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”:




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.

Paul Wellstone remembered

August 20, 2017

My tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone has been published on the official Wellstone website. This tribute is an updated version of what I wrote in 2002 in the Australian Jewish News, and re-printed on this blog in 2009.

On 20 July 2017 here in Sydney, I made a presentation at a Economics Society of Australia conference (“Economics for Better Lives”) on Australian inequality and vocational education and training. I dedicated my presentation to Paul Wellstone.

“We should never separate the lives we live from the words we speak. To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in.” – Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. ix

Two photos of Paul below: his official Senate photo, and teaching as a young man (roughly the time I met him):

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