Foreign medical practitioners who want to work in Australia say their recent crucial English exam results were sabotaged by unacceptable conditions. Candidates tell Crikey they were “humiliated” by the process.

A report into registration processes and support for overseas doctors tabled in federal parliament last week details numerous complaints from international candidates, who are required to pass the exam to practice in Australia. They say they are afraid to speak out, worried their registration applications and future medical careers could be jeopardised by the Medical Board of Australia.

The OET Centre insists the exams are properly run and there are “well-established complaints procedures in place”.

Candidates who sat the Occupational English Test (OET) on March 17 in Sydney have told Crikey the sound quality for the listening test component of the exam was inaudible, with candidates having to drag their chairs and desks closer to the speakers in order to hear the assessment audio track. Candidates who demanded the situation to be fixed were ignored. A mobile phone belonging to one of the examiners was ringing during the exam. In one room, the air conditioner was rattling loudly. In another, the test had to be started three times due to a range of issues. When candidates complained to the supervisor they were told that “there would be no changes”.

The speaking test component of the OET requires candidates to sit the exam individually and be assessed by an examiner. Crikey was told the tests started an hour-and-a-half late, with some interviews changed at the last minute without the candidate’s knowledge.

One student who had their test time changed was travelling on the bus when she received word from her friend that she had already missed her exam.

“I got a big shock … I changed from bus to a taxi and paid big money to go to [the] venue,” she told Crikey. “The whole time I was shivering and crying … because if you miss one test there is no use for the rest.”

The student was told something might be sorted out for her in the evening and she was made to sit the remaining OET sub-tests scheduled for the day. She said: “How could I take the rest of the three exams well?”

Candidates say complaints to the OET have fallen on deaf ears. Formal complaints sent to the OET Centre, the Medical Board of Australia and the Dental Board of Australia — seen by Crikey, from as far back as 2008 — have received generic emails in response.

“They [the Medical Board] basically told me it was none of their business,” said one complainant, who is an English tutor and registered doctor. “It wasn’t in their jurisdiction so they didn’t care.”

The exam operates independent of the Medical Board — OETs are outsourced to the OET Centre, an independent business unit of the Centre for Adult Education. A spokesperson for the Medical Board said complaints to do with poor administration should be taken up with the OET Centre.

Submissions made to the inquiry extensively noted the poor conditions of previous OETs. David Lamb, an English tutor, listed examples of poor OET conditions in his submission, noting:

“Many candidates have told me of problems occurring on test days, varying from officiousness by test supervisors, to rudeness and lack of consideration, such as not allowing candidates to enter the test building until the beginning of the test registration procedure on the excuse that ‘We don’t rent the area near the lift,’ forcing candidates to wait in the rain.”

Another submission complained of inhumane treatment:

“We have to stay in the same room for three hours to complete three components of English test. There are approximately ten minute breaks between each component. However we are not allowed to leave the room. I begged invigilators ‘may I go to the toilet under your escort because I have to change my pad,’ answer is ‘no’. I was chilled and humiliated.”

The student went on to detail another incident:

“The speaking test may be the worst part of the test. Some of my friends found the person, who is supposed to conduct the speaking test, could not actually conduct the test. She/he did not even know how to turn on the recorder. Other friends complained that the role players were too nervous to play the role. They frankly told candidates that they did not know how to play the role. They constantly looked at the clock and repeatedly asked the same question … Some other role players did not know what the topic and scenario were. Some of them didn’t remember how many role-plays they needed to do. One friend had to persuade the person that she had to do two. Bad conduct and bad attitude were prevalent.”

University tutors who prepare students for the OET have told Crikey there are no administrative standards in place for the exam. They say staff aren’t trained professionals (OET denies this) and some are backpackers seeking casual jobs. “There was one instance where an examiner fell asleep,” one said.

A climate of fear is evident amongst candidates. Even university teachers and tutors who assist the students to prepare for the test fear that they will be penalised by the Medical Board if they speak out. They believe if they speak out against the poor treatment of candidates they will be persecuted. Many fear the Board will blacklist their application for registration. Others don’t see the point in complaining as nothing will be done.

Crikey was bombarded with student accounts of mistreatment but all were too afraid to be named. “Please,” one begged, “I don’t want to give any details about me … I am so afraid.”

Another said: “I’m afraid to speak out against the OET organisation group because my future is at their mercy.”

The OET Centre provided a statement to Crikey. It read in part:

“For candidates who feel an issue impacted their performance on test-day, a Special Consideration procedure [is] instigated. The purpose of the Special Consideration process is to compensate candidates when it is agreed that something happened on the test day that may have affected their performance.

“While the OET Centre makes every effort to ensure the administration of the OET is conducted in a consistent and fair manner, events could occur that may interfere with the administration of the test. The OET receives a number of enquiries concerning test scores, assessment procedures and test results. The OET Centre has a Client services Team and Assessment Services Team and these teams respond where possible to enquiries within 24 hours, where further investigation is required candidates are notified and as a result it may take longer than 24 hours.”

Labor MP Steve Georganas, who chaired the inquiry, says while the submissions are “concerning” he found no hard evidence to back up the candidates claims that examiners acted poorly. But he told Crikey comprehensive feedback needs to be given to candidates on their results, perhaps including video footage of how the student behaved during the speaking assessment. He believes the OET Centre is capable of conducting the exams professionally.

The OET measures the proficiency of health practitioners who are qualified to practice medicine in one country and wish to begin practice in Australia. Candidates must achieve an “A” or “B” grading for each of the four sub-test to pass and must pass all components simultaneously in one-sitting.

Candidates pay $580 to sit the exam. If a student fails just one of the sub-tests they are required to pay for another exam. “That’s unfair,” one student said.

“The OET is a real money spinner,” an English tutor said. “It’s immoral.”

The OET Centre cites the “considerable costs” in producing test materials. “In addition, the OET utilises a two ‘rater’ system to ensure all candidates test result are fairly assessed. While this adds to the integrity of the test results it also incurs additional costs,” the spokesperson said.

Practitioners have the option of sitting an alternative exam, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which only costs $330 and has strict rules and standards around staff conducting the exams. But most candidates take the OET as it is a professional-based test.

The parliamentary inquiry highlighted inefficiencies in the registration process and questioned why candidates must pass all sub-tests in one sitting and the lack of feedback on results. It also recommended extending the accreditation period to four years — practitioners currently have to sit the exam every two years.

Georganas is confident many of the recommendations in the report, ordered by former Health Minister Nicola Roxon, will be taken up by the government.