: What’s stopping students from going elsewhere where they don’t need to study those extra English courses?

Simon Birmingham: Students want quality, that’s why they choose Australia. Australia’s a destination that is welcoming, safe, an enjoyable country, but it’s also a destination with high-quality education providers. Students don’t come here just to get a piece of paper. If they wanted that, they’d go and find a cheap and dodgy operator elsewhere in the world. They come here to get a quality educational experience and we want to guarantee that’s exactly what they receive.

Journalist: Are you confident it won’t affect international student numbers?

Simon Birmingham: We believe this will only enhance our integrity, our reputation, and therefore our appeal to international students.

Journalist: Is this something the industry has been calling for?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been working with industry on this, and yes indeed, the very many high-quality providers or English language training in Australia have wanted to ensure there are appropriate standards for their sector that guarantees they are delivering the type of quality training in their schools that students deserve. So yes, in that sense, we’ve engaged, we’ve worked with providers, their representative bodies, and that’s what’s come up with the standards we’re releasing today.

Journalist: How will the benchmarks be enforced?

Simon Birmingham: Enforcement is undertaken through our national regulator, the TEQSA – Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency – and TEQSA will now be able to better ensure those English language providers are meeting the requisite benchmarks, because those benchmarks will be being assessed. There’s, of course, a far more challenging instance to say benchmarks are being met if there’s not a transparent assessment process at the conclusion of study.

Journalist: Are you aware of the universities teaching classes in other languages because students don’t have English skills?

Simon Birmingham: Universities may well provide additional support to different students in terms of foreign language provision, and that’s entirely reasonable for universities to do so as part of additional tutorial arrangements or otherwise. But at its heart, we have standards already in place to guarantee students must meet minimum English language requirements. Now we’re going to make sure they’re properly assessed upon entry into universities or other education providers.

Journalist: What test will you use to test that?

Simon Birmingham: There are, of course, established tests in terms of the IELTS regime and so forth, and that will be a matter that TEQSA will work through to ensure they have confidence providers are using credible, established assessment methodologies.

Journalist: Just on the automatic NAPLAN test; will robots only mark English essays?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are two things there. First is that all the evidence to date suggests that the statistical variation between automatic assessment is no difference in terms of difference than a difference between one teacher or another teacher’s assessment of marking something. But also in terms of giving reassurance to parents who might be concerned because the Teachers Union appears to be wanting to wage a scare campaign on this; next year, when students undertake the NAPLAN, some will have their writing test assessed by an automatic process, but it will also still be assessed by human marking as well. There is no automatic transition to automated marking. This is something we are testing. We are assessing as to whether it can ultimately provide faster, better feedback loops to teachers than the current process is doing.

Journalist: Do you think COAG will push for the plan to be delayed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, NAPLAN is administered by the states and territories in conjunction to the Commonwealth. It is a joint undertaking, and so every step we take in that requires the co-operation of the states just as much as it requires our co-operation. This is not a Commonwealth undertaking, but I do want to give parents clear reassurance that tests and assessments of writing will be marked by teachers next year. This is just about testing methodology to prove up the concept as to whether it could work further in the future, which of course, will only occur if we have absolute confidence that it does work and does then provide the benefits of faster, quicker feedback to teachers that can enable them to use NAPLAN as a better tool for classwork.

Journalist: Are things like [indistinct] essays marked by robots elsewhere in the world?

Simon Birmingham: This type of technology is being deployed in different settings around the world and of course that’s why we’re looking at it. But importantly we’re looking at enhancements to NAPLAN through taking NAPLAN online in certain circumstances, through the way that it’s marked, to provide a better quality experience for students and better, richer information to teachers and schools to help them use NAPLAN as a tool and resource to guide their teaching in the classroom in the future.

Journalist: [Inaudible question].

Journalist: Peter Dutton says he’d like to be Prime Minister one day. Do you have similar aspirations?

Simon Birmingham: I’m a senator and happily, as a senator, I am not burdened by any such expectations. Thanks everybody.