International nursing students have accused Deakin University and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) of misleading them and bungling course registration after introducing new English language standards for the nursing profession.

Thirty Chinese students say the ruling puts their visas at risk, instilling fear they could be deported at the end of the month. The students were enrolled into the Bachelor of Nursing at the Burwood campus and were granted advanced standing due to their previous nursing experience and academic study.

The new national nursing registration standards, introduced by AHPRA on July 1, state all nursing applicants must be able to prove they have an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) standard of seven points out of the nine — in speaking, listening, reading and writing — or can demonstrate they were taught English throughout their secondary schooling.

AHPRA is the peak national body setting the registration and accreditation process for the 10 health professions, including the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA). Before the NMBA was established, English language standards were set by individual state boards, such as the Nurses Board of Victoria, and international students required an IELTS score of 6.5 to become registered.

The students claim the university knew as early as August last year that the new English language standards were to be introduced, but ignored it until they had almost completed their course, to avoid refunding them a $24,000 enrolment fee.

“We feel cheated and tricked by the university,” one student Vicky (her English name; she didn’t want to be identified) told Crikey. “Australia is supposed to be a fair-go country, yet we are not being treated in a fair way. We do not expect such unfair treatment in Australia.”

The students also feel they are being discriminated against because they are from China, as students from India were granted provisional registration with the NMBA. They question whether this is because they had better community advocates and are considered more politically sensitive.

“It is unfair,” Vicky said. “Why do the Indian students get registration [provisional] and not us?”

Before enrolling in July 2009, students were informed they required an IELTS score of 6.5 to study nursing and registration with the NBV. It came as a shock when they learnt they could not gain registration with the new NMBA unless they had an IELTS score of seven.  A score of six is considered competent, while seven is proficient. Most skilled workers require an IELTS score of six.

In April this year the students approached the nursing faculty and asked about rumours that registration standards were to be changed. The university dismissed their fears, telling them not to listen to unsubstantiated rumours as there were no planned changes to the standards. But in July, before the students graduated, the university informed them via an email they must resit the IELTS and score seven or more to become registered with the NMBA.

The students’ visas were to expire at the end of August and they felt there was no support provided other than an offer of funding the preparation course at a slightly reduced cost. A group of students met with the vice-chancellor of Burwood campus demanding the university provide more support.

Students say a Chinese member of the nursing staff attacked them for raising their concerns, while the head of nursing and midwifery, Professor Maxine Duke, said that preparing and sitting for the exam was their responsibility. The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) intervened, demanding the university provide the IELTS preparation course for free, along with extending the students visas. The ANF also provided them with a five-week preparation course free, which they found to be superior to the university’s course.

The university claimed students, who had completed a Bachelor of Nursing degree, would be exempt as “applicants for registration that had completed a bachelors degree in English in Australia were exempt” from the new standards. The university claimed that clause was later revoked by the AHPRA.

On April 11 last year an education agent in India emailed Deakin International asking when students complete the nursing course whether they had to resit the IELTS and score seven to be registered. A staff member emailed back on August 13 saying “no” as “successful completion of the course allows students to register with the NBV” and they would not have to resit the IELTS.

The AHPRA claimed all universities and registered training organisations were informed in 2008 the revised IELTS criteria would be implemented in July. Spokesperson Charmaine Dillon-Smith rejects claims that AHPRA did not consult extensively:

“All Australian state and territory nursing boards endorsed the same standards in July 2009. The NMBA consulted extensively on its proposed English language skills standard in October 2009,” she said. The changes were designed to protect the Australian public, she said, admitting the recent jailing in Queensland of doctor Jayant Patel for manslaughter was the catalyst for the changes.

Students are now concerned they won’t be able to pass the exam with such little preparation. Several students enrolled into TAFE courses along with undertaking the preparation course in case they didn’t pass. Vicky says if they had known about the changes before enrolling they would have worked at reaching the higher score back home in China.

“The short notice is too stressful. Too much pressure for us all,” she said. Students would prefer to have provisional registration, she said, which would allow them to take the exam at a later date.