Australia announces updated ELICOS standards

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Australian government will now require independent scrutiny of assessments for students progressing from intensive English language courses to further study in Australia
  • As of March 2018, the country’s ELICOS standards will apply to all providers of intensive English courses, including VET institutes

Australian Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham took the opportunity of his ministerial address at the Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) in Hobart last week to unveil updated standards for the country’s ELICOS sector (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students).

Formally introduced on 11 October 2017 and in effect as of 1 March 2018, the newly released standards are the product of extended consultations within the industry. They address nine broad areas of delivery and administration for ELICOS programmes. Most notably, the updated standards:

  1. Set out a requirement for “formal measures…to ensure that assessment outcomes are comparable to other criteria used for admission to the tertiary education course of study” in cases where “ELICOS courses are provided under a direct entry arrangement to a tertiary education course.”
  2. Amend the definition of “ELICOS provider” to ensure that all registered intensive English language courses, including those offered by vocational education and training (VET) institutions, are now drawn within the scope of the ELICOS standards.

“What we hear…is that too many students are slipping through the cracks. Some just don’t have the English language skills they need to succeed,” said Minister Birmingham. “So the new standards will make it compulsory for students to be assessed on their pathway into other tertiary education courses, to ensure they have the right level of English language skills to succeed. This is about ensuring our students, wherever they come from, have the English language skills they need to participate, contribute and learn.”

minister-simon-birmingham-speaking-at-the-31st-annual-australian-international-education-conference-in-hobart-tasmania
Minister Simon Birmingham speaking at the 31st annual Australian International Education Conference in Hobart, Tasmania

A joint communique – issued by English Australia and eight other peak bodies in Australia – was quick to clarify that the new standards do not call for additional formal testing as students progress to further studies. “There is no requirement for further standardised testing under the ELICOS National Standards 2018,” says the group statement. “Testing is only one form of assessment that may be considered and education providers will still set their own English language requirements for entry to their courses. Crucially, also, the revised standards do not change the existing visa requirements to study in Australia – nor the pathways to further study. It is important that potential students understand this will not make it harder to study in Australia.”

A related item in The Australian puts the matter more plainly: “Tertiary institutions generally accept feeder colleges’ judgments of the students’ English skills without conducting their own assessments. The new arrangements, which apply from next year, require the English colleges to have their assessment processes validated externally.”

English Australia CEO Brett Blacker explains to the newspaper that ELICOS providers could accomplish this by conducting joint assessments with other language programmes, or by otherwise exposing their student assessments to independent scrutiny. “It could be two institutions working together to do line marking of their courses, to ensure that they would have come out with the same assessment outcome,” he added.

Casting a wider net

In what is arguably the most significant aspect of the updated standards, they will now apply to all providers of intensive English courses. As of March 2018, this will include Australian VET providers, a sector that is regulated separately and has not been subject to ELICOS requirements to this point. Going forward, intensive English programmes offered by VET institutes will be subject to the same standards as all other ELICOS provider, including those pertaining to contact hours, class sizes, staff credentials, and student assessment.

In his AIEC remarks, Minister Birmingham said that this means, “For the first time ELICOS study via VET courses will require particular teacher qualifications, as is the case elsewhere, set out with a minimum of 20 face-to-face contact hours, and a maximum teacher-to-student ratio of one to 18. These new standards will give more students better skills which will set them up for further study and work in Australia successfully.”

In a related statement, English Australia’s Brett Blacker noted that, “Australia has always been at the forefront in regard to legislation to support quality in English language teaching and the ELICOS National Standards are the cornerstone of our sectors quality assurance framework, with the new standards upholding that tradition.”

“The changes announced today will ensure that all providers of courses to international students where the outcome is solely or predominantly English language will need to adhere to the standards, and that is a positive step in ensuring a level playing field for all providers.”

As we reported earlier this year, the latest edition of the National ELICOS Market Report counts more than 172,000 enrolments in intensive English programmes in Australia (and just over 2.3 million student weeks) for 2016.

The significance of the updated standards released last week is borne out by the fact that nearly one in three (31%) of those students were enrolled in VET-based programmes. Further, more than six in ten students that complete ELICOS studies in Australia progress to further study in another sector.

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