Community Colleges Australia (CCA) has proposed an outreach program to re-engage disadvantaged and vulnerable learners who have left training because of COVID-19 concerns. Adult and community education (ACE) providers over-perform in reaching disadvantaged groups, but have experienced a significant drop amongst these students throughout the pandemic and again in 2022, even more than in 2020 and 2021. (Download a copy of the CCA NSW Omicron impact report – PDF.)
The lack of ACE student engagement in vocational education and training (VET) is most acute with Aboriginal (First Nations) learners; people with a disability; migrants, refugees and people from a non-English speaking background; and people from lower-socio-economic backgrounds. These groups have often been “left behind” during the pandemic, and often lag in vaccination rates; ACE providers engage easily with these learners. Recent data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) confirms that ACE providers excel at lifting unemployed learners into employment, with 13% of ACE learners moving from unemployment to employment, a greater increase than any other provider type.
Impact of COVID-19 Omicron on ACE Providers and Students
CCA’s report COVID-19 Impact on NSW Adult and Community Education Providers (PDF) details how the Omicron variant has impacted NSW ACE student numbers. As of February 2022:
- More than 85% of NSW ACE providers report that the Omicron impact on their organisations as “severe” or “major” (other choices were “moderate”, “slight” or “none”).
- Metropolitan providers are more impacted than regional and rural providers.
- Providers report a general fear and fatigue that affected willingness of potential students to study: “Many people are less keen to leave their house, less keen to participate in activities with many other people around, especially when in close proximity or having to share the same closed-air-space or common facilities. This severely affects face-to-face training delivery in a traditional classroom.”
- A large majority of learners are unable or unwilling to move to online learning.
- Many students are reluctant to study in care training qualifications – aged, disability & child care, which may be related to news of aged care sector problems and reported high (30%+) child care staff turnover, unhappy with low pay and feeling undervalued.
- Providers report trainer shortages, especially in aged care (one-third of NSW ACE provider VET activity), but also in IT, hospitality, TAE and business, especially acute in regional and rural locations.
The current and ongoing effects of flood and displacement will impact many NSW ACE providers, especially – but not just – on the north coast, where the damage is most visible, and will compound and extend the COVID-19 impacts for many months to come.
How Can We Address These Challenges? – ACE Student Outreach and Engagement
In recognition of the unusual and dramatic challenges facing ACE providers, CCA has recommended that governments work with CCA to scope and implement a longer-term ACE outreach and learner re-engagement programs that build on Australian best practice engagement and renewal strategies.
Even prior to the pandemic, disadvantaged NSW ACE students faced many barriers to learning participation. As Dr Jim Cloutman writes: “The barriers that community college [ACE] students face can encompass mental health issues and deep-seated beliefs that they could not handle work, not just in terms of technical skills, but from the point of view of dealing with the many challenges that come from engaging with others in a workplace environment. And these various barriers can agglomerate, hampering correct decision making and engagement with meaningful, longer-term employment … only 9% of longer-term unemployed people, for example, have no barriers at all to acquiring work, while 63% have two or more major barriers.”
The 2021 Commonwealth Budget Acknowledged Importance of Outreach
The Commonwealth Treasurer acknowledged in May 2021 the special requirements of teaching language, literacy and numeracy: “It does require additional resources for some of this more intensive training. There’s an economic and social dividend from taking people out of long term unemployment and into work, which has consequences for the individual’s quality of life but also for those around them,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
The Budget included an additional $2 million for the Reading Writing Hotline to strengthen the stakeholder engagement function and help connect hard to reach cohorts with available training, as well as $1 million for research activities to support foundation skills policy development, to “strengthen the understanding of the need, demand and delivery of foundation skills” across Australia.
Public Information Campaigns
There is a powerful need for programs which utilise complementary strategies to recruit and retain marginalised and disadvantaged students, including public information campaigns, direct community outreach, community partnerships, “wrap around” student support and mentoring.
The ability of public community information campaigns was underlined in September and October 2021, when the national Reading Writing Hotline received a 42% increase in inquiries for adult literacy assistance, when SBS TV broadcast the adult literacy series Lost for Words. This reinforced the Australian experience during International Literacy Year in 1990, when more than 100,000 people requested literacy assistance from the (then) Adult Literacy Information Office run by TAFE NSW, which worked in a communications partnership with ABC TV and ABC Radio.
Students Want Deep Engagement with Learning
Students want deep engagement with their learning. In the CCA survey, members reported: ”
- “Virtual learning limits our ability to provide these highly disadvantaged groups with one-on-one support, connectivity with others, well-being and personal support, and structure and stability.”
- “Zoom fatigue from those who usually do face to face but have been doing Zoom on and off in 2020 and 2021 – they are over it. Some folks are waiting it until we go back face to face – It is very hard to attract new low level students to START on Zoom.”
- “Overwhelmingly online learning is relevant to moderately confident learners who have access to appropriate technology and bandwidth.”
- “The alternative to face-to-face training is online training. Unfortunately, not everyone is suited for online learning, especially the disadvantaged and disengaged cohort which make up 99% of our students under state government-funded programs. Not only does this cohort lack the learning environment at home, they also lack skills and resources to make online learning effective. Most importantly, they lack the human contacts and social supports which in-class delivery can provide.”
The CCA survey reports are consistent with the Australian university 2020 survey, which reported($): “The greatest fall [during 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns] was in learner engagement, down by 16.7% among undergraduates and 12.7% for postgraduates. Students indicated they valued the flexibility offered by online learning, but the sector-wide rush to pivot online early last year has left a digital learning landscape that varies significantly in quality. Above all, most students have told us they want to get back on campus. They want to resume interacting with their teachers and peers – in person – while forming enduring, lifelong friendships and professional networks.”
Importance of Place for Disadvantaged Students
The place-based approach that ACE providers take makes them especially vulnerable (particularly compared to online only providers) to COVID-19, as well as – in recent weeks – floods, and as we saw two years ago, bushfires. The “place” in learning is a great strength in community engagement and delivery to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, but also makes the ACE sector susceptible to the impacts of pandemics and natural disasters that not all training providers experience.
(This article has been reprinted by Campus Review on 21 March 2022, under the byline of Dr Don Perlgut.)