What would a next Labor Government do with Australian vocational education and training: read this book

November 18, 2018

Speculation about changes of governments in Australia even reaches international audiences. So what would a change of national government mean for Australian vocational education and training? I have been monitoring the statements of the Federal Labor Opposition and report below.

Few areas of Australian public policy are more fraught than the recent experience with vocational education and training (VET). For years, commentators have criticised the marketisation/privatisation of Australian VET. They are particularly scathing over the failings of the (now defunct) VET FEE-HELP program, which may have cost Australian taxpayers up to $7.5 billion. Even the economically dry Productivity Commission described that program as “a well-documented example of how policy can fail if governments do not ensure proper policy design along with suitable regulatory oversight.”

The failures have been compounded by consistent ability of VET funding to keep up with other education funding, as the Mitchell Institute has shown: funding has gone backwards in the last ten years, especially notable compared to funding increases in university (53% up), schools and pre-schools.

The results of funding scarcity and VET brand “trashing” continues to have a “long tail” impact: Australia’s lack of a national VET policy means that not-for-profit community providers have continued to lose out.  The recent VET FEE-HELP reforms, while necessary and welcome, are not sufficient. Despite numerous well-publicised private for-profit VET college failures, it’s not over yet: On 9th November, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted Federal Court proceedings against Productivity Partners Pty Ltd, trading as Captain Cook College, alleging “systemic unconscionable conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law” going back to 2015, and impacting 5,500 students.

So how is VET shaping up in the Federal sphere? If you are looking to work out the Federal Labor policy on VET, the easiest way is to read the speeches of Shadow Skills Minister Senator Doug Cameron.

An interesting theme runs through Senator Cameron’s speeches: his most quoted source is Dr Phillip Toner, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Senator Cameron has quoted Dr Toner three times this year: in his speech at a Federal VET Policy Forum in Melbourne on 16 July, at ACPET’s national conference in Canberra in August and at the AEU National TAFE Council meeting in Melbourne in April.

So what does Dr Toner advocate? The best way is to read his chapter, entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, published in a recent book that he co-edited with Damien Cahill, Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired (Black Books).

Toner’s article is 1 of 19 case studies of how “marketisation” has failed Australia. The other chapters deal with early childhood education, private health insurance, prisons, aged care, employment services, public sector engineering, electricity reform, labour market policy, financial deregulation, housing, the National Broadband Network, monetary policy, productivity, inequality, free trade agreements and foreign investment.

In other words, it’s the most complete handbook of what Australian governments have done to deregulate and to send services out to the “market”.

It’s not pretty reading. Here’s how Toner commences his chapter (p.59):

The creation of a ‘training market’ for public and privately funded vocational education and training (VET) is one of the most transparent failures of neoliberal public policy over the last three decades. There is a direct line connecting the early neoliberal economic arguments and pedagogy formulated by VET mandarins – those who designed and managed the VET system in the early 1990s – to its subsequent implementation. The VET market is an exemplar of the great damage inflicted when a naïve , idealised neoliberal conception of how markets work becomes the basis for public policy. Serious quality problems in the VET market arose from a misconceived analysis of both the economics of the private training market, and from the actual level of demand for quality training in large parts of the labour market. Further, the pedagogical system known as competency based training (CBT), instituted to develop competition between registered training organisations (RTOs) and flexibility in all aspects of training content and delivery has actually led to diminished quality of training and malfeasance among many RTOs, employers and students.

After an analysis of why VET matters in Australia, Toner examines the creation of the Australian training market, which has been modelled on the UK experience. He points out that TAFE (83%) and not-for-profit adult and community education providers (15%) delivered almost all publicly funded VET as late as 1996, but this fell to 49% and 6% (respectively) by 2016. The number of RTOs increased from 400 in 1995 to 1931 in 2016, the majority of them private for-profit providers.

Toner discusses the scale of the quality problem (“significant”), and examines the specific economic and pedagogical conditions in the training market that explain the scale and scope of poor quality and malfeasance. Minimal investment is needed, inadequate standards for teaching qualification and teaching resources and the low barriers for RTOs to enter are all exploited by opportunistic providers.

Toner concludes (p. 78) that:

The training market has followed the classic trajectory of neoliberal public policy: ebullient expectations quickly followed by disappointment leading to incessant and expensive – through largely futile – bureaucratic tinkering resulting in intensified regulation and altered incentives…. The time remaining to effect a rescue of the public VET system is rapidly diminishing

Further reading

“Social Service Futures: Marketization and regulation of vocational education and training”, by Professor Valerie Braithwaite, The Power to Persuade, 23 May 2016.

“Marketisation of VET: The New South Wales response 1990s–2017”, by Robin Shreeve and Joanna Palser, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 16 July 2018.

“New figures quantify the extent of the TAFE disaster”, by Professor Leesa Wheelahan, 23 June 2018.

Competition Policy and Human Services: Where Theory Meets Practice, by Rhonda L Smith & Alexandra Merrett, commissioned and edited by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and CHOICE, September 2018.

(This article originally appeared on the website of Community Colleges Australia on 12 November 2018.)

(image above: cover of Wrong Way: How Privatisation and Economic Reform Backfired, Black Books, 2018)

Advertisements

Film review of Sobibor

October 21, 2018

(This film review of “Sobibor” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 October 2018, in a shortened form. It plays as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.)

The film “Sobibor” comes to the Festival carrying a lot more meaning than a big-budget story about a Nazi death camp., Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor (the camp) was one of the most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps, where 250,000+ Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Germany and the Soviet Union – notably including Jewish-Soviet POWs – were murdered.

The film provides a fictionalised version of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, the most successful of concentration camp revolts (Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka also had smaller, less successful uprisings). The 1987 British telemovie “Escape from Sobibor”, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, previously portrayed these events. (Documentaries have also been made by Claude Lanzmann and Pavel Kogan.) This Russian version carries great meaning and is likely to be one of the most watched films of the Festival, as its director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy (“Night Watch”, “Admiral”) will be a JIFF guest.

The uprising was led by the Soviet-Jewish POW Aleksandr Pechersky (Khabenskiy), who organised the uprising in just three weeks, eventually including the majority of the 550 Sobibor prisoners. With few weapons, they killed a number of SS soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Of those who escaped, about 80 were killed during the revolt, 170 others found and killed later and many others turned over by local collaborators. Yet 53 managed to survive the war – including Pechersky.

“Sobibor” can be a tough film to watch and prospective viewers are forewarned. An early scene shows a large number of naked women herded into a gas chamber and gassed, with attendant screams and vomiting. As Cnaan Liphshiz writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the film is one of the goriest of its kind, there’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.”

Numerous Holocaust films have been set in the camps, notably including Oscar winners “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul”. While “Sobibor” doesn’t rise to the dramatic or artistic heights of these two, its large budget – much of it from Russian government sources – ensures that the action is realistic, although some of the details of Nazi camp procedures may be debated.

The film has already had unprecedented success in Russian cinemas, and is Russia’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. It also carries important contemporary political significance, as part of a Russian attempt to ensure that the Soviet Union’s role in European liberation is recognised. As Russia Today reports, the film “is a major step … to preserving historical truth … about the heroism of the Soviet people … who saved Europe and the whole world from fascism at the cost of many lives.” A recent screening of the film for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscores how Russia has made the Sobibor revolt an important part of their national story.


Professor Richard Holden on inequality to speak at Community Colleges Australia conference in November

September 23, 2018

I am pleased that Professor Richard Holden from UNSW will be speaking on inequality at the Community Colleges Australia national conference in November.

Here’s a presentation on YouTube by Professor Holden on “How to redistribute capital, mitigating inequality without killing productivity”:

 

 


It’s a mystery

September 22, 2018

Why does the Australian Government Department of Education and Training refuse to recognise not-for-profit adult and community education providers? That question continues to mystify me, in the same way the Geoffrey Rush’s character in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love repeatedly proclaims, “It’s a mystery.”

Read my opinion piece on the Community Colleges Australia website.


Film review of 7 Days in Entebbe

September 2, 2018

(This film review of “7 Days in Entebbe”, also called “Entebbe”, appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 30, 2018.)

Directed by José Padilha; written by Gregory Burke; starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi and Denis Ménochet

The new film “Entebbe” (also entitled “7 Days in Entebbe”) – about the famed Israeli rescue of 248 hostages from a hijacked Air France airplane in Uganda in 1976 – released in Australia this week on DVD, Blu-Ray and selected streaming services. Four hijackers – two German and two Palestinian – took control of the plane after leaving Athens and demanded it refuel in Libya and fly to Uganda. There, with the support of Ugandan President Idi Amin, they attempted to negotiate the passengers for release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Over the course of a week the Israelis organised a dramatic rescue, projecting their military power by sending 100 commandos an unprecedented 4,000 kilometres, deep into Africa. All but four passengers and one Israeli solder – Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi – survived the experience. For many, it was the most daring special forces rescue in history, a high point in Israeli international authority.

Don’t let the absence of a cinema release fool you: this is a high-production “ticking clock” action thriller directed by Brazilian José Padilha (“Robocop”), with a stellar international cast. One of the pleasures of this new version of the story is the portrayal of historic figures by contemporary actors, notably Israelis Lior Ashkenazi as (then Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin, Mark Ivanir as IDF Chief-of-Staff Motta Gur, Yifach Klein as Ehud Barak; British character actor Eddie Marsan as Shimon Peres; French actor Denis Ménochet (who played a  farmer that hid Jews in “Inglourious Bastards”) as the plane’s heroic flight engineer; and British Nigerian actor Nonso Anozie as Idi Amin. German actor Daniel Bruhl and British actress Rosamund Pike headline the cast, playing the German hijackers; the Palestinian hijackers remain less distinct personalities in Padilha’s telling.

It’s a “Euro-pudding” cast, with the film shot in Malta. Characters mostly speak English, with the occasional foray into German, Arabic, French or Hebrew. The result is a bit disconcerting as it’s not always clear what national background the characters are from.

If you are looking for language verisimilitude, this is not the film. Instead return to the Menachem Golan’s 1977 Israeli-made, Oscar-nominated “Operation Thunderbolt”, in which Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon all played themselves.

What director Padilha does bring is a carefully plotted “actioner”, complete with internal arguments among Israeli politicians, how the IDF prepared for the assault on a mock-up of Entebbe Airport, and the rescue itself. There’s not quite enough tension (surely we all know how the story ends), but Padilha adds a new twist by exploring the German hijackers’ backgrounds and personalities, a theme he first utilised in his controversial Brazilian documentary “Bus 174”.

Oddly, the film opens with a rehearsal of the Israeli Batsheva Dance company practicing a rousing Hebrew version of Passover song “Achad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”), also known as “the chair dance”, choreographed by company’s famed director Ohad Naharin. This intercutting of the dance sequence – it appears throughout the film, and returns as a full performance during the final scene during the airport raid at the film’s climax – is affecting and powerful, although its inclusion in the film is difficult to understand. One of the Batsheva performers is the girlfriend of one of the film’s characters, but what does the dance signify?

Director Jose Padilha explains that that he loves Israeli culture and admires the Israeli capability for self-criticism. The dance “is an amazing metaphor. The only way there’s going to be a solution [to the Palestinian conflict], the only way we are going to break this cycle of fear, is if somehow people strip themselves of their orthodox way of thinking.” Maybe, but I’m still scratching my head.

No matter. The story is too good to leave alone and seeing Batsheva on screen is thrilling. The final frames predictably – but satisfyingly – summarise the outcomes of the events.  Many viewers are likely to feel a renewed awe in the capability of Israeli military derring-do, a reminder of the intractability of the conflict and how Israelis were – indeed still are – capable of extraordinary feats of imagination and risk-taking.

(image above: the theatrical poster for US release in March 2018)


Australian sunset series-1

August 19, 2018

Australian sunsets in winter – especially dry and windy winter days – can be stunning. Here’s a selection.


Film review of BlacKkKlansman

August 19, 2018

This film review of BlacKkKlansman appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 16 August 2018.

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, based on the book Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Jasper Pääkkönen

*****

Few films resonate with the American “current political moment” of increased overt racism and demonisation of minorities as Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman”. The film opened this week, purposefully aligned to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Just to be certain we don’t miss the point, Lee – a film-maker never accused of subtlety – ends “BlacKkKlansman” with graphic news footage from that event, including violent confrontations and President Trump’s “good people” comment. In the cinema preview when I saw the film, the audience didn’t emit a sound: we all “got” the point.

Set in 1972, “BlacKkKlansman” tells the incredible-but-true story of the how the first African-American policeman to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel, complete with large rounded “Afro”) successfully joined the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth needs a white guy to “play” him in person with the Klan, so works closely with Jewish fellow policeman “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew whose awareness of his religious identity grows as the film progresses. Unlike Stallworth, Zimmerman can “pass” as a white Christian, even though Jews are number two on the KKK enemies list. Flip almost too convincingly plays the role of antisemite while being challenged possibly being Jewish: his response to a Holocaust denier where he excitedly elaborates on the achievements of the Holocaust is chilling in the extreme.

From it’s opening moments with a clip from “Gone with the Wind”, “BlacKkKlansman” illustrates its themes with powerful imagery, marking it as one of the best cinema releases this year (it won the “Grand Prix” at Cannes in May, and is running 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). A fictional white power character played by Alec Baldwin (the actor who plays President Trump on “Saturday Night Live”) rages straight to camera how “blood-sucking” Jews sponsor the “commie” civil-rights movement.

The language is shocking, but the message – repeated during the film numerous times in different ways – is clear: racism and antisemitism are integrally connected. Spike Lee has not previously been known for his sensitivity to Jewish issues – his “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) stereotyped Jews as untrustworthy capitalists – but “BlacKkKlansman” marks new ground. The film’s two original writers – David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel – are both Jewish. They placed the Jewish condition front and centre in the story, including making the Flip character Jewish (which he was not in real life). Lee took their original story and ran with it, both emphasising and deepening the connection. The result is a well-argued plea for black-Jewish rapprochement and partnership, one of the best in decades.

One of the film’s most Jewish moments occurs with no Jews on screen: an articulate speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a black radical previously known as Stokely Carmichael, quotes Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” He then adds a fourth question, summing up the movie’s message: “And if not you, who?”

An upside down American flag – an officially recognised signal of dire distress – fills the screen at the film’s very end, and the colours slowly turn from red, white and blue to black and white. The effect is both profound and thought-provoking, underscoring Lee’s urgency of the moment.

The direction, acting and casting in “BlacKkKlansman” are all exquisite. Although the white supremacists are sometimes played as naïve fools (watch Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke), they are deadly fools, as a bombing subplot illustrates. The setting looks nothing like Colorado (in was shot in upstate New York), but no matter. This film is a strong drama about American racism (watch the scene where the undercover Ron Stallworth is beaten up by fellow policemen for being black), with numerous comic overtones and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Jewish journalist Abraham Riesman has written a passionate essay on why “’BlackkKlansman’ is required viewing for Jews”. I agree.

(photo above: Adam Driver and John David Washington)

 

Read my review of Spike Lee’s film “25th Hour”, released in June 2003.