A vision for Australia’s adult and community education providers – speech at VET Policy Forum

July 19, 2018

On 16 July 2018 I spoke at a Federal VET Forum organised by Audit Express. Other speakers were the Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, the Hon Karen Andrews MP; Shadow Minister for Skills, Senator the Hon Doug Cameron; Mary Faraone, Chief Executive of Holmesglen Institute, for TAFE Directors Australia; and Rod Camm, Chief Executive of ACPET.

My speech follows. You can also read this on the website of Community Colleges Australia.

Speech by Dr Don Perlgut, CEO, Community Colleges Australia at the Federal VET Policy Forum, VET Development Centre, Melbourne, 16 July 2018

I wish to acknowledge that we are meeting today on Aboriginal land, the land of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

At this forum, I represent Australia’s adult and community education providers, a sector that had 380,000 VET students in 2016, some 9 percent of the national total. By any count that’s a significant force in Australia’s training landscape, especially active in Victoria and New South Wales. In addition to those students, each year our providers engage many hundreds of thousands more adults in personal learning. For many of them, this provides a pathway back to education and training.

Australia’s community education sector is also unique in another way: we over-perform, we seriously over-perform in reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners in comparison to other providers. In percentage terms, the latest 2017 government-funded VET data shows that we beat TAFE and private for-profit providers. Using New South Wales data, which is the best national average:

  • 20 percent of community students had a disability, compared to 12% of TAFE and 9 percent of private providers.
  • More than 13 percent of community students were Indigenous, compared to less than 10 percent of TAFE and 7 percent of private students.
  • Almost 64 percent of community students lived in regional, rural and remote areas, compared to less than 37 percent of TAFE and less than 33 percent of private students.
  • Almost 66 percent of community students were the most socially and economically disadvantaged – the bottom two SEIFA quintiles, compared to 55 percent of TAFE and 56 percent of private students.
  • More than 64 percent of community students were female, compared to 57 percent of TAFE and 51 percent of private students.
  • Non-English speaking background students was the only area where community did not top the charts: with 13.7 percent of students, compared to TAFE with 21 percent and private providers with 11 percent. This probably results at least in part because of the large number of non-metropolitan community students, most of whom are native English speakers.

The message is clear: if you want to reach Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners, you must start with community VET providers.

Category Community Education (student %) TAFE (student %) Private for-profit providers (student %)
Aged 45+ 35.8 19.0 14.7
Students with a disability 19.7 12.1 8.9
Indigenous 13.4 9.6 7.0
Non-English speaking bkgrnd 13.7 21.0 11.0
Rural regional remote 63.8 36.6 32.6
Socio-Econom disadvantage 65.6 55.2 56.2
Female 64.3 56.7 51.5

Source: Government-funded students and courses 2017, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 3 July 2018, https://www.ncver.edu.au/publications/publications/all-publications/government-funded-students-and-courses-2017.

So, what do we want from the Commonwealth Government?

Infrastructure and Building Support

One of the greatest challenges facing community education providers is how to maintain existing and construct new buildings. Small and medium providers, especially in regional areas, face special and well-documented challenges to maintain the “high infrastructure costs imposed by accreditation and competitive tendering.”

In 2009, the Commonwealth Government set up a $100 million “Investing in Community Education and Training program”, part of a $500 million VET Capital Fund that included TAFE. This fund offered not-for-profit community education providers grants up to $1.5 million for major capital infrastructure developments and upgrades.

Last year, CCA surveyed almost half of the organisations that received funds from this program. We found that more than 100,000 additional students undertook training in the following seven years as a direct result of that funding. In other words, a new student was trained for every $1,000 invested. That’s a fabulous return on investment.

Community Colleges Australia calls for a repeat of this facilities investment for not-for-profit training providers.

Recognition of adult and community education

We also call on all the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments to update and reissue the 2008 Ministerial Statement on Adult and Community Education, and support the efforts of Adult Learning Australia. The last Statement confirmed the “value of adult and community education in developing social capital, building community capacity … and enhancing social cohesion.”

There is very little in the 2008 Statement that does not apply today. But the world of post-school education has changed rapidly in the last nine years. We need a national policy statement that articulates the new realities of VET, given our rapidly changing economy in the post-mining boom period.

Restoring the Community College and Community Education Brand

The community education and community college brand has been comprehensively confused in recent years, because all levels of government have allowed some private for-profit VET providers to use the words “community” and “college” freely in their names. A large part of the public can no longer distinguish between genuine not-for-profit community-serving education and training and the for-profit VET counterparts. This is not an accident. These for-profit companies purposefully use the words college, community and various place names – Australia, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane as a means of deceiving potential learners to think that they are a public or community provider. I won’t “name names” today, but go to our website for a list of examples.

Proper funding for VET

Proper government funding for VET is now imperative.

The numbers are clear. In ten year period up to 2016, real terms government expenditure shows:

  • pre-schools increased by 150 percent
  • schools increased by 30 percent
  • universities increased by 53 percent
  • But VET decreased by 5 percent

VET is the “forgotten middle child”. So says Dr Damian Oliver:

“The middle child is squeezed between schools, which tend to get a lot of policy attention, like the youngest child, and the universities, which tend to get the prestige and status, like the oldest child. There is no doubt that the VET sector has a lower status in Australia.”

We have noted recent free TAFE course announcements by the Victorian Government, the New South Wales Government and promises by the Federal Opposition. CCA supports proper funding of TAFE, the true anchor VET institution, with which we share most values. It’s safe to say that we love TAFE, although it’s almost always an unrequited love.

What we do not support, however, are the unintended consequences of providing free TAFE courses while leaving the rest of the policy settings unchanged. When this happens, there will be – and it’s already happening – a negative impact on community providers. To governments we say: that may not be your intention, but that’s the reality. We implore you to ensure that additional TAFE funding does not damage community providers. If that happens, we all lose.

Reversal of the marketisation and privatisation of VET

CCA also calls on all governments to reverse the marketisation and privatisation of VET.

In the Australian schools sector, there are almost no “for profit” institutions. In the university sector, for-profit institutions enrol only 5% of students. Yet in the VET sector in 2016, 59 percent of students enrolled in private for-profit institutions.

The age of “contestable funding” for VET has severely disadvantaged community education providers. No less than the self-described “Queen of Capitalism”, Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westcott, has said:

“We can’t just say let the market work, because it doesn’t always work for everybody…. It doesn’t often work for disadvantaged people, it doesn’t work in certain locations [and] it doesn’t work for emerging skills. Whenever you hear people say, “Let the market just run,” you say: to what end and what purpose?  Market reform has to be about outcomes, not fads.”

The much-abused VET FEE-HELP scheme was the worst manifestation of marketisation. But it was only a symptom of a much deeper malaise in Australian public life. This “neoliberalism” assumes that the privatisation of public educational (and other) services is a good thing. An efficient market will provide when public funding is given to the private sector. What we know now – and should have recognised years ago – is that this simply is not true.

Education is a public good; it should not be sustaining profit margins greater than 30 percent. If it does, surely quality will suffer. The marketisation of Australian public services has never been more problematic than in the VET space. Education and training is not a suitable buy-and-sell commodity, both on rational economic as well as social criteria.

Even the Commonwealth’s economically dry Productivity Commission acknowledges that, “The expansion of VET FEE-HELP access after 2012 is a well-documented example of how policy can fail if governments do not ensure proper policy design along with suitable regulatory oversight.”

The Australian National Audit Office report on the Administration of the VET FEE-HELP Scheme also acknowledges that a free-for-all Australian VET market is wrong. Paragraph 27 of the report details how there was an average tuition fee increase of 342 percent over a six year period due to VET FEE-HELP, and a variation in course fees of up to 1000 percent.

Got that? In other words, consumers did not have enough information or power or capability to determine or negotiate the proper pricing mechanism. Many learners simply assumed that because the loans were from the Australian Government that it must have been okay. Put simply, competition did NOT bring lower prices or higher quality – in fact the opposite occurred.

And which consumers fared worse from the VET FEE-HELP fiasco? The answer: Indigenous students and low socio-economic status students.

The Government’s Redesigning VET FEE-HELP paper found that in 2015 the average annual tuition fee for Indigenous students was almost 40 percent higher than non-Indigenous students.

These are extraordinary findings. So don’t tell me that we need more “choice” or competition in VET. What we do need are properly funded government and community providers that are committed to the common good, and not to producing high levels of profit for individuals and corporations.

Foundation skills, adult literacy and numeracy

Let’s turn to foundation skills, adult literacy and numeracy.

A few years ago, the Australian Bureau of Statistics concluded that a significant proportion of the adult population in Australia was unable to “demonstrate minimum levels of literacy and numeracy required … in the emerging knowledge-based economy.”

The Australian Council for Adult Literacy estimates that “one in five adults do not have the literacy skills to effectively participate in everyday life.”

A survey by Mission Australia and Youth Action showed that 74 percent of young people said that literacy and numeracy issues were significant barriers to completing VET qualifications.

Our sector, the community providers, does some of the heaviest lifting in adult literacy and numeracy, with our concentration on lower level training. Yet funding languishes.

Regional Economic Development

Let’s turn to economic development.

It is time to recognise that Australia’s community providers play an important role in regional and rural economic development through our training and other service activities. CCA estimates that Victorian community education providers deliver 20 percent of accredited VET training in regional and rural areas, and 10 percent in New South Wales. VET participation is at least 50 percent higher in regional Australia, where community providers constitute a significant national force. Many small towns and rural areas depend on our service. If Western Riverina Community College in Griffith were to disappear, the impact on that region would be profound. We need to reduce the barriers for community providers to participate in regional economic development programs.

Our sector also plays an important role in outer metropolitan areas such as Western Sydney, home to 2.3 million people, almost 10 percent of Australia’s population. CCA has started to work with twelve community providers to develop a coordinated approach to economic development of that region, supported by the New South Wales Government.

Upskilling Older Workers

CCA welcomes the recently announced Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers program, designed to support people aged 45 to 70 to remain in the workforce. Many of this age group are at risk of becoming collateral damage in a rapidly changing economy.

Community education providers have the right environment and style to reach and re-train older workers in many industries. In 2017, 36 percent of community students were aged 45-plus in 2017, compared to 19 percent of TAFE and less than 15 percent of for-profit students.

Help us to take our place in meeting the needs of older workers, as the natural partner for governments.

A Plea for National Leadership

I want to conclude with a plea to our national politicians to provide real vision and leadership in Australia’s VET space, developing bi-partisan approaches to national challenges.

It’s time for proper funding: don’t tell me that we don’t have the money, because we surely do, when we are considering tax cuts across the board.

It’s time to bring the states and territories together to further a national conversation on how we educate and train Australia for the mid twenty-first century.

And it’s time to value the contributions of Australia’s community education sector.

(Image below: Senator Cameron and Assistant Minister Karen Andrews)

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When Facebook decides to advertise …

July 7, 2018

It’s pretty funny when the second largest advertising company in the world (Google is first) feels the need to do “outdoor advertising” on posters and streetscapes, along with traditional TV ads. So it is with Facebook, which has plastered much of Australian central business districts with the following image (“Fake accounts are not our friends”):

Facebook, it must be said, is feeling more than a bit under fire, after the disastrous Cambridge Analytica affair. (This correspondent had his details swept up by CA, according to FB.) I am not the only one who has noticed this campaign. In this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald (7 July 2018), John McDuling writes:

Facebook really wants to move on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that shook the company to its very foundations. But its wish is unlikely to be granted…. Facebook launched an advertising blitz this week in Australia (and the US and UK) designed to promote its efforts to clean up its platform.

“Part of the reason the Cambridge Analytica scandal struck such a raw nerve was because it added to concerns Facebook is undermining the democratic process,” McDuling concludes.

Interesting that Facebook focusses on fake accounts, as it appears to be guilty of its own accusation: as part of the Facebook SKAM Austin video series, Facebook has set up 10 Instagram (owned by Facebook) profiles for key characters in this fictional series, causing confusion at least among some viewers. Read more about how this clever series unfolds “in real time” in this New Yorker article (18 June 2018) by D.T. Max.


Philip Roth Remembered

July 7, 2018

I discovered Philip Roth at age 17. In retrospect, it was the ideal age for a young Jewish man growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey to discover this “pre-eminent figure [of] 20th-century literature”.

I owe Roth a great debt. He showed me that the lives of Jewish men in suburban New Jersey could embody both romance and the “larger than life” elements that make stories big and give meaning to our existence. In his first book, Goodbye Columbus, consisting of a novella plus five short stories, the lead story (“Columbus”) runs only 97 pages in the paperback edition that I have carried with me through numerous households and two countries (see image below). The story charts a doomed summer romance between Neil Klugman, a lower middle class young man who works in the Newark library, and Brenda Patimkin, an over-indulged upper middle class sculpted beauty who lives in suburban Short Hills and studies at Radcliffe College (Harvard University).

Roth wrote in 1989 for the novella’s 30th anniversary edition, that he was both “unapologetic and critically freewheeling about the class of Jews whose customs and beliefs had shaped his boyhood society,” highlighting “the mundane household dramas of his Jewish New Jersey”. Roth was thrilled and amazed:

that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan – about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.

Although the book was published in 1959, I didn’t discover it until much later, around the same time that the movie version (1969) was released, starring Richard Benjamin as Neil and Ali McGraw at Brenda. As a long-time writer and lecturer on Jewish film, I frequently use Goodbye Columbus (the movie) as one of my best examples. Set in a totally insider Jewish environment, the film neatly captures the same feeling – the American-Jewish suburban experience – as the book, although sadly updated the action to the Bronx and Westchester from my beloved New Jersey. It does, however, present – satirically, mostly lovingly, and never less than critically – a good range of Jewish suburban characters. Two scenes stand out in my memory: Neil’s first dinner at Brenda’s house (click here for a 2’26” YouTube clip) and the infamous and frequently criticised over-the-top Jewish wedding scene (short YouTube clip here).

In my last year of high school I produced a “term paper” that analysed Roth’s first four novels: Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good and Portnoy’s Complaint. The second and third novels are far from Roth’s best, and – despite widespread critical acclaim – I never warmed to “Portnoy”, which became a truly terrible film. My term paper accurately predicted that Roth would become one of America’s great modern novelists; my then English teacher disagreed. Other than our New Jersey Jewish upbringing, Roth and I shared one other salient fact: both of our fathers worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, now known as MetLife.

Roth has continued to play an important role in my literary and personal life since those high school experiences – he has his own category in my writing blog – although has been far from the lodestar role he played at age 17. My favourite Roth books are his “political” novels: American Pastoral (which became an under-released film that never made it to Australia), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain (read my review of the 2004 film here) and The Plot Against America, a frightening book which has taken on unexpected new meaning in the age of Trump.

Roth also played a role, albeit indirectly, in my own romantic life choices. I was introduced to my wife some years ago by a Jewish yoga teacher from New Jersey whose father taught English to … yes, Philip Roth … at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. In more recent years, I reviewed The Humbling (2010) for the Australian Jewish News, and have closely tracked the adaptation of Roth’s books into films, most recently reviewing the film adaptation of Indignation (2016).

I am not the only person so affected by Roth’s writing. Nathaniel Rich –  almost a generation younger than me – writes that:

I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.

More on Roth

Very few authors have a whole journal devoted to their work. Philip Roth does, published by Purdue University Press since 2005. Wikipedia has produced a full bibliography of Roth’s work. The New York Times has provided a “starter kit” of what Roth novels to read – although I don’t agree with their choices: no reference to The Plot Against America – seriously? What’s fascinating is how Roth reached so many non-Jews, such as ABC Radio presenter Sarah Kanowski, interviewed about Roth’s legacy on Late Night Live in May. For more analysis of Goodbye Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s original review of the book in the July 1959 edition of Commentary, and Elaine Blair’s rethinking of the book’s ending in The Paris Review, April 2017.

(Image above: the cover of my original copy of Goodbye Columbus, 1968 Bantam paperback edition)


New York City on Sydney streets, June 2018

June 30, 2018

I have been monitoring how New York City is presented here in Sydney, Australia – New York is one of the great city brands that Australians relate to, along with London, Paris and – to a lesser extent San Francisco and Los Angeles. Yes, there are others that Australians love, but some keep popping up again and again.

So, New York City the city brand campaign has made it again onto Sydney streets, as seen in the image below, taken on Elizabeth Street across from Hyde Park and just outside of the David Jones department store. This is part of an official advertising campaign by NYCGO – the official New York City guide.


Trust in US falls to historic low

June 28, 2018

The Australian trust in the United States to “act responsibly in the world” has fallen to a historic low, according to the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, released on 20 June.

Here is an extract from the Poll, with a graphic at the bottom of this post:

Trust in countries and confidence in their leaders

A bare majority of Australians (55%) say they trust the United States to ‘act responsibly in the world’, in a six-point fall since 2017, a 28-point fall since 2011, and the lowest level of trust in the United States ever recorded in our polling.

Australians’ highest level of trust among the eight nations polled is placed in the United Kingdom (trusted by 90%). Japan is trusted by 87% of Australians, and France by 84%. Trust in India (59%) is ahead of the United States (55%), followed closely by China (52%). Just 28% trust Russia, and 8% trust North Korea.

Only 30% of Australians have either ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ confidence in Donald Trump ‘to do the right thing regarding world affairs’. This places Trump ahead of only Russia’s Vladimir Putin (19%) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (5%) among the nine leaders ranked.The leaders Australians regard with the most confidence are the UK’s Theresa May (68%) and Japan’s Shinzo Abe (66%). Next is Malcolm Turnbull (63%), and France’s Emmanuel Macron has the confidence of 61%. Eighteen points behind is China’s Xi Jinping (43%), followed by India’s Narendra Modi (37%).

Commentary:

“The Poll figures suggest, therefore, that the Trump presidency is a negative for Australia–US relations. A politically stupid choice as the next US Ambassador to Australia would not be good for public confidence in the relationship, and a potential unwanted political headache for the Turnbull government,” writes Geoff Kitney.


Film review of Foxtrot

June 22, 2018

(This film review of “Foxtrot” appeared in the Australian Jewish News paper on 21 June 2018, and online on 27 June 2018.)

Written and directed by Samuel Maoz; starring Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonathan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor and Karin Ugowski.

The new film Foxtrot belongs to the long list of eminent Israeli films that attempt to respond the country’s continuing cycle of war and conflict. The name foxtrot provides writer/director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) with both a recurring theme as well as a metaphor for Israeli security and life. As a formal dance, the foxtrot’s four steps continue to rotate around a simple square, always returning to the same place.

The action in Foxtrot fits neatly into a variation of the classic three act film structure. The first third opens with the arrival of soldiers to the trendy, geometric grey-accented flat of architect Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi, from Footnote and Norman) and Dafna Feldmann (Sarah Adler, from Jellyfish). They come bearing news of every Israeli parent’s nightmare: their son Jonathan has been killed serving at a checkpoint in the north. What follows is a painful filmic study of extreme grief and anguish. Dafna faints, but the soldiers have come prepared with drugs they administer and put her to bed. Michael is struck dumb, wordless and barely moving. He and his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) are both irritated by the presence of an army rabbi – they are atheists – who tells Michael not to carry the coffin at the funeral because he will need to support his wife. As men must. But Michael, the son of a German Holocaust survivor who has dementia, is pursued by his own demons from his own army service, and is anything but the strong silent type he at first appears.

The second act moves to an isolated mud-bound army checkpoint, where four soldiers – including son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray, who played the teenage Amos Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness) – listlessly pass the time, checking the papers of the occasional passing car, working out of a leaking water tower and sleeping in a sinking shipping container. This chapter presents as a classic absurdist and surreal black comedy tinged with both melancholy and tragedy, typified by the periodic arrival of a lone camel galloping along the road – the most frequent promotional image for the film (see image below).

The final third of the film returns to the Feldman apartment, where Michael and Dafna’s marriage appears to be breaking down. Virginia Wolff style, we watch them slowly reveal their relationship’s anger, stresses and blame – a true tour de force of two-handed acting.

There is a devastating revelation (no spoilers here) towards the end of the first act that re-sets the film’s tone but does nothing to erase its pervading unease. Foxtrot is uncomfortable to watch, and many – particularly those who have lost loved ones in security conflicts – are likely to find the scenes of anguish and grief to be extremely painful. Foxtrot is not a film to love, but one to admire, for its filmic artistry, its formalism, its strong performances and the control that writer/director Maoz exerts over every frame. The production design is simple but effective, and inclusions such as animations are evocative and powerful. Foxtrot won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and eight “Ophir” Israeli film awards, including best picture, director, actor and cinematography. While well-received by international critics (almost 100% positive on Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator), the film has been the subject of trenchant criticism by Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev and others for its unrealistic portrayal of IDF actions.

Foxtrot premiered in Sydney at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and opened in Australian cinemas on 21 June 2018.


Federal Labor’s commitment to Australian vocational education and training

April 18, 2018

The Labor Shadow Minister for Skills Senator Doug Cameron has re-stated Labor’s commitment to Australia’s community education providers. In a speech last Friday – 13 April 2018 – to the AEU National TAFE Council, Senator Doug Cameron said:

The current vocational education and training system is flawed and it needs to be fixed – but the problems in VET are a manifestation of deeper ideological trends that have shaped policy development in Australia for far too long. Inequality is growing. Trickle-down economics – and relying on the good agencies of rich corporations to share wealth – always a delusion – has now been comprehensively discredited.

It is my view that the rise in inequality has been exacerbated by the misuse and misapplication of competition policy – the slavish adherence to increasing competition, privatisation and outsourcing has done considerable damage. In 1996 98% of students receiving publicly funded VET were in TAFE (with 83%) or not-for-profit community education providers (with 15%) but, by 2016 this had fallen to 52% and 6% respectively.

That is why Labor have already announced we will return the $637 million the coalition stripped from VET in the last budget and why we have committed that at least two thirds of all government funding for vocational education will go to TAFE. The balance will go to not-for-profit community educators and only the very best of the private providers with demonstrable links to specific industry requirements.

My comments in my capacity as CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA):

I am pleased to hear that Shadow Minister for Skills Senator Cameron has re-committed Federal Labor to supporting Australia’s community education providers.

When Senator Cameron spoke to the CCA conference in July 2017, he said similar things. We are pleased that Labor has maintained its commitment to Australia’s community education sector, as an important complement to the VET anchor institution of TAFE.

Senator Cameron’s analysis is consistent with CCA’s own interpretation of VET policy and recent history. We are keen that all sides of politics recognise the important role of Australia’s community providers in building our nation, and commit to proper funding of our sector. It’s no longer acceptable that community providers receive the crumbs from the table.

The challenge for the current government and the Assistant Skills Minister is to elaborate on a vision that is also compelling. Erasing the much-based VET FEE-HELP program, replacing it with VET Student Loans, was a great start – but not nearly sufficient. Announcing the Skilling Australians Fund is an interesting innovation. Unfortunately neither one of these programs have much resonance or relevance to Australia’s important community education sector.

Excerpts from Senator Cameron’s Speech to the CCA Conference in July 2017

The following are excerpts from Senator Cameron’s speech presented at the CCA national conference in Melbourne on 26 July 2017:

Community Colleges and the people who work in them, excel at assisting disadvantaged learners. You work with individuals to achieve goals they had thought were beyond their reach – providing critical literacy and numeracy skills and assisting them to gain important foundation life and employment skills.

You give young people, alienated from formal schooling, a second chance at education. Your colleges also offer quality, vocationally-focused training and education to people seeking to start work, return to work, change jobs or keep their job. Community-based education is a critical launching point for disadvantaged learners into further education and into work; particularly in regional and rural communities where the support is especially valuable and needed.

Importantly, adult and community education institutions build and sustain local communities by bringing people together through their shared interests; by forging partnerships with other local organisations; and tailoring courses from the community and for the communities they serve.

In a world where inequality, fragmentation and isolation are growing, the work community educators undertake – creating and sustaining local connections; nurturing resilient, engaged and involved citizens; and smoothing transitions into work and further learning – is of enormous value. The socially, politically and economically engaged communities you foster are the foundations upon which strong democracies are built.

More extracts from Senator Cameron’s speech on 13 April 2018

The evidence shows that the training market in Australia has led to:

  • an overall decline in the outcomes for students – the latest official annual survey of VET students taken in mid-2017 found that of students who graduated during 2016 and were employed, just 30% were in an occupation group related to their training
  • a decline in quality– the government’s own regulator has called the training market “a race to bottom” – which has placed enormous pressure on providers like TAFE working to maintain quality
  • the proliferation of wasteful and rigid bureaucratic processes – that have seen the development of 17,000 units of competence and 1,400 different qualifications, many of which remain unused
  • dissatisfied employers continuing to complain of skill shortages and gaps – despite being given the authority to lead the system
  • cherry-picking and rent seeking by for-profit providers
  • insufficient investment in infrastructure and in teacher qualifications and resources
  • money wasted on marketing, promotion and advertising
  • the development of a market for low quality courses
  • and, at its very worst, the defrauding and exploitation of citizens trying to improve their lives through gaining education and qualifications.

The commodification of education is summed up by the words of a capital investment adviser spruiking the money-making benefits of education:

“Education is a beautiful business when it works. Fat fees, hefty annual increases, recurring income and high switching costs are just a few traits of high-performing education providers. Investors who have understood the sector’s potential have done exceptionally well…The sector has excellent long-term potential. Not-for-profit education providers…look like sitting ducks as technology eventually reshapes the sector.” (Tony Featherstone, “Top Performing Education Stocks”, 17 March 2014).

About this post

This post is an adaptation of a news item on the Community Colleges Australia website on 13 April 2018; I am re-posting and expanding it here in order to extend the message.