The long tail of Australian private for-profit VET scandal

November 6, 2019

Some years ago, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson published a ground-breaking book entitled The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand. In it, Anderson deftly analysed the impact of the Internet and the digital world on traditional business models.

But Anderson’s introduction of the term “the long tail” has taken on another popular meaning – how certain events continue to resonate in economics or society, long after the initial impact has disappeared.

The much-abused, now (thankfully) closed Australian Government loan scheme for vocational education and training (VET) students, VET FEE-HELP, is a prime example of how the long tail continues to affect us.

The latest manifestation of the long tail came last week, with the news that a now-closed private for-profit Australian VET provider, Unique International College, had “been fined $4.2 million after it was found to have acted unconscionably by enrolling people from remote NSW communities, including a teenager with learning conditions, into online courses costing nearly $27,000 by offering them free laptops.”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald article (31 October 2019): “In six separate cases, it was found Unique International College failed to inform the prospective students of the cost of the course they were signing up to, did not tell them they would incur a debt and did not give them copies of the agreement they had signed.”

The conduct “’involved the exploitation of an uneducated Indigenous person with no understanding of what he was agreeing to in return for a laptop which was worth substantially less than the debt which was being incurred,’ Justice Nye Perram found in his Federal Court judgment.”

The article continues: “Unique made a net after tax profit of $8.2 million in 2014 and $33.8 million in 2015, the ACCC told the court. Justice Perram found Unique acted deliberately in remote communities on a number of occasions, including Walgett in October 2014, Wagga Wagga in March 2015 and Bourke in June 2015 but ‘was ignorant’ to the fact it was contravening consumer law.”

A year and a half ago, the Sydney Morning Herald described VET FEE-HELP (logo pictured below) as “the biggest public policy scandal in Australian history: the systematic rorting of the vocational education and training system.” At times, provider profit margins reached a staggering 80% of income. All of this continues to prove how government funding of privately delivered VET is fraught with potential difficulties.

Although the VET FEE-HELP scheme finished at the end of 2016, almost three years later we are still faced with court cases that continue to uncover the abuses undertaken by for-profit education providers who found ways to rort the system of government payments.

And, sadly, there is another “long tail” to this not-yet-finished story: the replacement Commonwealth Government scheme, VET Student Loans, has significantly under-spent. As TAFE Directors Australia CEO, Craig Robertson wrote on Monday of this week (4 November): “At the same time VET FEE-HELP was scrapped in favour of VET Student Loans, cutting the flow of about $1.5bn per annum in legitimate loans to something like $300m for VET Student Loans. States and territories, let alone decent providers, were left high and dry.”

(Full disclosure: I participated, as a representative of Community Colleges Australia and not-for-profit community-based VET providers, in the Australian Government’s VET Student Loans Stakeholder Reference Group as that program was being established.)


Reading Writing Hotline 25th Anniversary speech

June 9, 2019

I spoke at 25th Anniversary celebration of the Reading Writing Hotline in Sydney on 15 April 2019. Other speakers included Vanessa Iles, Hotline Manager; Lyn Wilson, TAFE NSW; and David Riordan, Director of City Operations for the City of Sydney (see photo at end of this post).

The speech

I am greatly honoured to be here today and have been asked to speak. Because in many ways the Reading Writing Hotline embodies some of the best moments of my professional life, from 1994 to the present in 2019.

Let me go back and give you some history. I first developed my commitment and concern for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities while studying one summer as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. I took a course by a young – older than me, but still young – lecturer in politics from Carleton College in Minnesota. He was built like a wrestler – indeed he was a former American college wrestler – and stood only five feet six inches tall. He shared with us, his students, his passion for social and economic justice. I was moved, in a way I had not been during my then tender 19 years of life.

That man was Paul Wellstone, later to become a Democratic Senator from the State of Minnesota and a major force in US progressive politics. He died tragically in a plane crash in 2002.

In parts of the USA, his name still invokes awe. Last month, a Minnesota newspaper wrote that “the legacy of Senator Paul Wellstone is palpable in the 2020 presidential campaign”, with at least three presidential candidates citing him as an inspiration, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

I too count the late Senator Wellstone, my former teacher, as an inspiration. So when I found myself working as an educational policy manager in ABC Television in the late 1980s under a different inspirational leader – that was David Hill – one who was eager to make a difference, I was given the job of spearheading the ABC’s activities in adult literacy. It’s not like there was any competition for the role. The journalists had no interest, but I knew from my years of work as a social planner in Western Sydney and northern New South Wales of the potential power of mass education and what ABC TV and ABC Radio could do to assist International Literacy Year in 1990.

The time was ripe to convince the ABC Board and Managing Director that the ABC had a role in promoting and teaching adult literacy. We based our activities on the BBC, which had completed a successful TV series and campaign in the mid-1970s called “On the Move”. We considered the questions: were we trying to teach via TV and radio, or just motivate students to seek assistance? We tried both.

We worked closely with the Adult Literacy Information Office – known as ALIO – the predecessor organisation to the Reading Writing Hotline, whose 25th anniversary we are celebrating today. In 1993 and 1994 we produced our major adult literacy TV series: “The Reading Writing Roadshow”, a 20-part drama and teaching series that remains one of my proudest achievements.

I didn’t produce the series, but I found the money from the Commonwealth Government and from inside the ABC, and I played the role of liaison between TAFE and the ABC. Imagine getting two big behemoth organisations to work together – both of them, by the way, much larger than they are now.

It was a challenge, but the result, I believe, was worthwhile – one, dare I say, worthwhile repeating. Yes, that’s right, harnessing the efforts of the national broadcaster and Australia’s largest VET provider to produce and disseminate high-quality reading writing teaching materials, and then encouraging people to seek help.

So if any national politicians are listening: here’s my call to the next Government of Australia. Please start a national educational campaign, and not just awareness, but genuine educational delivery, using our national broadcasters, the structure of the Reading Writing Hotline and the network of adult literacy providers – including the valuable not-for-profit community sector – to tackle Australia’s literacy challenges head-on.

I don’t want to take undue credit for the ABC’s activities in that period of the early 1990s, as a number of ABC and TAFE NSW staff were instrumental, in the two major co-productions undertaken with TAFE.

After my time in the ABC, my professional life toured through other literacies – digital literacy and later financial literacy with ASIC’s MoneySmart program.

And now I find myself back in the same space, some 25 years later – the same 25 years that this august organisation, the Reading Writing Hotline, has been in existence.

As the CEO of Community Colleges Australia, I represent, I advocate for and I look after Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education providers. Most of the people in this room know what our sector’s areas of expertise are – reaching Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners – especially through what is now called “foundation skills”, but which I still call adult literacy and numeracy.

Australia’s not-for-profit community providers over-perform when it comes to reaching the most disadvantaged through Australians vocational education and training: people from lower incomes, Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and learners over age 45.

But there’s one area where the not-for-profit sector towers over all other providers, and that is in reaching regional and rural Australians.

While only one third of New South Wales population lives outside of metropolitan Sydney, the not-for-profit community sector delivers two thirds of its government-funded VET outside of Sydney – much of it lower level VET, including foundation skills.

Why does this matter?

  • Because the further you travel from Australia’s capital cities like Sydney – to inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote communities – the rates of literacy, of all sorts of literacy, decrease.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the lower the formal educational attainment rates are.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the fewer people study at university and the more people study VET. And when they study VET, it is in the lower level certificates and packages.

This is one of the most powerful reasons for the existence of the Reading Writing Hotline, because regional and rural Australians simply don’t have the same access to education as their city cousins do. And a national, quality-controlled, hotline is an essential part of ensuring that access.

For these reasons Community Colleges Australia proposed last year to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) that they commence a study on adult literacy and community providers in regional and rural Australia. The NCVER has resourced and commenced this study, which starts reporting results at its July national conference in Adelaide.

So I have come full circle in my professional life. The social planner, policy analyst and adult educator inside me have all merged in my advocacy for adult literacy.

It is with a great deal of pride that I participate in the management advisory committee of the Reading Writing Hotline, and in this celebration.

With a great deal of hope I put it to the next Government of Australia that there has never been a better time to resurrect a national adult literacy education program, using broadcast TV, radio, podcasts, the Internet, actual paper-based books, our diverse literacy providers and our valuable Reading Writing Hotline.

May the Hotline live for another 25 years.

With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, may Australia have no need for the Hotline after that.

It’s in our hands.

Thank you.

(Photo below from left to right: Vanessa Iles, Lyn Wilson, David Riordan & Don Perlgut)

(Photo below: Don Perlgut speaks)


The Community Colleges Australia Summer Reading List

December 30, 2018

This year, I wrote Community Colleges Australia’s first “Summer Reading List”, with selected recommendations for members and friends. (You can view the CCA version here.)

“Summer reading is a sacred pastime. For many of us, it’s about the only time we now have to read without constant distraction.” – Tim Soutphommasane 

Understanding Australia 

My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches by David Marr 

David Marr’s My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches is a massive collection of his writing, from the 1970s onwards, including early works, such as the first review of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries,” writes Marr. The book is filled with Marr’s wisdom: “The true radicals in Australia are those who call themselves conservative…. Australians are a practical people…. We fight change hard here – often brutally hard – but the leaders we come to admire are mostly reformers.”

I suspect I am not the only person on whom David Marr has grown over the years. Perhaps best-known for his biography of Patrick White, Marr’s work has broadened and deepened in recent years, turning him one of Australia’s most insightful cultural and political commentators. In recent years, Marr has published Quarterly Essay biographies of Tony Abbott, George Pell and Bill Shorten. Listen to Marr’s ABC Radio National “Conversations” interview with Richard Fidler (13 November 2018) for a preview of his book’s contents. 

Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up by Gabrielle Chan

In this week’s Sydney Morning Herald (29 December 2018), Shane Wright writes: “Capital cities are eating up the rest of Australia. Already home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s 25 million residents, each capital city will soon dominate their respective state or territory in a way that will challenge Australia’s economic and political landscape.” Capital city populations became dominant in 1916 in South Australia, 1921 in Victoria, 1942 in Western Australia, 1954 in New South Wales and 1991 in the Northern Territory. It’s projected to take place in 2027 in Queensland and 2040 in Tasmania. The social, political, economic and cultural implications of this national demographic shift is profound.

It’s also one cause for the political restlessness of non-metropolitan Australia, with increasing numbers of non-major party politicians winning seats such as Cathy McGowan; the further you get from the state GPO, the higher the disillusioned minor party vote. 

That’s the context of Gabrielle Chan’s book Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Born to Chinese immigrants in Sydney, Chan became a journalist and moved to western New South Wales in 1996. She separates the book into 2 parts (“Shedding my city skin” and “The politics of country”) and 19 chapters – which she calls “lessons”. Examples: 1. WTF? There are people west of the divide; 2. Place is everything; 5. There is an education divide; 7. Not all kids want to go to uni; 11. Rural politics is stuck in an old model; 15. The economics of a small town are tricky. Listen to Chan’s interview with Philip Clark on ABC Radio’s “Nightlife”. 

Seize the Fire: Three Speeches by Richard Flanagan 

Acclaimed novelist Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) has begun to develop a reputation as one of Australia’s most insightful speech-makers. This short volume includes three of his recent speeches, encapsulating a unique Australian voice: “Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather an invitation to dream, and this country—our country—belongs to its dreamers . . . if we are finally to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold.” 

Understanding America

The United States of America has always fascinated Australia, however during the last two years – since the ascendancy of President Trump – the need to understand what is happening across the Pacific, and it’s meaning for Australia, has become acute. These two works should assist.

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

This ground-breaking, lengthy and acclaimed historical work by Harvard academic and New Yorker essayist Jill Lepore attempts in one volume to explain the full scope of American history. Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes: “I can think of no stronger endorsement than this: These Truths is 932 pages long—and, reader, I didn’t want it to end…. Here are some of the most urgent and defining truths of the current moment—among them inequality, partisanship, nationalism, and, in particular, racism—told in reverse, Metacom to Cotton Mather to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray to Phyllis Schlafly to Barack Obama … [p]eople who, treading the vast American landscape, bent the arc of history.”

Companion piece: Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, a recent visitor to the Sydney Writers Festival; listen to her Festival talk here.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

American journalist, historian and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit – author of Men Explain Things to Me, about male arrogance which preceded “mansplaining” – has marked out her place as one of the most original voices on feminism, ecology and the environment and how place matters in the modern age. Her latest collection consists of 20 essays separated into four sections – Electoral Catastrophes, American Emotions, American Edges and Possibilities. The pieces in this collection were all written since 2016 and are thus imbued with a sense of urgency within the shadows of the Trump presidency. Solnit lives in San Francisco, and brings a unique West Coast perspective, compared to the New York-Washington-Boston intellectual approach we are used to.

Companion piece: Women and Power: A Manifesto by British classicist Mary Beard.

Understanding the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, with its accompanying marketisation/privatisation agenda, has made a profoundly negative impact on Australian vocational education and training (VET), and – as a result – the community education sector. These three recent books provide arguments against the marketisation agenda and essential reading on what to do next:

Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next by Richard Denniss is a passionate, highly readable essay that shows how “the language, ideas and policies of neoliberalism have transformed our economy and, more importantly, our culture.”

The Wages Crisis in Australia: What it is and what to do about it is a free e-book from University of Adelaide Press, edited by Andrew Stewart, Jim Stanford (a recent speaker to NSW community college CEOs) and Tess Hardy. Read chapter 9, “Contracting out community services, marketisation and wages”, by Fiona Macdonald and Michael Pegg.

Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired, edited by Damien Cahill and Phillip Toner, includes 19 case studies of how marketisation has failed Australia. Read Toner’s chapter entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, which I reviewed back in November.

Understanding Economics, Democracy and Politics

And finally, the age of Trump means that more authors are writing passionately about and why democracy should be saved:


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.


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)


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.