Irish vet fails to secure Australian visa following automated English exam

15 Aug 2017

Image: jannoon028/Shutterstock

Equine vet Dr Louise Kennedy, who is seeking permanent residency in Australia, has failed to pass an automated English fluency test administered by a machine.

Much is made of the transformational effect automation is having on our daily lives, but technology like this is not without its problems. A Wicklow native, Dr Kennedy was required to take a computer-based English test known as The Pearson Test of English (PTE) in order to secure residency in Australia. She has been working as an equine vet on the Sunshine Coast for the last two years, and is married to an Australian citizen.

Concerns over Pearson Test of English

The exam consists of writing, reading and oral components. There are several other test providers the immigration department employs to assess the fluency of visa applicants’ English, but Pearson is the only provider that uses voice recognition technology to test speaking ability. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a scoring engine is used to identify the participant’s answers.

Future Human

Dr Kennedy is a native English speaker with two university degrees that were both obtained in English, but scored 74 in the oral fluency section of the test with a score of 79 required to meet the acceptable standard. She performed well in all other aspects of the test, and told AAP she believed the test itself is inadequate.

“There’s obviously a flaw in their computer software, when a person with perfect oral fluency cannot get enough points,” she said.

‘Wildly inconsistent results’

Clive Liebmann teaches people how to pass the language tests set by the immigration department, and he spoke of his concerns surrounding the Pearson test, SBS reports.

“The government talks about wanting high-level English speakers, through the visa system. That’s fair enough. But what’s the point in the government using a test that produces – from my students’ experience – often wildly inconsistent results.”

He also commented that people should also think about the difficulties faced by non-native speakers who undertake the exam. “Consider the plight of a non-native speaker who has worked diligently on their English their whole life, only to be rejected due to the inaccuracy of the exam,” he said.

This test is disrupting the lives of many families in Australia. SBS reported last July that Dhiraj Sookharee, who is from Mauritius and has been living in Australia for 10 years, faces deportation along with the rest of his family. This is despite his employer stating Sookharee’s level of fluency is high enough for him to succeed at his job. Sookharee and his family, who have grown up in Australia, have until October to leave.

Pearson Asia Pacific head of English Sasha Hampson has defended the product, despite discussion of its struggle to cope with linguistic aspects like abstract thought, natural pauses and complex grammar.

Dr Kennedy was originally pursuing residency on grounds of her vocation, but will now have to pursue a bridging visa. She hopes to eventually obtain a spousal visa, which is a much more costly way to secure residency.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects