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.

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Tackling inequality in Australia through improving education for marginalised learners

April 13, 2018

Australia’s Public Education Foundation has released a major report that examines the price of educational inequality in Australia’s schools.

What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, by the Foundation’s Executive Director David Hetherington examines educational inequality and its cost to Australia. The report estimates that over the six years from 2009 to 2015, “growing inequality cost Australia around $20.3 billion, equivalent to 1.2% of GDP,” and that, “the longer-term cost to Australia is even bigger, because the gap was widening prior to 2009.”

The report states that in the years immediately after the financial crisis, educational inequality “has transformed into a defining national debate.”

“Taken together, the assembled evidence points to several firm conclusions about educational inequality in Australia:

  • Inequality is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance;
  • Inequality for new student cohorts is worsening over time;
  • Inequality increases as students move through their school years;
  • Socioeconomic status and parental education are the main drivers for educational inequality, while Australia performs relatively well on gender and migrant status which are problematic in other countries; and
  • Inequality exists within sectors, as well as between them, with the public sector arguably more unequal due to its more representative coverage.”

My comment:

There is no doubt that equality and educational access – especially to Australia’s most marginalised populations and communities – is now a high priority national issue. Australia’s community education sector already makes a substantial contribution to reducing inequality. In a country riven by growing class divides, adult and community education providers specialise in reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals. For instance, in New South Wales almost 70% of government-funded VET activity is directed to the bottom 40 percent of individuals experiencing disadvantage. The report states that “economic inequality reinforces educational inequality”. Australia’s community education providers are in an excellent position to help counter that cycle for adults and school leavers.

The Public Education Foundation Paper

Other selected quotes from the report (complete report – PDF – available here):

“The question of inequality has permeated recent public debate in Australia. From stagnating wages to CEO salaries, from retiring boomers to renting millennials, the widening gaps in our society have come under intense scrutiny. With each passing year, the inequality drumbeat grows louder. What began as a distant ripple from Athens and Zuccotti Park in the years immediately after the financial crisis has transformed into a defining national debate. Australia was sheltered by the commodities boom from the worst distributional effects of neoliberalism, but as that boom has faded, the growing gap between haves and have-nots has become starker.

“There have been many analyses of the causes of this gap, which range from a less equitable tax system to the decline of the union movement. One which has been less explored is the relationship between education and economic inequality – whether changes in our education system have contributed to the growing wealth and income divide. Given that education is acknowledged as the critical determinant of future earning potential (Quiggin, 1999), it’s reasonable to ask how changes in education achievement may be affecting inequality.

“Another feature of Australian education is that inequality widens as children move through their school years. This trend is particularly pronounced amongst children whose parents have low educational achievement. Students of parents with no post-secondary education lag students of parents with a degree by ten months in Year 3. By Year 9, this gap has grown to thirty months.

“A final important point on educational inequality in Australia is that it is entrenched within sectors as well as across them. Much commentary around educational divides in Australia focuses on public versus private schools. However, the empirical evidence shows clearly that it is the socioeconomic background rather than school sector that affects results. Once socio-economic background is accounted for, there is essentially no difference in performance between public and non-government schools. So yes, educational inequality flows through to economic inequality. But there’s another dynamic at play here too.

“The causation also works in reverse: economic inequality reinforces educational inequality. They operate in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

“The first goal of education with regards to inequality should be to narrow the gap between top and bottom performing students by lifting the ones at the bottom up, without suppressing those at the top. It is well established that higher educational performance creates economic benefits and conversely that falling performance incurs economic costs.”

The full Public Education Foundation issues paper is available (PDF) here.

The Public Education Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing life-changing scholarships to students and educators in public education and enhancing the value and reputation of public education.

(I originally placed this post, in a slightly different form, on the website of Community Colleges Australia. I am duplicating it here in order to extend the reach.)


Reducing the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

April 5, 2018

Last week, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) released its report Pathways to Justice–Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which was tabled in Federal Parliament on 28 March 2018.

The purpose of the Inquiry was to inquire into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison and develop recommendations for reform of laws and legal frameworks to reduce their disproportionate incarceration. 

“Indigenous incarceration is costing nearly $8 billion annually and will grow to almost $20 billion per annum by 2040 without further intervention,” according to a PwC Australia and PwC’s Indigenous Consulting report released in May 2017, and quoted in the ALRC report.

People as diverse as Indigenous leader Pat Dodson and NSW Bar Association President Arthur Moses, SC have called this situation a “national shame”. Yet, as the ALRC report notes, between 2006 and 2016, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates widened further.

Disproportionate incarceration rate

The ALRC Inquiry reported that:

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the national population, they constitute 27% of the national prison population. In 2016, around 20 in every 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were incarcerated. Over-representation is both a persistent and growing problem—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates increased 41% between 2006 and 2016, and the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous imprisonment rates over that decade widened.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women constitute 34% of the female prison population. In 2016, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (464.8 per 100,000) was not only higher than that of non-Indigenous women (21.9 per 100,000), but was also higher than the rate of imprisonment of non-Indigenous men (291.1 per 100,000).

What can Australia’s community education sector do?

Aside from the massive personal, social and communal costs, Australia pays a significant economic cost by the heavy over-representation of Indigenous Australians. What can Australia’s adult and community education sector do to help address one of our most pressing national problems? As one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Australia’s inability to deal with this systematic and systemic injustice is a continuing blot on our national reputation. I believe that Australian not-for-profit adult and community education organisations have a moral imperative to assist

The ALRC report – although primarily confined to criminal laws and legal frameworks, as required by the Terms of Reference – gives a number of important guideposts as to how the community can respond. The area where Australia’s not-for-profit community education sector can make the most immediate and profound difference is in the innovative and award-winning Indigenous drivers education programs first established by Lismore’s ACE Community Colleges in 2005, which has expanded into other parts of New South Wales. This unique program – undertaken in direct collaboration with local Aboriginal communities – breaks the cycle of no-licence- receive-fine-for-driving-illegally, often leading to incarceration. The ALRC report devotes a whole chapter to fines and drivers licenses.

My employer – Community Colleges Australia – recently released a Statement on Aboriginal Economic Development which details five creative approaches to addressing Indigenous disadvantage. CCA is committed to ensuring that our members maximise the positive impacts they can make in their local Indigenous communities. In doing this, the organisation builds on a strong base. For instance, in New South Wales, 12% of government-funded VET community education students funded are Indigenous, a percentage much higher than either TAFE or the for-profit VET providers (2016 figures).

(Note: This post has been adapted from a news item that I placed on the Community Colleges Australia website on 4 April 2018. I reproduce it here in order to extend its reach.)

THE INQUIRY

The following extract’s from the Inquiry’s report are taken from the Full Report and the Summary Report (both 28 March 2018).

Local Solutions to Local Problems Led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

A recurring observation made during consultations and in submissions to this Inquiry was that solutions should be developed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Good examples are the Koori courts in Victoria and community justice groups of Elders, which support and assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the criminal justice process. The ALRC was told that some of the most effective solutions to local problems (such as diversion programs and post release assistance) have been developed locally by, or in conjunction with, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The corollary is that what works in one community (such as alcohol restrictions) may not be the best solution in another.

Taking a local approach to local problems can create difficulties for Australian governments, which necessarily plan for centrally developed and imposed national, state or territory-wide programs. Without acceptance and participation by the local communities, those programs can fail or, at least, not fully meet their objectives. The ALRC notes the importance of governments working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities to implement the range of strategies recommended to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration. For example, the ALRC has recommended that state and territory governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to: develop and implement culturally appropriate bail support programs and diversion options; develop options to reduce the imposition of fines and infringement notices; and develop prison programs that address offending behaviours and prepare people for release. One way to achieve local involvement is through Aboriginal Justice Agreements.

The Cost of Indigenous Incarceration

The implementation of the recommendations in this Report, including the provision of more diversion, support and rehabilitation programs before, during and after incarceration, will require additional resources.

However, the cost of implementing these recommendations must be considered against the cost of incarcerating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at disproportionate levels. Incarceration is expensive: it has been estimated that the total justice system costs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration in 2016 were $3.9 billion. When the costs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration are broadened beyond those directly related to the criminal justice system to include other economic costs, the estimated cost rises to $7.9 billion. As well as the cost of imprisonment to the State, incarceration can also have a broader social cost, particularly when concentrated in a particular community.

Over-representation increases with the stages of the criminal justice system. In 2016, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were seven times more likely than non-Indigenous people to be charged with a criminal offence and appear before the courts; 11 times more likely to be held in prison on remand awaiting trial or sentence, and 12.5 times more likely to receive a sentence of imprisonment. This is a cyclical problem, with 76% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners having been in prison before.

On fines

Statutory fine enforcement regimes affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unduly and can result in incarceration. Imprisonment is a disproportionate response to fine default, and impacts especially on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The ALRC recommends the amendment of fine enforcement regimes so that they do not, directly or indirectly, allow for imprisonment.

The imposition of fines and fine enforcement regimes affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disproportionately. Fine enforcement regimes can aggravate criminogenic factors and operate to further entrench disadvantage, especially when the penalty for default or secondary offending includes further fines, driver licence suspension or disqualification, and imprisonment.

State and territory governments should work with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and community organisations to identify areas without services relevant to driver licensing and to provide those services, particularly in regional and remote communities.

Education and employment

The links between lack of employment opportunity, lack of educational attainment, and subsequent entry into the criminal justice system are well established. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lower educational attainment than non-Indigenous people. For example, in 2015, only 49% of Year 3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students living in a remote area reached minimum national standards of literacy, reading and numeracy.40 In 2014, 86.4% of non-Indigenous students nationally completed Year 12 or equivalent, compared with 61.5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This fell to 41.7% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students living in remote areas.41 Nationally in 2015, of the potential Year 12 population, 43.8% of non-Indigenous young people achieved an ATAR of 50.00 or above, compared with 8.5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also face employment disadvantage. In 2014–15 the unemployment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15–64 was about three times the rate of the non-Indigenous population.44 Just under half (48.4%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15–64 were employed, compared with 74.8% of non-Indigenous people.

Outcomes

Implementation of the recommendations in this Report will reduce the disproportionate rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and improve community safety. These recommendations will:

  • promote substantive equality before the law for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • promote fairer enforcement of the law and fairer application of legal frameworks;
  • ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and participation in the development and delivery of strategies and programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in contact with the criminal justice system;
  • reduce recidivism through the provision of effective diversion, support and rehabilitation programs;
  • make available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders alternatives to imprisonment that are appropriate to the offence and the offender’s circumstances; and
  • promote justice reinvestment through redirection of resources from incarceration to prevention, rehabilitation and support, in order to reduce reoffending and the long-term economic cost of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Reduced incarceration and greater support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in contact with the criminal justice system will, in turn, improve health, social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Justice Reinvestment

Commonwealth, state and territory governments should provide support for the establishment of an independent justice reinvestment body. The purpose of the body should be to promote the reinvestment of resources from the criminal justice system to community-led, place-based initiatives that address the drivers of crime and incarceration, and to provide expertise on the implementation of justice reinvestment.

(photo credit: Don Perlgut)


Emma Gonzalez’ Speech and the Future of America

March 31, 2018

Even from my distance in suburban Sydney, Australia, thousands of kilometres away, the turmoil of American politics feels all too real in the digital age of instant news. As commentators have noted, Australia does not have a gun problem, so unlike the USA. So the Never Again MSD (standing for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) student-led gun control movement wouldn’t happen here.

The medium and long-term impacts of the social, cultural and political vectors of the current moment of American gun control debate are almost impossible to predict. But some things are clear already: there is a generation of previously unknown young American student leaders who are passionate and articulate, wielding an unexpected political and moral power that does not appear to be dissipating.

At the “March for Our Lives” Washington DC rally on 24 March, we witnessed one of the more powerfully affecting – and astonishingly short – political speeches of modern times. Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one of the movement’s leaders, spoke for about 7 minutes. Rebecca Mead (The New Yorker) describes the impact, and makes some astonishing historical and cultural comparisons:

But it was Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas senior, who provided the afternoon’s most memorable moment….. González, who is small and compact, and who wears her dark hair cropped close to her skull, spoke for just a couple of minutes, offering an emotional name-check of the students who had died. Then, lifting her eyes and staring into the distance before her, González stood in silence. Inhaling and exhaling deeply—the microphone caught the susurration, like waves lapping a shoreline—González’s face was stoic, tragic. Her expression shifted only minutely, but each shift—her nostrils flaring, or her eyelids batting tightly closed—registered vast emotion. Tears rolled down her cheeks; she did not wipe them away. Mostly, the crowd was silent, too, though waves of cheering support—“Go, Emma!” “We all love you!”—arose momentarily, then faded away. She stood in this articulate silence for more than twice as long as she had spoken, until a timer beeped. Six minutes and twenty seconds were over, she told her audience: the period of time it took Nikolas Cruz to commit the massacre.

The best speeches, we now know, are mostly short, serving to respond to the moment and to inspire future action. Gonzalez’s speech may soon join the panoply of these greats.

Never have I seen someone wield silence so effectively. In hearing – or rather not hearing – her speak, you were forced to meditate on what happened and what had delivered this unlikely group of young people to the force of what had previously been one of the most intractable issues of American politics.  (Jelani Cobb, interviewed by Dorothy Wickenden, New Yorker Politics and More, WNYC radio and podcast, 31 March 2018.)


Australian VET policy just got a lot more complicated

March 13, 2018

Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) policy discussion space has just become a lot more intense with the announcement by the Federal Australian Labor Party of a national inquiry.

On 23 February, Deputy ALP Leader (and Shadow Education Minister) Tanya Plibersek announced a “shake up of TAFE and uni”, stating that “Labor wants prospective students to see TAFE and uni as equally attractive study options.” She also announced, “a once in generation National Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education that will look at every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems, to ensure they can best respond to the needs of Australia’s economy and society.”

The inquiry is to be “ready to go in the first 100 days of a Labor Government.” Labor followed the announcement up by inviting submissions on the scope and terms of reference for the inquiry, which is to be conducted within the existing resources of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.

The Labor announcement – which received extensive coverage in the press (The Guardian, Australian Financial Review and The Australian. Ross Gittins in The Sydney Morning Herald (28 February) pointed out that there is a long history to the current state of VET stuff ups, recommending that the Turnbull Government should simply join Labor’s call for an inquiry. He notes that the problem goes way back to mistakes by then education minister Julia Gillard), “made worse by state governments of both colours.” While a university demand-funded system went into place, Ross Gittins writes:

TAFE was being hit by sharp cuts in federal funding … and subjected to the disastrous VET experiment…. Parts of the states’ union-dominated TAFE systems had become outdated and inflexible …. Rather than reform TAFE directly, however, someone … got the bright idea of forcing TAFE to shape up by exposing it to cleansing competition from private providers.

The feds extended to the VET sector a version of the uni system of deferred loans to cover tuition fees. State governments happily played their part in this cost-saving magic…. The result was to attract a host of fly-by-night rip-off merchants …. Eventually … the present government overreacted. Now it’s much harder to get federal help with TAFE fees than uni fees.

Far too little is being done to get TAFE training properly back in business after most of the for-profit providers have faded into the night…. Last year’s budget established an (inadequate) Skilling Australians Fund.

The Labor announcement follows on the October 2017 release of a report by the Business Council of Australia (BCA) entitled Future-Proof: Protecting Australians Through Education and Skills.

“When both the ACTU and the BCA – not exactly happy bed-fellows – agree that an inquiry is welcome and overdue, you know that important something is going on,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA).

“CCA welcomes this attention being paid to the problems of Australian VET. We have been saying for some time that Australia’s lack of a national VET policy is a recipe for disaster,” said Dr Perlgut.

“The problem we see with both the BCA report and Labor’s announcement is that neither of them acknowledge Australia’s community education sector. In 2016, some 378,000 people studied VET with community providers; that’s a full 9 percent of the national total that year,” said Dr Perlgut.

“Both Labor and the BCA have the right idea – Australian VET is in crisis and will not self-correct – but neither of them see the whole picture. CCA believes in the centrality of TAFE to Australia’s VET system, but the complementarity of the not-for-profit community sector is a part of the answer. Our sector has the flexibility, capacity and integrity to do more and expand its role, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged workers and potential workers.

“At CCA’s Annual Conference in Melbourne last July, Senator Cameron – Labor’s Skills spokesperson – acknowledged the importance of the community VET sector. This needs to be incorporated into Labor’s proposed inquiry’s terms of reference,” said Dr Perlgut.

(The item above was originally published in the “news” section of Community Colleges Australia. View the original item here.)


Film review of Menashe

March 11, 2018

(This film review of Menashe appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 February 2018.)

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein; written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed and Joshua Z. Weinstein; starring Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus and Meyer Schwartz

In these days of mass entertainment, what a pleasure to discover in the film “Menashe” such a heart-felt authenticity. Set and shot in New York City’s Hasidic Brooklyn neighbourhood Borough Park, “Menashe” sets a modern record: it’s the first American film since “Hester Street” in 1975 in which the characters all speak Yiddish. Although “A Serious Man” (2009) and “The Frisco Kid” (1979) each had a Yiddish scene, contemporary popular film – even from Israel – has avoided the language.

“Menashe” tells the story of its title character, also Menashe, played by Menashe Lustig (a Hasidic actor and YouTube star), upon whose life the film is loosely based. He is a hapless and struggling single father of Rieven (Ruben Niborski) and whose wife Lea has passed away. Instructed by the local rebbe (Meyer Schwartz) to place Rieven in the care of the boy’s uncle (Yoel Weisshaus) and aunt until he re-marries, Menashe struggles to maintain dignity and connection with his son, with whom he has a tender and loving relationship. Every man needs “a good wife, a good home, nice dishes”.

Menashe chafes under the criticisms of his boss at the Hasidic-run supermarket (which sells un-washed lettuce), and painstakingly avoids attempts by well-meaning community members to match-make him with suitable women. The film hints strongly that Menashe’s marriage was less than happy (he admits being relieved but guilty when Lea died), and he appears to be in no rush to remarry, frustrating his potential partners.

Menashe lives a dreary, claustrophobic life, and steadfastly refuses to wear full Hasidic gear, preferring simple shirtsleeves without a top jacket. Menashe needs to prove he’s capable of looking after his son – to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi, to his neighbours, but most of all to himself. Can he overcome the klutziness that has him losing thousands of dollars worth of gefilte fish and burning the kugel he tries to bake? Will he rebel? Does he have the capability and capacity to re-set his life?

To its credit, “Menashe” the film avoids an easy melodramatic approach, one personified in the Netflix documentary “One of Us”, which follows three Hasidic people who leave their communities. The result is something much more subtle; the characters in “Menashe” are all flawed, yet each is sympathetic, three-dimensional and very real. Although director Joshua Z. Weinstein does not speak Yiddish (he worked through a translator), his experience as a documentarian means that he gets “up close and personal” with his actors, and they – although basically all amateurs – get to shine.

“Menashe” is an “insider” film, capturing a verisimilitude that audiences have warmed to. These actors didn’t need Yiddish lessons, but they did need a script and a director to bring their lives to the screen. Although set on a “small” stage, the film’s stories – and its truths – are just large enough to make it a feature film experience, a dramatised slice of modern Jewish life rarely shown so well.

“Menashe” was a great hit at last year’s Jewish Film Festival, and opens in selected cinemas this week.


New Report Highlights Contribution to Regional Economic Development by Community Education Providers

February 9, 2018

I have written a report for Community Colleges Australia (CCA) that highlights how NSW community education providers contribute to the state’s regional and rural economic development. The report concludes that the not-for-profit community education sector constitutes a major economic development resource that has been under-utilised by state, Commonwealth and local governments.

The report highlights three needed changes:

  • reducing barriers to participation in government-funded economic development projects;
  • including not-for-profit community education providers in multi-sector regional economic development planning activities; and
  • increasing the capacity of community education providers themselves to participate in economic development through improved facilities and better access to training.

The report reviews challenges facing the regional NSW economy and the delivery of regional and rural VET, analyses the scope of activities and economic impact of community providers, and includes recommendations that span NSW and Commonwealth regional development programs. The report utilises the results from a survey of all regional and rural community education providers, a forum held at Byron Community College’s Mullumbimby campus and consultations with stakeholders.

CCA has found innovative ways that our members can add to NSW regional economic development. These include training under-utilised older workers, collaborating with Aboriginal land councils, expanding business incubators, encouraging entrepreneurship and social enterprises, leveraging philanthropy and extending the same opportunities to Western Sydney.

Read the Executive Summary and Recommendations here.

Read the full report (PDF) here.