After nearly 11 years in office, it wouldn’t be surprising for a few cracks to be showing in the Howard government.

In fact there’s been very little disunity, but some of it was on display yesterday in response to a widely-reported Monash University study on the language skills of overseas students.

I haven’t read the study, so I can’t comment on how well it might bear out the media claims. (Experience teaches you not to put much faith in newspaper reports of academic studies.)

On the one hand, its author, Bob Birrell, is an immigration sceptic from way back, and probably knew in advance what he was looking for.

On the other hand, it’s not at all implausible that our universities have as much trouble getting students to speak English as they do in getting them to learn many other things.

This is a well-known problem in America, where undergraduates routinely complain that they cannot understand the graduate students who are teaching them – although no-one knows how much of this is just white kids from the heartland who freak out at hearing a foreign accent.

Either way, to blame immigration policy for university failings looks like classic buck-passing. “But the government let them come here!” is a poor excuse for letting students graduate with inadequate English – unless of course your default position is that no foreigners should be allowed in at all. And no-one was pointing out that plenty of students who were born here seem to have trouble with the language as well.

Education minister Julie Bishop tried to defend both the government and the universities, and accused Birrell of making an “extraordinary” attack. As one of the relative liberals in the government’s upper ranks, her instinct was evidently to have no truck with xenophobia.

But when the Prime Minister spoke, he was being more careful, saying “I’d like to look below the headline of that research before saying other than that, on the face of it, it’s concerning”.

Perhaps mindful of the support he’s received from Birrell in the past, his instinct is to wait and see, in case xenophobia turns out to have a useful political application.

Peter Fray

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