30 July 2011

Should migration agents have to sit for an English test?

Australia's system of regulating people who seek to make a living giving immigration advice is now nearly twenty years old. I have been active in the field since the start, and even for a few years before that.

In most professions, the requirement is that you undertake an intensive course of study over at least a couple of years, pass some fairly rigorous exams, then get a provisional licence to practice under the supervision of a more experienced professional for a year or two. After that, you are likely to have a pretty good idea of what you are doing.

For some reason, the time-honoured model was not adhered to for migration agents. For the first decade and a half, all that was needed was a clean criminal record and a pass in a multiple-choice exam. A fairly stringent, if somewhat quirky, Code of Conduct set the rules of behaviour for migration agents, but without a pre-registration training regime it was akin to giving you a driver's licence so long as you knew how to start a car, then cancelling it if you killed somebody.

Then it was decided to require new agents, though not the existing ones, to undertake a course at the level of a Graduate Certificate. While certainly an improvement, the duration and content remains inadequate, in my opinion, to properly train and prepare people to carry out the complex and demanding work of a professional migration agent. The continued absence of a provisional licencing system before an agent can be allowed to practice independently is also in my view a serious inadequacy.

Since January 2010 it has been a requirement that all new agents demonstrate a satisfactory level of English language ability, either by sitting a particular test or showing that they have completed studies in English at both matriculation and tertiary level. Interestingly, lawyers like myself are exempted. From January 2014 the Engish language test is to be extended to all practising agents, with the continued exemption of lawyers.

Many agents have expressed opposition to the requirement bordering on outrage. Accusations of racism have been made. These I think are nonsense, but I can certainly understand that people with long-established reputations feel threatened and upset.

I think the exemption for lawyers says quite a lot. The thinking seems to be that lawyers have gone through five years or more of full-time tertiary training so they necessarily must have good English language skills. I don't necessarily agree, but the comparison speaks for itself.

I teach and work with migration agents every day. I have the greatest respect for the professionalism and skill of many of them, and utter contempt for the incompetence and dishonesty of a few. As far as I can see, the question of English language ability is a fair way down the list of factors that distinguish the two.

Reasonable standards for accreditation as a migration agent would include English language ability alongside a far more rigorous level of training in the technical, ethical and practical aspects of the profession. Simply deciding to impose a test of this type is typical of the ad hoc and crisis-management approach that has dominated the bureaucratic approach to migration agent regulation for the past two decades.

The consumers of migration advice services deserve a more integrated and holistic management regime.

16 July 2011

Thoughts about the 2012 Selection Model

Now that I have had a chance to work through the details of the new points test, I have been thinking about how things are going to work a year from now.

It's called the Selection Model, or SkillSelect. I have previously mentioned its similarities with the notably unsuccessful Skills Matching Database of a few years back. There are also parallels with the New Zealand skilled migration system, which also requires an Expression of Interest, or EoI, followed by a possible invitation to apply for a visa.

A peculiarity of the 2012 proposal is that there is no way of knowing in advance what your chances are likely to be, with the result that potential applicants will need to try to maximise their chances when they lodge their EoI, potentially at great expense.

Each time the selection is run, DIAC will set a quota for each occupation and will choose the highest scoring candidates who nominated that occupation in their EoI.

In order to maximise their score, anyone preparing an EoI will need to pay for a skills assessment (fees from about $500 to over $1,000 depending on the occupation) and IELTS test ($330). If the applicant has a spouse with a skilled occupation, a further skills assessment and IELTS test would add an extra 5 points. Unrelated education qualifications cost $130 to be assessed by Vetassess. In some cases they might even try a NAATI test, at a cost of around $770.

Then the EOI itself will have a fee expected to be around $500 to $700.

All told, up-front expenses of $1,500 to $3,000 or more for an application that has no guarantee of success.

I wonder whether the result may not be that quality candidates, who may have several migration options (including staying put), might just not bother.

12 July 2011

Federal Court finally loses patience with secret advisers

The Honourable Geoffrey Flick is one of the most respected authorities and commentators on Australian administrative law, and has been a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia since 2007. Not the sort of person you would expect to lose his cool.

In a judgment handed down on 6 July this year he came about as close to that as a judicial officer of his standing ever could. The case, SZOZG v MIAC [2011] FCA 756, is reported at


The case itself was a run-of-the-mill appeal from a decision of the Federal Magistrates Court which itself was an appeal from the Refugee Review Tribunal. But it was precisely the similarity of the case with countless others coming before the Courts that incensed his Honour. An applicant who barely spoke English had filed, somewhat out of time, an appeal from the lower Court using language that the appellant himself certainly did not understand and which, while essentially meaningless from a legal point of view was virtually identical to numerous other appeals and first instance applications making their way through the judicial system.

In an interesting example of judicial activism, his Honour managed to extract the identity of the "helper" who had drawn up the paper work and, after giving her a chance to state her position, had referred her to the Department of Immigration. What action they may take is not yet known.

The Court's frustration with the inaction of the authorities up to now in taking any concerted action against these anonymous, and generally incompetent, "helpers" is strongly expressed in the judgment. The waste of Court time and resources is obvious, as is the ultimate denial of real justice to the applicants. The underlying message is plain: the lack of a formal legal aid framework for immigration cases is counter-productive in the long term.

03 July 2011

The new points test and "credentialled community languages"

The new financial year has started and so has the new points test for General Skilled Migration to Australia. I have looked at the details of the new test on my website.

One of the peculiarities of the new test that deserves special comment is the 5 points awarded for a "credentialled community language". Under the old test, points were available for anyone who was competent in a designated foreign language, with competency demonstrated by having completed a Bachelors degree in any subject that was taught in that language, or alternatively having a professional level translating or interpreting accreditation from the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI).

The new category drops the university qualification entirely and replaces it with a paraprofessional NAATI accreditation. So what?

In the greater scheme of things, I suppose 5 points is not a large component of a test which has a pass mark of 65. For some people of course it could be make or break, and it will certainly be of greater significance from July next year when the new "SkillSelect" model will not have a fixed pass mark and applicants will need to try to maximise their points in any way they can.

As someone who has a long personal history in the translating and interpreting field over 30 years, with professional qualifications in four languages other than English, I feel the need to make a few comments all the same.

Do these people have any idea of what they are doing? Did anyone ask a professional linguist (that is, someone who has studied the science of language called linguistics, not someone who speaks several languages)?

Using a translating or interpreting test as a measure of a person's ability to communicate in a given language is a nonsense. The skill sets involved are totally different. Particularly when the level is reduced to what NAATI calls paraprofessional, formerly known as level 2, which is about the standard you can get from a good computer program, what is happening is that you are using a criterion from one discipline to measure competency in another.

But using the wrong test is only one of the problems with this new criterion. A test is a test, but not if you can't actually sit for it. NAATI conducts paraprofessional translating tests in only a few specific languages (like Swahili and Nuer), so for most people the only option is an interpreting test. No such tests are not available outside Australia, and according to my investigations with NAATI, nor do they have any intention of offering them overseas. It is not clear how long the waiting period for testing in Australia will be once the applications start hitting the desk at the NAATI head office.

The boys and girls at Belconnen (DIAC HQ) should make the trip to Deakin (NAATI HQ), via the School of Languages at the ANU, to get a bit of basic education in linguistics, and then have a second go at this one.