Nursing Council eases written English test for overseas nurses

August 19, 2022

The Nursing Council is easing standards on the written English test for overseas-trained nurses, in an effort to reduce barriers.

The Nursing Council of New Zealand Te Kaunihera Tapuhi o Aotearoa today announced the changes to its English language competence policy. They will apply to all applications from August 19.


The minimum writing score for English language tests has dropped from seven to 6.5 in the IELTS (international English language testing system) test, and 350 to 300 in the OET (occupational English test).


Scores for reading, speaking and listening remain the same — 7 for IELTS and 350 for OET.

The move follows consultation earlier this year on how it assesses and registers internationally qualified nurses (IQNs), to ensure there were no unnecessary barriers to getting them practising in Aotearoa.

“Nurses need to communicate with patients and their whānau, nursing colleagues and members of the whole health-care team. When they don’t, that can cause suffering, harm and even death.”


Catherine Byrne
Catherine Byrne

The move would eliminate any “unnecessary barriers” to registering IQNs in New Zealand, while ensuring they had the language skills to practise safely, Nursing Council chief executive Catherine Byrne said. “We are confident that this writing score is sufficient to ensure public safety,” she said, noting it was the same level as required in the United Kingdom and higher than required to immigrate or study in Aotearoa New Zealand. This reflected the technical language requirements of nursing practice, she said.

“Good communication is critical for good and safe nursing,” Byrne said. “Nurses need to communicate with patients and their whānau, nursing colleagues and members of the whole health-care team. When they don’t, that can cause suffering, harm and even death.”

But it was also important that “unnecessary barriers” were not created and requirements were clear. “Today’s refresh makes our standards clearer to international nurses who wish to pursue a career in Aotearoa, New Zealand, while ensuring that they have the necessary language skills to practise safely.”

In its April/May consultation, 68 per cent of respondents supported and 17 per cent opposed the change, Byrne said.

The changes also took into account “broader feedback” received on its English language policy from recruiters, employers and IQNs themselves, she said.

The council would also be giving “clearer” guidance about how English competence is assessed, to ensure eligible nurses didn’t sit tests unnecessarily, Byrne said. The council would continue to offer three pathways for IQNs, but had renamed them all “evidence pathways” to emphasise all nurses must demonstrate English competence, she said. Previously, two pathways were referred to as “waivers”.

The three are:

  • A test-based pathway through IELTS or OET results.
  • An education-based pathway requiring evidence the nurse was taught and tested in English, for nurses from the UK, Singapore, Ireland, Canada or the United States.
  • A registration-based pathway where evidence consists of having passed an English language test previously to register in the UK, Ireland, Canada or the United States.
Singapore nurse changes

Nurses educated in English in Singapore have been removed from the registration-based pathway, and are eligible for the education-based evidence pathway. This was because the Singaporean Nursing Board does not require an English language test to gain registration which could slow down the process, Byrne said.

However, nurses registered in Singapore are not normally required to complete a competency assessment programme (CAP) to work here.

The council decided not to give the OET priority status as a “more valid, fairer” English test, as proposed, but will accept both. It also clarified that it did recognise computer-based tests from an IELTS or OET site — but not fully online tests such as OET@home or ILETS Online. The online speaking test component of the OET’s On Computer  would be accepted.

Further details are available on the Nursing Council’s home page or in the IQN section.

More changes coming on cultural safety and assessing competency

An announcement on other proposed changes for IQN registration — introducing a knowledge exam and practical assessment and cultural safety education — would be coming soon, a spokesperson said.

Mostly from India and the Philippines, IQNs make up about 30 per cent of the nursing workforce in Aotearoa, council statistics show – and about half of the aged residential care nursing workforce, according to the New Zealand Aged Care Association.

The Nursing Council is required to set English language standards under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. This requires the council to be satisfied that a nurse can communicate at an appropriate level to practise in their scope and their “ability to communicate and comprehend English is sufficient to protect the health and safety of the public”.

See also Changes to how IQNs are assessed must balance fairness with safety and Changes afoot to how IQN competency is assessed