The federal government’s English program for adult migrants and refugees is set for some major changes amid concerns participants were not leaving with a “functional level” of English.

Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge announced a host of changes to the billion-dollar Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), including lifting a cap on class hours, and removing the five year time limit on eligibility.

This means recent migrants will be able to access English classes for free until they have “functional English”, which the government defines as having the language skills to participate in society.

“Without English language skills, migrants are less likely to get a job, less likely to integrate, and less likely to participate in our democracy,” Tudge said.

The program, delivered by service providers around the country, currently provides migrants with 510 hours of language tuition for free.

But participants are only completing 300 of those hours, according to Tudge, with 21% leaving without “the basic language skills to enable participation in society”.

“This is not to blame anyone whose English language proficiency is poor, but clearly full participation in the community is difficult when there are language barriers,” he said.

Catherine Scarth, chief executive officer at AMES Australia, welcomed the changes, saying there was a lot of work to do to ensure the changes benefit people looking to learn English.

“Five hundred and ten hours isn’t adequate for some people to move from no English at all, to something that’s functional,” Scarth said.

“A refugee for instance, coming from a situation with very limited schooling, who might not be literate in their own language, and who might be older, coming to learn English in 510 hours is almost impossible.”

The program, as it stands today, provides a structure for service providers to deliver the classes. The structure allows for some flexibility for participants’ situations, with some elements focused on vocational contexts.

Scarth said that the government was consulting service providers on the changes, and that it may take years before the changes are enacted.

“Whilst I think it is a standout program, one that Australia has provided since post-war migration, it is timely that the minister has taken these actions.”

The acting minister said estimates showed close to a million people across Australia lack English language proficiency, impacting potential employment and community cohesion.

The changes come as the government faces the challenges to social cohesion from the coronavirus pandemic, with Tudge saying the pandemic had revealed the challenges in communicating with multicultural communities through traditional means.

“Whilst we have produced over 4,600 materials translated into 63 languages to accommodate this, the challenge in engaging with all Australians remains,” he said.

Tudge also indicated that changes will be made to citizenship tests to include new questions “on Australian values”, but did not elaborate on what those changes would be.

“The stronger focus on Australian values in citizenship testing will be an important part of helping protect our social cohesion into the future,” Tudge said.

More than 200,000 people became Australian citizens in the 2019-20 financial year – a record. Scarth believes it is high time services provided to new Australians adapted to their needs.

“There’s a lot of work to do, to make sure that the changes will benefit people learning English, and there’s a lot that we need to do to make sure that we are providing the flexibility for students to learn and be engaged.”


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