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. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Migrant language service budget cuts

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 so-called “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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2017 as "Unsettling changes".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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