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Rocky start

It has been a rocky start to the national registration and accreditation scheme, with AHPRA coming under fire for its handling of international students and overseas-qualified nurses. Annie May reports.

In the two months since taking over the registration of more than 500,000 health professionals, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency has come under much criticism.

For the nursing and midwifery board, its biggest issue revolved around international students – particularly those whose student visas expired on 30 August and who have job offers dependant upon registration.

The ANF (Victorian branch) believes there were about 400 international nursing students in this, or a similar position.

While they met the former state nursing board’s course entry standard, they did not meet the NMBA new English standard (IELTS 7 or equivalent), introduced on 1 July.

“Many of the students, from China, India and the Philippines, were faced with a devastating situation as they had successfully completed their course, but could not register and their student visas ran out on 30 August,” Lisa Fitzpatrick, ANF (Vic branch) secretary, said.

The students’ only option had been to apply for a tourist visa, which would have prevented them from working and earning any income at all.

“As the students had already met the University/ TAFE English standard to undertake their courses, this was not an issue about English standards. This was about a fair process for international nursing students who met the standards when they started their courses but not on 1 July 2010 because the goalposts were changed without warning,” Fitzpatrick said.

The NMBA reviewed the students’ situation on 12 August and decided it would accelerate the registration process for students whose visas expired at the end of the month. These mid-year graduate students will now have to meet the NMBA English standard by 31 May 2011 or they will not be registered again.

Nursing Review has received a number of comments from international nursing students, venting their anger over the requirement for IELTS level of 7, saying they had not received enough notice.

But a spokesperson for AHPRA said the requirement had been agreed upon for some time.
“In July 2009, all the state nursing boards agreed to a national standard of 7. AHPRA received no feedback that this was inappropriate, and extensive consultation took place,” the spokesperson said.

“The board has communicated its expectations widely to the university and higher education sectors and believes it should come as no surprise to anyone preparing students for entry to the professions that this standard now applies.”

The NMBA has not extended the transition arrangements to students currently studying and who expect to complete their course by the end of this year.

“We believe these students will have had enough time and warning to meet the standard,” the spokesperson said.

The Queensland Nurses Union believes the current English language registration standard has been poorly considered and is not aimed at assessing the legitimate vocational English language capacity of applicants.

“We are very concerned that student nurses and midwives are faced with significant financial and professional disadvantage as a consequence of the harsh nature of the English language registration standard,” it said.

But reducing the IELTS academic level of 7 is a point the board and AHPRA wont be moved on.
“The requirement will not be reviewed. However the application of it will be looked at to make sure the standard is clear and all education providers and students understand the requirement,” the spokesperson said.

“The board set this standard to ensure all nurses and midwives in Australia can provide safe care to the Australian community and can communicate effectively – orally and in writing – with their patients and clients, and with other health professionals.

“This standard is consistent with the English language skills requirements for registration in the United Kingdom and is the lowest minimum standard for English language across all the health professions in Australia.”

AHPRA also came under fire after Australian citizen Gerard Kellett – who completed high school in Northern Ireland – was told he must pass an English language test to be eligible for registration.
Nursing Review was also contacted by another recent graduate in the same situation, who while being an Australian citizen for 20 years, did her secondary schooling in New Zealand.

The AHPRA spokesperson admitted that this was a result of confusion on the board’s part.

“There was initial confusion over the board’s expectations for applicants who completed their secondary education outside Australia. It has now been clarified that applicants who undertook secondary study in English meet the standard, regardless of which country it took place,” the spokesperson said.

Another group who have reported experiencing delays in registration are overseas-qualified nurses.

AHPRA said consistent criteria to assess applications for overseas-qualified nurses would be completed this week and once that a framework was established would begin processing applications from next week.

For up-to-date information, AHPRA advises people to look at the board’s website at www.nursingmidwiferyboard.gov.au.

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