Reinventing the Language Barrier & Engineering the Migrant Underclass:

The Death of the AMEP


Robert Lewis


" The AMEP is a Commonwealth English language program which aims to assist recently arrived migrants to function effectively in Australian society and to acquire the language skills they need to achieve their goals. "

Industry Commission - Exports of Education Services (Harris, 1991)

"It is incumbent on government to ensure that all Australians receive equality of treatment and opportunity through the removal of barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth, not only to strengthen our inclusive community ethos, but to build a lifestyle which attracts the skills and talents Australia needs for the future."

An Australia Day citizenship message by Philip Ruddock MP Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (1998)

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of what was once the Adult Migrant Education Program, now the Adult Migrant English Program. In many respects the name change is suggestive of more profound changes to migrant education: changes which have, in recent years, transformed provision and delivery of English language services to migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. Robert Lewis examines the outcomes of the program in the context of recent reforms and concludes that the program is failing to meet its stated goals.

On December 6 1992, nearly 50 busloads of AMEP teachers and students converged on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra, to protest proposed legislative changes to the AMEP. In weeks prior to the demonstration, delegates of the Ethnic Communities Councils, the Adult Migrant English Service Teachers' Association and a host of service providers lobbied federal MPs, in an attempt to dissuade the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand from proceeding with wide-ranging reforms to the program: reforms which were anticipated to be disruptive and detrimental to the program. Despite the strength of community opposition to the legislation, the legislation was guillotined through parliament with bipartisan support.

The details of both the legislated and non-legislative changes are complex, but essentially entailed the introduction of a service charge for English tuition, the restriction of tuition to an arbitrary 510 hours or Functional Proficiency (whichever came first), the introduction of Competency-based training curricula and the extension of tendering services by contract to private providers. Many of these changes were justified, at the time, as a means of improving the effectiveness of program delivery. With the benefit of hindsight, this claim has proven fatuous.

The extension of tendering in the AMEP meant that what had once been a cooperative public service became, virtually overnight, a competitive commercial operation. The consequence of this change alone was profound and immediate. Helen Moore, a program manager at the time, saw the initial impact of reforms on the program as chaotic. 'For nearly a year and a half', she says, 'chaos reigned in the adult ESL programs administered by DEET, as previous networks, knowledge and cooperative work were destroyed by competitive tendering processes and DEET incompetence. Rampant entrepreneurialism replaced professionalism in relations between providers and in program delivery...'

Managers looked to staff to assist in devising schemes to attract fee-paying migrant students. Predictably, these schemes met with failure. But the business ethos prevailed. Students became 'clients', and managers became understandably obsessed with student numbers. Without sufficient numbers registered for courses, classes could not run, and teachers lost jobs. Funding instability and the new regulatory environment ensured that AMEP managers and the teaching staff complied with the implementation of Competency-based training, despite the educationally doubtful claims of these curricula. Whatsmore, the restriction on tuition hours forced many students out of the program after making very limited language gains. Whilst many students received temporary assistance through English language tuition, upon leaving the program it is doubtful whether their English skills were adequate for their participation in the employment or training market. According to Helen Moore, 'although funding for adult ESL increased, the destruction of existing infrastructure, mismanagement of tendering process by DEET, and an absence of quality controls led to a gross waste of public monies and a deterioration in the quality of provision'.

Whilst there were certainly some positive outcomes for those migrant students who accessed the program during this period, there was a decline in the proportion of migrants who exited the program with Functional Proficiency in English. The aggregated sum of students exiting with Functional Proficiency (defined here as 'basic survival proficiency') has long been regarded as the most significant measure of the program's overall effectiveness.

In fact there has been a marked downturn in the percentage of clients who achieved Functional proficiency, with the figures falling from 22.3 per cent in 1992 to 18 percent in 1996. It is likely, whatsmore, that this downturn is understated, as figures for 1994, 95 and 96 have been 'adjusted up' to include students who continue in the program and exit the following year. The un-adjusted figures are also provided.

There may be a number of plausible explanations for this downturn in outcomes. Prior to the reforms, many students were able to remain in the program for 600 hours and more, thus ensuring that they achieved vocational proficiency, which enabled them to participate in further training and/or secure employment. The inflexibility of the Competency-based training, with its overriding emphasis on assessment, may also have undermined educational outcomes. The reform process itself was poorly managed and there was substantial 'teacher burnout' along the way. However, even prior to the restructuring of the program, there was much concern over the failure of the program to generate better outcomes for the majority of migrant students, most of whom left the program with less than basic survival proficiency.

In many respects, a more significant indicator of the government's record in assisting NESB migrants' settlement in Australia is the measure of their workforce participation, as expressed by unemployment figures. While it is difficult to obtain definitive measures of the rate of unemployment amongst new migrants, one can shed some light on the overall performance of NESB migrants by reviewing the aggregated rates of unemployment over a number of five year periods.

Throughout the eighties unemployment amongst NESB migrants increased steadily in contrast to the national average rates of unemployment, despite a corresponding downturn in the national average. In the 1991-1995 the national average increased only marginally, whilst the rate of unemployment amongst NESB migrants doubled from 10.4 - 21 percent. Whilst this trend can be attributed to a confluence of factors, limited English proficiency amongst this group is widely recognised as a key factor; perhaps the most important constraint to workforce participation.

At present, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs is conducting a longitudinal study of immigrants to Australia. This study is looking at a large sample population of new arrivals, and surveying them in three waves: 5 months after arrival, again 18 months after arrival, and a third time 2 years later. The sample group were immigrants who arrived in September, 1993. One dimension of the study looks at the relationship between English language proficiency and rates of unemployment amongst recently arrived migrants. The statistics illustrate the impact of limited English proficiency on workforce participation by contrasting unemployment rates after five months, and again after eighteen months in Australia.

These statistics show the most effected group are those migrants who, on arrival, do not speak English. After five months in the country, their rate of unemployment was 78 percent. After eighteen months it had fallen to 48 percent. Yet even amongst those who identify as speaking English well, after eighteen months in Australia, their rate of unemployment is around 20 percent. The preliminary report (Williams, 1998) highlights the importance of English language proficiency for the employment prospects of NESB migrants saying that 'unemployment rates... increase with worsening English proficiency, with falls in these rates being relatively lowest for those who speak English least well.

In many respects, these findings reinforce the widely held perception that proficiency in the English language is the key to successful participation in Australian society. The imperative therefore, should be for government to provide more effective intervention. However, the poor performance of the AMEP in recent years has not been widely publicised. Partly this is political. The government's lack of concern for migrants in general is attributable to the perception in Canberra that the migrant vote is dead. In part, it may also be that educational outcomes have been subsumed by economic imperatives. Therefore, whilst the program achieves cost reductions, its educational failures are simply overlooked.

Since the recessions of the eighties, immigration and migrant issues have become a low priority for governments, both Labor and Liberal alike. Hence, the AMEP was an easy target for the economic rationalists in Canberra, whose primary interest was to ensure the supply of the reserve army of (migrant) labour, whilst cultivating the new market in English language services. Indeed, over the last six years, the agenda of both the Labor and Coalition governments has been to rationalise program provision through cost-cutting, extension of tendering, restriction on tuition hours and introduction of more 'flexible' modes of delivery, which is ordinary language means shorter and part-time courses.

Under the Howard Coalition government, the provision of services for NESB migrants are being progressively dismantled. The Special Intervention Program has been wound down, and new arrivals are subject to a 2 year waiting period for access to social services. This waiting period treats new Australians as second class citizens, and undermines the capacity of many NESB migrants to participate in full-time English classes. Without sufficient tuition in the English language the vast majority of them are forced to join the ranks of the unemployed.

In effect, the combined reforms of the Hawke-Keating and Howard governments have rendered the AMEP educationally dysfunctional. Some initial assistance from English tuition in the program may facilitate initial settlement, however, it is obviously also engineering a migrant underclass. The fact that so many NESB migrants exit the program with less than Functional proficiency means that they cannot function effectively in Australian society. Many will struggle to improve their English, but without the necessary continuity of sustained tuition, they are likely to remain socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged. As such, they will continue to be a dominant feature in poverty reports, as they have over the past fifty years.

Robert Lewis, University of New South Wales


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