Interview on 2GB Sydney Live with Ben Fordham
Topics: English language testing standards for international students; Automated marking of NAPLAN tests; High Court Citizenship case

Ben Fordham: In the meantime, foreign students will soon have to pass an English language test in Australia. If they want a tertiary education they’re going to have to learn the language first. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has announced the new national English language standards. At the moment overseas students can go from an English language course straight into university without any assessment of their language skills. Now, these students will have to actually pass an English test before they can enter any tertiary education course. And this is trying to make sure that everyone enrolled in a university course has a basic understanding of the local language. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a lecturer trying to teach someone who can’t speak the same language. And it’s not just the teachers either. Imagine how hard it would be for an international student undertaking a course that’s taught in a language they can’t understand? Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister, is on the line. Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Ben, good to be with you.

Ben Fordham: Thank you. Is that it? Is it just a common sense thing to think, well, if people are going to have a chance at doing their best at the front of the lecture hall or sitting there being lectured to, they’ve got to both understand the English language?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in many ways it is just practical common sense, Ben. Of course, right now we have standards, but there’s a bit of a gaping hole in those standards which is that we haven’t had a requirement for English language providers who might give that introductory framing to international students when they get to Australia, to have to actually clearly assess those students as meeting the standards before they can depart that provider and go on to university or TAFE or whatever else they’re doing while they’re in Australia.

So what we’re putting in place is really a transparent requirement that English language providers must assess students, must assess them to be meeting the standards that are required for the next course of study they’re undertaking. And that’s just being fair to those international students so that they can fully participate and succeed; to their teachers, as you rightly said in your intro, so that they have a job where they know they’re actually able to communicate effectively with their students; and to the Australian students studying alongside them so that when it comes to group work scenarios and tutorials, everybody is able to fully participate.

Ben Fordham: Now, I know that you wouldn’t be going out there fixing problems that don’t exist, so don’t take this question the wrong way, but how big an issue is this? Is this something that you’ve had feedback on from lecturers and from others at universities that there is a problem there, a gap in language skills?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve absolutely had feedback on it but equally I don’t want people to think this is an issue that is running rife as a problem everywhere. The vast majority of English language providers do the right thing in giving good quality training and the vast majority of universities and higher education institutions make sure their students have got the requisite language skills to succeed.

But there are a few who seem to have been doing the wrong thing and we just want to make sure we close those loopholes because having international students studying in Australia is big business nowadays, Ben, it underpins around 130,000 jobs across Australia. It’s actually our third largest export earner in terms of foreign income for Australia. And all of it is based upon a reputation for high quality education learning and training and we can’t afford for anything to undermine that reputation, which is why we have to make sure that everything, starting with the basics like English language is done to the best possible standard.

Ben Fordham: Some in the education sector are suggesting today that this policy will scare off some of those international students. Is that scare mongering?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it is scaremongering and if anything I would hope that it will attract quality students to Australia because they’ll know that we’re fair dinkum about giving them the skills they need to succeed when they come here. They’re not just going to get a cheap and dodgy piece of paper like some other countries might offer, they’re actually going to get a quality qualification that has been based upon having the requisite skills in English to undertake that course in an English speaking country such as ours, but also of course then a high quality degree or vocational program that they undertake.

Ben Fordham: Just on another one, ministers at the September meeting of the Federal Education Council gave in-principle support for NAPLAN writing tests to be marked by a computer and a human in 2018. I note today there’s a US education academic, Les Perelman, who’s warning against NAPLAN writing tests being marked by computers. He says it would be extremely foolish and even damaging to a student to have a computer involved in marking a writing test. What do you say in return?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the Education Union peddling a little bit of mischief on this one. There are a couple of things I’d say to that. Firstly, nobody next year will have a NAPLAN writing test assessed purely by a computer. They will all still have a human assessment undertaken. So, people should be absolutely clear that there is no leap to simply shift to computer-based assessment.

Secondly though, that in the research that’s been done today, it shows that the deviation between the scoring that the computer program might give a written story or a profile that’s somebody’s written compared to what different teachers may give, the deviations are actually relatively the same between the teacher and computer or between two different teachers. Because of course it’s not like every human who sits down, sees the same aspects and comes up with the same scoring. So we need to basically work through this methodically as education ministers around the country have agreed to do; look at the evidence on this as to whether automated scoring is possible. The reason, though, we’re looking at automated scoring for these NAPLAN tests is because if we can do so, it will give much, much faster feedback to teachers and to schools about individual students, which means the NAPLAN test becomes must more effective and useful to them as a tool to be able to guide how their students are performing relative to others around the country.

Ben Fordham: We’re speaking to the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Before I let you go, why do taxpayers have to foot the bill for these MPs who are in the High Court at the moment over their dual citizenship? Why do we have to pay $130,000 a day for the Citizenship Seven as they’re now known, including $50,000 a day for Barnaby Joyce’s legal team? Why can’t they pay that bill themselves or at least the political parties pay those bills?

Simon Birmingham: Ben, it’s not unusual when it comes to constitutional matters before the High Court for legal fees to be paid, particularly when they’re very untested areas of the constitution as much of these are. Nobody of course, like any of these MPs, wanted to be in this situation, anticipated being in this situation, and it may well be that the government’s legal advice suggested that they’ll all be told that they’re absolutely fine to still be sitting in the parliament and that of course this has just been an unnecessary exercise by those who wanted to cause a bit of mischief.

Ben Fordham: Very expensive and unnecessary exercise. Thanks for your time, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Ben, a pleasure.

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham the Federal Education Minister.