'The study, conducted by Bob Birell, from Melbourne's Monash University, said the graduates tested had enough command of the language to cope in most situations. ''But people who have reached this standard are still not capable of conducting a sophisticated discourse at the professional level,' it said' SCMP, January 30 THE IMMEDIATE THING to say about all this, of course, is that you can hardly blame Hong Kong student emigrants to Australia for not learning English to the preferred standards of Monash University when the principal language of Australia is Strine, not English. But then I am also not particularly surprised to see this study find that more than two in five of these students, who were granted permanent residency in Australia after graduating from its universities, did not have competent English language skills. As a parent of two daughters who have played the university sweepstakes game in Hong Kong, and of one son who is soon to be caught up in it, I think I know a little of how it works. Heading the list of preferred choices are a range of American east coast universities, topped off by Harvard, which is particularly esteemed because it is so hard to enter, given that it has the choice of discriminating against ethnic Chinese or taking in an entirely Chinese freshmen class every year. Oxford and Cambridge are also esteemed, but British universities are generally considered a cut below American ones on either of the New England or California coastlines. American Midwest state universities with enrolments of 50,000 and up are correctly appraised as pre-employment diversions, mostly for sport. If you don't have the grades to make it to any of these, however, there are always Canadian universities. They have much lower entry requirements. There are Australian ones too. Does it really surprise me that two in five graduates from Hong Kong do not meet Monash University's standards? Oh, you nasty spiteful columnist, you. You're going to get a stream of hate mail from Australia for this, you know. They'll tell you how everyone knows that Australia's universities are the best in the world. Hello there, Uganda. The title of best university in the world is up for grabs again. Do you want to enter? What I do find surprising here, however, is Monash University's apparent belief that more than two in five Hong Kong emigrant students given residency in Australia will need to speak English well enough for 'a sophisticated discourse at the professional level'. I personally think that anyone can have a very full life, satisfying all of his or her needs and caprices to the extent even of becoming a billionaire, while possessing no more fluency in a second language than the ability to understand such phrases as 'I bid you $22.50 apiece, deliverable to my warehouse Monday morning'. In fact, given that English is the native language of that large proportion of Australia's people who do not speak pure Strine alone, why bother to learn English as a second language to the sophisticated professional discourse level? There are enough people in Australia who speak it at that level and it doesn't cost much to hire them when you need them, in which case why not put your time and effort into learning something less common to Australia and more valuable to you, accounting for instance, or industrial processes? Far fewer people in Australia are competent in these fields at the sophisticated professional level and they are fields that are much more directly related to making a good income for yourself than is sophisticated professional discourse English. Remember that we are not talking of whether people are competent in sophisticated professional discourse but only of whether they are so in English. This standard of fluency in any language most notably helps you in such useful pursuits as crafting subtle stinging insults. It does so in Chinese as well as English and, personally, I think that the insults are craftier and more subtle in Chinese. Let's get to the nub of it. Employers all say they value high standards of fluency in English but few of them pass the acid test where English as a second language is concerned. Will they pay people enough to induce them to put time and effort into acquiring this fluency? The answer is mostly No. There would be many fewer complaints about English fluency if it were Yes. The fact is that employers are happy to have fluent English speakers but only if the public purse picks up the cost. They don't really believe it is worth that cost if they have to pay for it themselves. Universities play along with this game because educational institutions get the job of providing those courses in English as a second language. I see that this game is played no differently in Australia from how it is played in Hong Kong.