Increase investment in community education to tackle disadvantage and unemployment in rural Australia

March 3, 2017

Community Colleges Australia issued the following press release in late February – reproduced below.

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Australian governments should increase investment in community education to address higher levels of disadvantage and unemployment in rural and regional Australia, according to a new report from Community Colleges Australia (CCA).

The report, The Role of Community Education in Australian Regional and Rural Economic Development, finds that not-for-profit community-based vocational education and training (VET) providers play a disproportionately large role in rural and regional Australia, educating at least 10% of VET students in New South Wales and 20% in Victoria.  This makes community providers a significant national force in providing skills to non-metropolitan Australia.

Participation rates in VET courses are 50% higher in rural and regional Australia than in metropolitan areas. A much larger percentage of rural and regional VET learners also study lower level qualifications: Certificate III and below – just those qualifications that community education providers excel in, with their focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged learners.

“This report shows how community education is crucial in providing skills and in driving economic development in rural and regional Australia, and includes numerous examples of ‘bottom-up’ innovative community-based approaches. Community education providers are uniquely positioned to act as ‘passing gear’ vehicles, accelerating new ideas and helping our regions to prosper,” said Dr Don Perlgut, Chief Executive Officer of CCA.

“Yet governments have not been investing enough in community education, particularly in high need, disadvantaged rural and regional areas where youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. We have not seen any national infrastructure investment in community education since 2009 – it’s now 2017. On top of this, Australia lacks a coherent national statement on the role of community education in VET. This policy vacuum makes it difficult for community providers to operate effectively,” said Dr Perlgut.

“CCA looks forward to working collaboratively with the Australian, state and territory governments to fix these issues, and to utilise the capacity that community VET providers have to meet pressing rural and regional skills needs,” said Dr Perlgut.

The report makes a number of key recommendations, including that the Commonwealth, state and territory governments should:

  • Boost funding for community education, including providing more support for infrastructure, professional development and staff training, pilot funding programs, and community service obligation activities.
  • Utilise regional and rural community education providers to engage with vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians, particularly young people.
  • Develop a coordinated national-state-territory policy statement on the value and place of community and adult education.
  • Examine VET funding programs to ensure community providers are not disadvantaged by unnecessary regulations.
  • Collect and publish annual data on regional and rural student outcomes and provider comparisons.

The full report The Role of Community Education in Australian Regional and Rural Economic Development is available here on Community Colleges Australia’s website.

 

(image below: logging truck driving through Armidale NSW)

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Wealth and inequality in Australia

August 17, 2016

For those looking for a definitive statement on wealth and income inequality in Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) report from last year, Inequality in Australia: A Nation Divided, continues to resonate.  Here is a 2 minute video that accompanies and illustrates the report:


Australian spatial economics

August 19, 2014

Even in this digital, online world, it’s no secret that all economic activity has an important element of physical space.

Economists and geographers know this. In fact, a whole field of study is devoted to it, and it’s called economic geography.

Unfortunately, the spatial dimension to our work and our consumer lives is something that government policy makers, economic planners and regulators often seem to forget or never even consider. Too many government policies and programs assume that we are all sitting in the same space – presumably (when here in Australia) within a five to ten kilometre radius of the central business district of one of our capital cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide – or perhaps Canberra (but certainly not Darwin or Hobart).

Here in Australia, about two-thirds of us live in the capital cities, making Australia (despite our “outback” and rural myths) one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Singapore, city-state that it is (with a 100 percent urbanisation), we are not. But more than 89 percent of us live in urban areas, not far behind Japan and South Korea (both at 91 percent).

So the high rate of Australian urbanisation means we can assume geography is not significant, right? Wrong. With our massive continent and our sprawling cities, we have a number of regions that experience profound and intense geographic disadvantage. Think western Sydney, western Melbourne and most regional, rural and remote areas.

The fact is that employment and economic activity is NOT evenly spread along with the population, despite our high urbanisation rate. Economic activity is particularly concentrated in and around the major central business districts, a point made comprehensively and convincingly in a report from the Grattan Institute entitled “Mapping Australia’s economy: Cities as engines of prosperity”, by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan.

The Institute summarises the situation:

More than three-quarters of all economic activity in Australia happens on less than one per cent of the nation’s land mass. In today’s services-driven economy, Australia’s cities are the engines of material prosperity.

For a long time agriculture was the backbone of our economy, as we rode on the sheep’s back. After World War Two prosperity shifted to suburbia, with manufacturing employing one in four Australians. This report shows that Australia’s economy is increasingly driven by knowledge-intensive services located in Australia’s large cities. Within these cities the most intense and productive economic activity is concentrated around central business districts and a small number of other business hubs. The way these areas draw large numbers of businesses and workers together makes them all more productive.

Key facts from the report include:
– “Eighty percent of the value of all goods and services produced in Australia is generated on just 0.2 percent of hte nation’s land mass.”
– The CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne – just 7.1 square kilometres – generated $118 billion during the 2011/12 financial year, almost 10 percent of Australia’s economic activity.

And the major reason for the intense economic activity? The concentrations are of “highly knowledge-intensive and specialised services such as funds management, insurance, design, engineering and international education”, with highly skilled workers. And it is the physical “proximity to suppliers, customers and partners” that promotes efficiency, generating “opportunities to come up with new ideas and ways of working” (report, p. 1).

So there you go. We communicate via digital means and at great distances quicker and easier than ever. But yet, we still prefer – in fact, many of us need – to be physically close in order to work efficiently. Economic planners take note.

Mapping Australia's economy


New post on the moment of inequality

July 11, 2014

I have just put a new blog post on Open Forum, about “the moment of inequality”, a topic that I have been frequently writing about in recent weeks.

Open Forum logo


More on the moment of inequality: the wealth divide continues to fascinate us

July 6, 2014

Rather than decreasing in number, the flood of information on the “moment” of attention to inequality of wealth and the class divide seems to be growing.  As I write this, Thomas Piketty’s 696 page economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century still maintains its #22 position in book sales on Amazon’s US website (along with an astonishing 799 user reviews), just ahead of Gone Girl.

Here in Australia, Oxfam has weighed in, with a webpage devoted to inequality issues and a new (June 2014) publication, entitled Still the Lucky Country? The Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor is a Gaping Hole in the G20 Agenda.  (Australia will be hosting the G-20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November 2014.)

The Oxfam report’s key points:
– Extreme inequality poses a growing threat to global security and economic growth.
– Inequality is on the rise in Australia, with the richest 1% of Australians now owning the same wealth as the bottom 60% (you read that one correctly).
– The richest 85 people in the world own the same amount as half the world’s population – some 3.5 billion people.
– Australia’s richest person owns more than the bottom 10% of the population (2.27 million people), and the nine richest Australians own more than the bottom 20% (4.54 million people).
– Income inequality has been on the rise in Australia since the 1990s: in 1995, Australia had an average inequality level compared to other wealthy OECD countries. By 2010, Australia has become much less equal (based on the Gini co-efficient), even though we have had such a high-performing economy.  And this is not just left-wing assertion: it is based on the Australian Government’s Treasury report from 2013, entitled Economic Inequality in Australia by Michael Fletcher and Ben Guttman.

Clearly these trends have been evident for some time – the Treasury data covers the 15 year period to 2010.  So why now?  What is it about this point that appears to be capturing attention, not just in Australia but in the USA and in other places around the world?

In his article “Piketty v. Marx” (The New Republic, June 2014), UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby examines this phenomenon, and likens it to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which also “unexpectedly capture(d) the zeitgeist”. In reviewing the book for The New York Times at the time, Roger Kimball described it as filled with “pathos, erudition and penetrating insight”.   (Bloom, as we recall, was a close friend of Werner Dannhauser, and Saul Bellow wrote the introduction to his book.)

But that’s not enough.

As Jacoby writes, “Few read all of Bloom’s volume – for the good reason that it was mainly turgid – but it spoke to a moment in which many felt that liberals and leftists were wrecking American education, if not American itself”. Jacoby feels that these two books come from the same “force field”, but that “the terrain has shifted from education to economics”.

But that would not be enough to explain the popularity of this issue outside of the USA, as Bloom’s book did not have near the same impact beyond American shores.  More to the point, Jacoby writes that Piketty speaks to “the palpable upset that … societies seem increasingly rigged; that inequality is worsening and darkening our future”.

From my own PhD research on what makes a “cultural moment” – in which I investigated the reasons behind the unexpected but profound success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ – I concluded that a “moment” arises from a series of factors that come together at a certain point in time and build it up, almost like a wave can be exaggerated when two or more combine.  In the case of the Gibson film, the combination of the rise of political power of American evangelical Protestants (witness the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush); the concentrated, muscular and focussed influence of certain right-wing media and religious commentators; the unwillingness of the Catholic Church in the USA to criticise the film, in part a reaction to the child sex scandals that the church had been dealing with; an excellent and superbly targeted marketing campaign; and a clever publicity use of the antisemitism controversy (“see the film that the Jews don’t want you to watch”) all came together at a certain moment.  But that “moment”, as my thesis showed in depth, was primarily one in the USA, with much diminished effects outside its borders, even in Canada and certainly in Australia.

So what constitutes this “moment” of inequality? And why does this moment – unlike Bloom’s book and unlike Gibson’s film – seem to extend so fully outside of the USA? These are questions that we cannot yet answer fully.

The Closing of the American Mind book cover


Notes from the class divide: Is Australia fair?

June 30, 2014

A couple of months ago, I observed that we were experiencing a unique (“zeitgeist”) moment of awareness and attention to inequality of wealth and the accompanying issues of social disadvantage.  The New York Times has set up an “income inequality navigator” page, and appears to be publishing almost one article a day about the topic.

The latest addition to this debate here in Australia is the recently released (June 11, 2014) report Advance Australia Fair? What to do about growing inequality in Australia.  This report was produced by the non-profit organisation Australia21, in collaboration with the Australia Institute and the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.  The report arose from a multidisciplinary roundtable of stakeholders and experts that took place at Parliament House in Canberra in January 2014 that explored the questions:

How should Australia respond to the evidence of growing inequality in wealth and health? Consider(ing) the measurable adverse consequences of income inequality in Australia, at individual, family and community levels … how they might be most effectively minimised through policy change?

The report summarises the situation thus:

Australia has a long and proud tradition of equality, but in recent decades the benefits of strong economic growth have flowed disproportionately to the rich. The growing gulf between those in the top range and those in the lower ranges of wealth and income distribution has profound effects on population health and wellbeing, on educational outcomes and there is increasing evidence that increasing inequality impedes economic productivity and growth.

The report concludes with “10 ways we can reduce inequality in Australia and preserve the land of the fair go,” and includes five key messages:

1. Inequality is one of the big issues of our time: it is growing rapidly throughout the industrialised world, and in Australia it is growing more rapidly than anywhere else except the United States of America.
2. Inequality is central to the question of what kind of a society we want to live in.
3. Inequality is bad for everyone: who wants to live in a gated community?
4. Beyond a certain point, inequality is actually inimical to economic growth.
5. Inequality is a policy choice: we can choose policies that reduce it, and we can choose policies that exacerbate it.

Advance Australia Fair? can be downloaded here.

There was some in-depth press coverage of Advance Australia Fair, including Michelle Grattan’s article in The Conversation, Jacqueline Maley’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald of June 14-15, 2014, and an ABC Radio National “Sunday Extra” forum on poverty in Australia on June 15th, which included Dr David Morawetz, an economist, psychologist and co-author of the Advance Australia Fair? report.

At the same time, ABC’s The Drum released the results of three survey questions about inequality in Australia. When asked if people thought that the standard of living for the next generation would be better or worse, only 21 percent reported “better” (mostly just “a little better”), 27 percent “the same” and 48 percent “worse” (mostly “a lot worse”).

Their second question asked if respondents thought Australian society is more or less equal and fair compared to 20 years ago.  The responses: 28 percent thought “more fair”, 23 percent “about the same”, and 43 percent “less fair and less equal”.

The third question asked “How important is equality and fairness to Australian society?” An overwhelming 92 percent said fairness was important and 89 percent said equality was important, with most believing these factors were “very important”.

The survey was based on more than 1000 respondents, although it is not clear how they were recruited. A biased sample perhaps? It could be, but surely a good indication of where popular thinking is heading on this issue.

Don’t confuse this report with a 2008 publication with a similar title and covering similar issues: Advance Australia Fair? Trends in small area socio-economic inequality 2001-2006 (Issue 20, July 2008, NATSEM, University of Canberra), sponsored by AMP.  This report takes a geographical look at the issue, and is also worthwhile.

Finally, here’s another good example of this high level of interest: the forthcoming (July 7-8, 2014) visit to Sydney of Professor Joseph Stiglitz  (Columbia University, ex-World Bank and the author of The Price of Inequality). His two planned events – one for the City of Sydney  and one at the University of NSW – were both booked out within hours and are now “waiting list” only.

The Price of Inequality book cover


The moment of economic inequality

May 20, 2014

It may very well be a zeitgeist moment.

When was the last time that a 685-page US$40 book about economics hit number one on Amazon? Probably (surely) never. Well, it’s happened just recently. The title is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and it’s by French economist Thomas Piketty.  As I write this, it’s still number two.

The book is so popular that publisher Harvard University Press is having a hard time keeping it in bookshops. Here in Australia, it sells for $60, but all bookshops here in Sydney are out of stock. All this for an economics treatise. So far it has sold more than 300,000 hardcover copies in English (plus more than 50,000 in the original French), well exceeding the originally estimated 20,000. It’s still number one on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction list after five weeks. Even the book’s English translator, Arthur Goldhammer, is famous.

Last week’s Time magazine (that arbiter of middle-of-the-road taste, helping us to find the “cultural middle”) has decided that this is something too big to ignore: see this article by Rana Foroohar.  In short, Foroohar writes, this book:
– Proves, irrefutably and clearly, what we’ve all suspected for some time now—the rich ARE getting richer compared to everyone else, and their wealth isn’t trickling down. In fact, it’s trickling up.
– Is going to be remembered as the economic tome of our era.
– Has finally put to death, with data, the fallacies of trickle down economics and the Laffer curve, as well as the increasingly fantastical notion that we can all just bootstrap our way to the Forbes 400 list.

The thesis that Piketty shows is basically that indeed the rich are getting richer (everyone knew this, but Piketty has shown it definitively) and that debt is now flowing to the poorest. He does not use Australian data, and admittedly the situation in the USA is much worse that Australia (more on that another time; suffice to say we are more like Canada when it comes to income inequality, and less like the USA and the UK, which are both much worse), but there are enough parallels that many in Australia are taking note, starting to reference Piketty in public debates.  For a very detailed look with an Australian perspective, see Christopher Sheil’s review (May 2014) on the Evatt Foundation website:  “Astonishing but true, the biggest intellectual topic of conversation in the world today is social inequality”, he writes – although the Australian uptake has, to date, been slow.

Some helpful reading: This article in Salon relates Piketty’s thesis and Elizabeth Warren’s ideas directly to credit card debt. In this article in the New York Review of Books, economist Paul Krugman analyses where he think Piketty has it right and where he does not.

Want to start reading it now? Here is part of the Introduction of the book, on the publisher’s website.  And like the best of academics, Piketty has posted all of his data sets online so people can check them out themselves, as well as his presentation: have a look here.  Australia’s Evatt Foundation has produced a good page of links to reviews and articles about the book.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century book cover