English language requirements already exist for some visas
Australia’s migration system can largely be split into five groups: visitor visas, humanitarian visas, study and training visas, family and partner visas, and working and skilled visas.
Visas in the study and skilled streams already have some level of English language requirement, which changes depending on which visa within the stream you are applying for.
For example, a training visa (subclass 407) requires the applicant to have “functional” English (we will come back to what this means in the next section) while someone applying for an Employer Nomination Scheme visa (subclass 186) needs to have “competent” English.
For some visas, partners or dependents of the main applicant will also need to meet an English language requirement or pay additional fees, up to $9,000 in some cases, instead of meeting the requirement.
Citizens of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Canada and New Zealand are not required to undergo a test to prove they are English speakers.
Functional, vocational, competent, proficient, or superior?
There are five tiers of English-language competency, starting from functional English and moving upwards through vocational, competent, proficient and then superior.
Prospective migrants can choose to take one, or more, of five international tests provided by different external companies to prove their skill level.
All examine listening, reading, writing and speaking skills but differ slightly in their delivery, such as whether they are a physical exam or online.
Alan Tudge defends new English language requirement for partner visa applicants
The tests for all tiers are the same but the higher the tier, the higher the minimum score required in each component.
Applicants can take the test as many times as it takes for them to get the score they need, but they will need to pay for each test. One sitting of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), for example, costs $355 for an exam lasting just under three hours.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), another option accepted by the Australian government, similarly costs about $300 for just over three hours.
John Hourigan, national president of the Migration Institute of Australia, the peak body representing migration agents, says having already achieved success on an English language test when it is required for an application is usually a prerequisite for a migration agent to take on a case.
“If they come to me, I tell them to go get the English test and come back. Without the test, we can’t do anything for them, they can’t apply,” he said.
How well would you do on the test?
As mentioned above, the government accepts English language test results from a variety of providers, all with different questions. They do, however, test the same skills; reading, listening, writing and speaking.
Reading skills are tested by providing a text - such as a product notice, an event description, or a page from a book - and asking prospective migrants to answer a series of short questions based on the information provided. A practice reading question provided by UK-based provider IELTS can be seen below.
For the listening component, an audio track is played of a conversation between two people and, similar to the reading section, examinees are required to fill out an answer sheet based on what was said.
An IELTS practise question for this section shows an audio recording of a phone conversation between a worker at a shipping company and a customer hoping to send a box. After listening, the examinee is asked to fill out a hypothetical booking form with the details disclosed in the call.
The writing component tests two different types of written communication; practical writing, such as a letter or document, and an essay arguing a point of view.
In the IELTS practice questions, the respondent is asked to write a letter to their university accommodation manager or local library in fewer than 150 words. The essay question asks the examinee to respond to a prompt - for example, "why is shopping so popular?" - with at least 250 words.
To test speech, people are asked to introduce themselves and converse with the examiner after receiving a certain prompt, such as “what’s the most interesting part of your town?” or “how long have you lived here?”
The process is “quite difficult,” said Mr Hourigan, who is also a registered migration agent.
“People who come from isolated, remote communities, they are often illiterate in their own countries … they will generally not pass it.”
What will the new partner visa requirement entail?
The Department of Home Affairs is yet to release all of the details of how the changes will operate, with consultations to take place with key interest groups over the coming months.
We do know the requirement will require partner visa applicants and their sponsors (an Australian permanent resident or citizen) to have a 'functional' level of English or be able “demonstrate that they have made reasonable efforts to learn English”.
SBS News understands this can be demonstrated by completing classes through the Australian Migrant English Program (AMEP) or attending an English-language education institution, suggesting not everyone will need to take one of the above-mentioned tests.
Mr Tudge last week said one example of how efforts could be demonstrated would be by completing 500 hours of AMEP classes. The free classes are available in each Australian state and territory and by distance education.
Importantly, the requirement will not be introduced to the provisional partner visa (subclass 309 and 820) and will only need to be met at the permanent residency stage (subclass 100 and 801).
Applications for provisional and permanent partner visas are usually made at the same time, with the provisional visa allowing the applicant to remain in Australia for as long as it takes for a decision to be made on their permanent visa or until the application is withdrawn.
The changes will be introduced from late 2021 and only apply to new partner visa applicants, meaning those who have already submitted an application will not be impacted.
SBS News also understands the requirement will also not apply to people on humanitarian visas who wish to bring their family members to Australia.
There will also be exemptions for people in compelling and compassionate circumstances, such as if someone has a learning disability.