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.

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