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Spotlight on English testing regime

New research explores the experience of non-English speaking nurses on their journey to registration in Australia. By Linda Belardi.

The English language requirements for registration as a nurse or midwife in Australia will come under scrutiny in the first independent study of the rules.

Professional opinion has long been divided over whether current requirements set the barrier too high for non-English speakers and potentially exclude otherwise competent professionals.

Tiffany Lynch from the University of Adelaide’s school of nursing will spend the next two years investigating the experiences of this group of nurses in sitting the required tests and the relevance of the testing regimes to the profession.

“I understand the role of the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia is to protect the public by establishing policies for the regulation of nursing and midwifery in Australia. However, it is important to establish whether these tests are meeting this objective,” she told Nursing Review.

The combined quantitative and qualitative study aims to determine if the academic nature of the prescribed International English Language Testing system (IELTS) and Occupational English Test (OET) present a barrier to registration for these nurses.

Lynch said there is also research to suggest a potential mismatch between the linguistic criteria developed and assessed by language professionals and clinical communication deemed relevant by health professionals. “Both the IELTS and the OET are developed and assessed by linguists and not nurses and all the research into this issue has been conducted by linguists so far.”

She said the nursing profession needed to have a more active say in reviewing the quality and usefulness of the standards.

Preliminary quantitative analysis of evidence from this study suggests many migrant nurses struggle to achieve the required IELTS band score of 7 and B in the OET in all subjects in one sitting, which was introduced by the Nursing and Midwifery Board in 2010.

Even once these nurses have met the current English language requirements for registration, research shows that they are still not succeeding in the workplace to the level of other migrant nurses, she said.

There is currently a lack of data on the average number of times a nurse sits the test, which test is more indicative of successful registration and whether there is evidence of test scores fluctuating between test sittings, Lynch said. IELTS and OET testing centres will not release results – not even anonymously.

Debate has also surrounded a suggestion from some universities that the minimum score should be set higher to allow for any loss of proficiency once a nurse enters the workforce.

“There have been several qualitative studies in Australia conducted identifying outlining areas of concern, however this study will investigate whether these claims are backed up by quantitative evidence and how they relate to the demographic profile of nurses,” Lynch said.

The study, involving a national online survey followed by in-depth focus groups, will also ask nurses who have successfully gained registration to reflect on the relevance of the testing regime to their effective workplace communication.

On September 19, the board introduced an exemption to the English language test for nurses who have completed a minimum of five years’ education taught and assessed in English in specified countries.

Currently 145 nurses have responded to the online survey which will close in February 2012.To participate visit: http://health.adelaide.edu.au/nursing/research/survey/

Elsewhere, the impact of the board’s English language proficiency requirements on university nursing enrolments has been revealed in a recent Victorian ombudsman’s report.

The investigation into how four Victorian universities deal with international students reported that Deakin University projected a 30 per cent decline in commencements as the faculty moved to a minimum IELTS score of 7 for its nursing course.

The report released on October 26 highlighted the potential impact of the changed requirements on university intake and therefore graduate supply.

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