Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Topics: English language testing standards for international students; Automated marking of NAPLAN tests

Sabra Lane: The federal bureaucracy is chock full of acronyms; ELICOS is one you’re about to hear a lot about. It stands for English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students. Foreign students have had to sit the course before moving onto university studies. But standards have been low and students haven’t had to prove their ability. From next year that changes; students will now have to pass an English test before they can move onto other studies, and for the first the requirement will be extended to include the vocational education sector.

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham will announce the details at a conference in Hobart today and he joins us now. Minister, good morning and welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra. Great to be with you.

Sabra Lane: You’re introducing the mandatory tests from next year, why?

Simon Birmingham: Because it’s really important to the integrity, to the quality of Australia’s education system and our appeal, in an ongoing sense, to international students. You know, we have a booming international education sector in Australia that underpins around 130,000 jobs across our country. It’s our third largest export earner nowadays, worth about $28 billion to the Australian economy. We do have to make sure that the standards within it, the integrity of those programs are high so that we can continue to attract international students in the future.

Sabra Lane: Of the 173,000 students who studied ELICOS last year, how many didn’t have a good command on English by the time they finished?

Simon Birmingham: The vast majority get very high quality outcomes and that’s why of course people continue to vote with their feet and come to Australia. But it is essential for those international students and for the domestic students who they ultimately study alongside in our universities, TAFEs, or other education providers, that they have the English language skills to succeed. It’s only fair to international students, domestic students, the teachers who are teaching them, that they have been equipped with English language skills to fully participate in group work, in class work and to succeed at the course they’re undertaking.

Sabra Lane: Yeah, are you able to quantify how many students weren’t up to scratch?

Simon Birmingham: We can’t quantify precisely the number, but we know there are a number of anecdotal instances that you hear of students not being able to fully participate in group work, or struggling through the class work that is set for them. So we want to make sure that the standards are high, because having high standards, maintaining a high reputation, will ensure that we continue to be a very successful international education destination into the future.

Sabra Lane: How worried are you that universities until now have been allowing students to enter and graduate without strong language skills and ultimately poor job prospects as a group, China Matters, recently concluded?

Simon Birmingham: I think our universities understand that the most important thing to them is their reputation. And so again, overwhelmingly universities do ensure that students who enter have good quality English language skills, they provide additional support …

Sabra Lane: So, sorry, Minister, just on that point. Do you think our universities reputations then have been harmed?

Simon Birmingham: No I don’t. I think, though, we are taking all of the preventative steps to ensure that they are not harmed in the future. That the universities themselves ensure and understand the reputation of their institutions is their most important asset. That is of course what attracts both domestic and international students to them. So our intention here is to support them by giving them confidence that students who come out of an English language course at an English language provider in Australia have been assessed, have been assessed as meeting the requisite standards to participate in the unit of study – whether it’s a university course or a vocational course that they are then proceeding onto as part of their Australian experience.

Sabra Lane: These students bring in a lot of money to Australia. Will the standards be upheld and students failed if they’re not up to scratch regardless of how much money they’ve paid to study?

Simon Birmingham: This is absolutely essential and by putting in place clearer standards, a requirement for assessment, it then makes it simpler for our tertiary education regulator, TEQSA, to be a tough cop on the beat, to make sure that everybody is adhering to those standards and to make sure that the one or two providers who might do the wrong thing can’t get away with it and cannot give the rest of the sector – who overwhelmingly provide high quality, excellent, outstanding education – that they cannot do any damage to their reputation.

Sabra Lane: You talked about – earlier this week – the need for Chinese students to better integrate into university life. How can universities and other institutions do that?

Simon Birmingham: We have an international education council that the Turnbull Government has established as part of Australia’s first National Strategy for International Education. That’s looking at a range of things in terms of the student experience, areas such as student accommodation; how you can ensure that there are a wide variety of students in student accommodation settings, rather than in clusters from just one country. You know Australia attracts international students from around 200 different nations. We have in terms of half of our domestic students come from a range of different countries, not just China. So we do see a very significant mix already. We have to make sure that that full experience is a lived experience of living, studying, working alongside of Australian students, students from other nationalities, so that indeed those Chinese students do get a fully rounded experience of Australian study and Australian life.

Sabra Lane: The Business Council yesterday laid out a blueprint to reform higher education and vocational education, saying the current system is unfair and distorted. How seriously will you consider this change?

Simon Birmingham: Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council and I have met prior to her speech to discuss some of these concepts. And look, their concepts in terms of promoting vocational education – the worth of apprenticeships in particular – that are valuable for ongoing discussion. That’s why the Turnbull Government this year announced the $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund. It’s why we already took action to clean up the mess in the vocational student loan sector that we inherited so that we restore integrity and respect to that sector. And of course, more generally, it’s also why we’re taking action around the student loans programs, which have $50 billion worth of unpaid student debt against the government account at present, and under current settings one quarter of that is estimated not to be repaid. It’s why we do need to proceed with reforms through the Senate to ensure more of that is repaid to maintain sustainability of student loans whether they are for higher education, university education, or vocational education and TAFE in the future.

Sabra Lane: Minister, sorry Minister, the Government wants to introduce automated marking for NAPLAN tests, teachers don’t want it. Can you guarantee computer marking will work?

Simon Birmingham: Well NAPLAN is administered by the Commonwealth together with the states and territories. It is not a Commonwealth-specific initiative…

Sabra Lane: Sure, but on this plan for automated marking?

Simon Birmingham: No, but just when you say the Government, I want to be clear this is something we do together with the states and territories. Now, for reassurance for teachers, for parents, for others concerned out there, next year any student in terms of their writing test, will have both an automated assessment of it and a teacher assessment of it to ensure that there is comparable data for us to look at. But based on the statistical data to date, the deviation between automated marking of a NAPLAN writing test and a teacher writing of it is no different than the statistical deviation between two different teachers’ marking of such a test. So we have evidence to date that shows that it can be done, but there are still a number of steps to go and no student next year will have a NAPLAN score based entirely on an automated test.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.