Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with new Australian citizens on Australia Day earlier this year.

The government’s new Temporary Skill Shortage Visas require a higher level of English than the 457 visas they are designed to  replicate replace — it’s one of the few tangible elements of the new temporary work visa policy. Talking to Kieran Gilbert on Sky News’ AM Agenda on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton linked the new requirements to the government’s desire that “the default position to be an Aussie worker for an Aussie job”. But do the new requirements actually mean fewer applicants? Or fewer visas granted? Or that successful applicants will have a higher standard of English? It turns out the actual changes are very minor, and a look at the numbers indicates that the new test won’t make much difference at all.

The TSS visas are divided into two streams, short term and medium term. Applicants are tested under the International English Language Testing System, the standard English proficiency test for migrants to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The test scores are between 0 (which you get if you fail to answer the questions) and 9 (which designate you as an “expert user” of English who “shows complete understanding”) and assesses applicants against four criteria — listening, reading, speaking and writing. The language requirements for the short-term stream haven’t changed from 457s at all and stipulate an overall band score of 5.0 (a “modest user” according to the test) and a minimum score of 4.5 across each of the four test components. The medium-term test is very slightly tougher, requiring a minimum score of 5.0 in each of the the categories.

“I don’t think the language changes will have a tangible impact on applications in the future,” research officer at the Crawford Policy Centre at Australian National University Henry Sherrell told Crikey. 

He said that, with exception of the changes to the employer nomination program, many of the changes that have been announced (to the extent that any detail is available) are “largely by the by”.

“It’s also worth noting that it was this government who actually relaxed the language test in 2015,” Sherrell said.

The IELTS testing for the medium-term stream sets the test at the same level of difficulty that was in place for 457 applicants until April 2015, when then-assistant minister for immigration and border protection Michaelia Cash quietly eased the requirements as part of a raft of changes. This easing of language restrictions did not open any floodgates in terms of applications; the number of primary applications for 457 visas actually modestly decreased under the easier regime, with 51,130 granted in the year to June 2015 and 45,400 in the 12 months to June 2016, continuing a downward trend from the previous year. 

Further, the 2015 statistics on the IELTS website show the mean band score for general training test takers of 6.2. Across all four categories there is no mean score below 5.9, indicating the vast majority of test takers exceed a score of 5. IELTS operates in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Crikey requested specific statistics from IELTS Australia regarding what portion of test takers achieve the requirements of the new regime, but IELTS did not respond before deadline. 

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection were contacted for comment but did not reply before deadline.

Peter Fray

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