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

July 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do we want from the Commonwealth Government?

Infrastructure and Building Support

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

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

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

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

Recognition of adult and community education

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

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

Restoring the Community College and Community Education Brand

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

Proper funding for VET

Proper government funding for VET is now imperative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reversal of the marketisation and privatisation of VET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundation skills, adult literacy and numeracy

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

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

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

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

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

Regional Economic Development

Let’s turn to economic development.

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

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

Upskilling Older Workers

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

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

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

A Plea for National Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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