Fed­eral bud­get changes to a pro­gram that teaches new Aus­tralians lan­guage skills are, ac­cord­ing to the Adult Mi­grant English Ser­vice, pri­ori­tis­ing cost sav­ings above so­cial in­te­gra­tion.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Santilla Chingaipe.

From next Satur­day, July 1, the way English is taught to many mi­grants and refugees on Aus­tralia’s east coast will change for the first time in decades.

For more than 60 years the Adult

Mi­grant English Ser­vice (AMES) has been de­liv­er­ing classes as part of its set­tle­ment pro­gram, ini­tially set up by the Com­mon­wealth, with as­sis­tance from the states, to help set­tle post­war mi­grants. Mi­grants are given free and vol­un­tary English lan­guage classes – cur­rently capped at 510 hours – through the Adult Mi­grant English Pro­gram (AMEP).

In the late 1990s, un­der the Howard govern­ment, fund­ing to the AMEP changed con­sid­er­ably. Prior to those changes, funds were di­rectly ad­min­is­tered by the Com­mon­wealth to the states and ter­ri­to­ries. In 1998, the fed­eral govern­ment ten­dered out the pro­gram and awarded con­tracts to AMES and TAFE, as well as other pri­vate providers.

Ac­cord­ing to the NSW Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion, three out of five re­gional con­tracts went to a large pri­vate provider. In Victoria, AMES won the ten­der and con­tin­ued to ad­min­is­ter the ser­vices. In South Aus­tralia, TAFE lost most of its busi­ness to a pri­vate provider, and in Western Aus­tralia the ten­ders were won by three providers – two TAFE col­leges that pro­vided classes and a third pro­vid­ing ini­tial as­sess­ment of speak­ing and com­pre­hen­sion lev­els.

Then im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Philip Ruddock de­fended the mea­sures at the time, say­ing “they would pro­vide bet­ter ser­vices for clients, in­clud­ing a wider choice of provider, more flex­i­bil­ity in ser­vice de­liv­ery op­tions, and bet­ter path­ways to fur­ther study or em­ploy­ment whilst en­sur­ing best value for money”.

The move was con­demned by the La­bor MP for Blax­land, Michael Hat­ton, who ar­gued it was aimed at cut­ting costs as “the low­est ten­derer at the low­est cost ended up with the con­tracts”.

He went fur­ther to add that mem­bers of his elec­torate had been ham­pered by the move.

In New South Wales alone, a re­ported 500 teach­ers from the pro­gram lost their jobs as a re­sult.

Nearly two decades later, an­other dras­tic change is un­der way as part of changes out­lined in last year’s fed­eral bud­get. The pro­gram has been moved from the Depart­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion to the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, with many in the sec­tor ar­gu­ing this move sees the de­liv­ery of the ser­vice sim­ply as English tu­ition and not part of the broader set­tle­ment con­text.

The fed­eral As­sis­tant Min­is­ter for Vo­ca­tional Ed­u­ca­tion and Skills, Karen An­drews, says the busi­ness model for the mi­grant lan­guage pro­gram was re­vised to “al­low for more flex­i­ble and in­no­va­tive train­ing meth­ods to of­fer more op­por­tu­nity for par­tic­i­pa­tion as well as en­cour­age con­tin­ued at­ten­dance”.

Sound fa­mil­iar? It was a sim­i­lar line used by Ruddock decades ear­lier.

A spokesper­son for the fed­eral Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing says the ten­der process was open to all reg­is­tered train­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions. They say the sub­mis­sions were as­sessed by a “de­part­men­tal panel that con­sid­ered tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity, ca­pac­ity to de­liver ser­vices, risk and value for money”.

Victoria is Aus­tralia’s most di­verse state, with nearly 50 per cent of Vic­to­ri­ans be­ing born over­seas or hav­ing at least one par­ent who was born over­seas. It also takes in about 33 per cent of Aus­tralia’s hu­man­i­tar­ian in­take. And it’s here that the AMEP is see­ing a sig­nif­i­cant change in its de­liv­ery.

AMES has lost a sig­nif­i­cant part of its busi­ness as a re­sult of the mea­sures an­nounced. The ser­vice’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Cather­ine Scarth, says the pro­gram wasn’t just about teach­ing mi­grants English.

“The con­text in which English was taught was ac­tu­ally about set­tle­ment. Learn­ing English, or learn­ing any lan­guage is best learnt when you are com­pletely im­mersed in the com­mu­nity in which you’re liv­ing,” she says, “and you’re learn­ing English in the con­text of be­ing out in the com­mu­nity, whether you’re at work or par­tic­i­pat­ing in so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, what­ever it might be.

“The AMEP also had a broader set­tle­ment con­text to it which was about mak­ing sure that new ar­rivals un­der­stood the laws of the land, there was an el­e­ment of ori­en­ta­tion into the com­mu­ni­ties that they were in, help­ing them find work.”

AMES says it has also built an ex­ten­sive net­work of vol­un­teers, many from var­i­ous cul­tural back­grounds, that the or­gan­i­sa­tion says helps to ease the tran­si­tion into a new coun­try.

It also taught English through pro­grams it ran with Net­ball Victoria and the Western Bull­dogs, in­tro­duc­ing mi­grants and refugees to Aus­tralian cul­ture through sport.

AMES-ad­min­is­tered English classes in­cluded run­ning “mums and bubs” ses­sions that in­tro­duce new mums to the ser­vices that are avail­able to them and their chil­dren. It also ran pro­grams for young peo­ple ad­dress­ing their spe­cific needs, in­clud­ing work around anti-rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion.

“Set­tle­ment is not a lin­ear process where you learn English to a level and then go and find work or fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. It very much is about a process where we try to in­te­grate all of those things,” says Scarth.

AMES lost its ten­der to de­liver English lan­guage classes in metropoli­tan ar­eas in Victoria. That will now be de­liv­ered by sev­eral providers, in­clud­ing Mel­bourne Polytech­nic.

A spokesper­son for Mel­bourne Polytech­nic says it was awarded the con­tract through a “fair and trans­par­ent process”. The spokesper­son adds that their pri­or­ity is the well­be­ing of clients and a seam­less tran­si­tion of ser­vices. “There­fore our in­ten­tion is, where pos­si­ble, to en­sure that ex­ist­ing AMEP vol­un­teers will re­main with the AMEP client they are cur­rently matched to.”

AMES says 400 teach­ers have lost their jobs in Victoria.

In NSW, TAFE Illawarra has also lost its con­tract to de­liver AMEP ser­vices. That de­ci­sion has been mired in con­tro­versy. The ini­tial con­tract by the fed­eral govern­ment was awarded to Nav­i­tas, which has since sub­con­tracted the pro­gram to an­other provider, MAX So­lu­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to the Illawarra Mer­cury, the NSW Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion says the de­ci­sion could see more than 70 teach­ers and sup­port staff lose their jobs in the Illawarra and South Coast re­gion. But the con­cerns don’t end there. The im­pact these changes will have on the broader set­tle­ment process are also a cause for worry.

Ed­die Mi­callef is the chair­man of the main body rep­re­sent­ing mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in Victoria, the Eth­nic Com­mu­ni­ties Coun­cil of Victoria

(ECCV). He says, “We were quite shocked be­cause we thought AMES was do­ing quite a good job, not only in teach­ing English, but in pre­par­ing refugees and new mi­grants for be­ing in­volved in all the struc­ture within the so­ci­ety. It was more than just English lan­guage classes to us.”

Mi­callef has com­mended the work the ser­vice has done in in­te­grat­ing Karen refugees from Myan­mar.

“It’s been sec­ond to none,” he says. “They’ve helped them es­tab­lish in the com­mu­nity, they’ve set up struc­tures, com­mu­nity li­braries, com­mu­nity groups and helped them to in­te­grate into the lo­cal em­ploy­ment agen­cies and worked with in­dus­try to achieve that. And so that’s all sort of gone, and I don’t know what the govern­ment’s aim is in tak­ing away those es­tab­lished links that have been work­ing very ef­fec­tively.”

And there are im­pli­ca­tions to these changes.

“I un­der­stand that gov­ern­ments are al­ways try­ing to go the most cost-ef­fec­tive way of de­liv­er­ing ser­vices at the low­est cost to govern­ment. It may be part of it. I’m not sure if it’s ide­o­log­i­cal,” Mi­callef says.

Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics, the well­be­ing of mi­grants and their fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence is strongly tied to their em­ploy­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and English lan­guage pro­fi­ciency.

The timing of the changes has also raised ques­tions. The fed­eral govern­ment re­cently pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to tighten cit­i­zen­ship re­quire­ments. The mea­sures will re­quire would-be cit­i­zens to demon­strate greater English lan­guage skills as well as a com­mit­ment to so­called “Aus­tralian val­ues”.

Mi­callef says the changes are cre­at­ing a desta­bil­is­ing pe­riod for mi­grants and refugees in Aus­tralia.

“I just think these cur­rent changes add to the un­cer­tainty,” he says. “And when you’re try­ing to build a so­cially co­he­sive com­mu­nity that’s to­tally in­clu­sive, I think that some­times mil­i­tates whether that will be achieved and it holds it back a bit,” he says.

The shadow min­is­ter for mul­ti­cul­tural af­fairs, Tony Burke, agrees. “It says it all that at a time when the govern­ment is speak­ing about the need for peo­ple to speak English, those that teach English are los­ing their fund­ing and los­ing their jobs.”

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce has touted the im­por­tance of new Aus­tralians be­ing able to con­verse in English. “English is our lan­guage,” he said. “It’s an in­cred­i­ble en­dow­ment to come to this free, peace­ful na­tion and, of course, it comes with a for­mal con­tract. You’ve got to make your­self avail­able so you can get easy em­ploy­ment, that you can con­verse eas­ily. So that re­quires speak­ing English.”

While ad­dress­ing the United Na­tions last year, Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull spoke of the ben­e­fits of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and de­scribed Aus­tralia as an im­mi­gra­tion na­tion.

“Di­ver­sity is an in­vest­ment against marginal­i­sa­tion and ex­trem­ism, it helps our com­mu­nity unite, rather than be di­vided,” he said. “At a time when global con­cern around im­mi­gra­tion and bor­der con­trol is ris­ing, the need to build com­mu­nity sup­port for mi­gra­tion has never been clearer. Aus­tralia’s ex­pe­ri­ence bears this out.”

And with these changes to AMEP sched­uled for July 1, those very ex­pe­ri­ences are at risk of be­ing un­der­mined. Re­struc­tur­ing pro­grams that have in­te­grated newly ar­rived mi­grants and refugees for more than six decades might be about mak­ing bud­get sav­ings, but the

• long-term costs could be much greater.


SANTILLA CHINGAIPE is a jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary film­maker.

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