Community Colleges Australia Conference Summary: Sydney, 13-15 November 2018

The Community Colleges Australia (CCA) Conference – with the theme “Taking the Lead: Building Community” – took place on 13, 14 and 15 November in Sydney. CCA’s CEO, Dr Don Perlgut, reports.

By the end of the two days of Conference sessions it was clear: CCA had indeed “taken the lead” in marking not just the “present moment” but also clear paths for the future of Australia’s not-for-profit community education providers. The Conference showed the “true colours” of Australia’s community education sector: vital, engaged, creative, meaningful and innovative.

Community Education Student of the Year Awards

The Conference highlighted the achievements of community education students through the Second Annual Community Education Student of the Year Awards. This year’s student finalists came from Robinson College in Broken Hill (Lakisha Sloane, this year’s winner), Tamworth Community College (Jessica Urquhart, Highly Commended), Byron Community College, Central Coast Community College, Community College Northern Inland, St George & Sutherland Community College, WEA Illawarra and the Youth Development Foundation. Seven of the eight finalists attended the Conference dinner (see photos).

Australia’s Political Leaders

The Conference showed that Australia’s political leaders continue to respect and celebrate the training and community development contributions of the community education sector: all four NSW (where the Conference was held) and Commonwealth Skills Ministers and Shadow Ministers expressed strong support for community education providers in their speeches.

In her welcome speech, The Hon Bronnie Taylor, MLC, representing the NSW Deputy Premier (who was not well), noted that the Deputy Premier “backs you all and knows how important [your sector] is.” She said that “Community Colleges are overachievers in providing training opportunities and support for students who live in regional NSW or are facing social disadvantage. You take thousands of students who are older, are Indigenous, have a disability, or are migrants or refugees. And you provide them with the greatest gift – the opportunity of education.” She also said that the NSW Government had “increased funding for Adult Community Education funding by almost a third in just three years to $21.6 million per year” (for Community Service Obligation activities), in addition to the Smart and Skilled Program funding. She concluded by paying tribute to two NSW colleges: Murwillumbah Community College’s Disability Linker program and Kiama Community College’s Skilled and Styled program that supports the local Koori community.

Ms Prue Car, the NSW Shadow Minister for Skills and Shadow Assistant Minister for Education, spoke about how her local community colleges around her seat of Londonderry in Penrith and Western Sydney, provides high-quality training. She mentioned how community education providers “over-perform in reaching vulnerable and disadvantaged learners and communities.”

In her video presentation, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills & Vocational Education, said that “community colleges play a critical role in the national training system” with some nine percent of all VET students, and that the Government is keen to ensure that the VET sector provides true pathways to success. She acknowledged the “central role your organisations play” in training for business and “to the communities where you operate,” providing “real skills for real careers.” The Minister also pointed to the important role that community providers play in training for the most vulnerable learners, which results in “changing the lives” of many. She pointed to the example of Lewis Brown, a 2018 Aboriginal Trainee of the Year Award national finalist, who studied at the not-for-profit Victorian community training provider E-focus, who “will become one the next generation of Indigenous leaders.”

In his video presentation, Senator the Hon Doug Cameron, Shadow Labor Minister for Skills, TAFE and Apprenticeships, congratulated the community education providers “for your great work,” noting that “to reduce inequality, no-one does it better than you do” in the programs that community colleges provide. He said that “one in three Australians have limited capacity in literacy and numeracy,” with foundation skills taught only by community providers and TAFEs. He criticised the results of VET privatisation and competition, which are “not fair” and “not right”. He also mentioned the planned Labor inquiry into VET, which – “if we win government” – will be “the most important since the Kangan report almost 40 years ago,” and invited community education involvement in that proposed inquiry.

Achieving Social and Economic Justice

A major stream of the Conference was how Australia’s not-for-profit community education organisations can ensure that Australian society becomes more welcoming and supportive for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged: Indigenous Australians, people with less wealth and income, residents of rural and regional locations, people with disabilities, migrants and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Edwina MacDonald, ACOSS Director of Policy and Advocacy, detailed the national peak organisation’s vision for a more just and equal Australia. She referred to their recent report on VET and employment services and ongoing work on Australian poverty and inequality: 3 million Australians (13.2%) live below the poverty line of 50% of median income – including 739,000 children (17.3%).

The Future or Australian VET

In addition to the visions presented by the four politicians, Professor Stephen Parker AO, National Sector Leader of Education for KPMG Australia and a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, gave a stimulating keynote address that detailed his perspective for post-secondary education, honed through many years of research and leadership. Here is a link to Professor Parker’s report Reimagining tertiary education: From binary system to ecosystem.

Promoting Strong Governance in Our Sector

Community education providers fit firmly in Australia’s “for-purpose” sector of not-for-profit organisations, established to promote community development and well-being and focus on the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents. To do their jobs, community providers must ensure that their governance structures, skills and practices are current, relevant and robust.

Presentations at the Conference that support community provider governance included:

Social Enterprise

Almost all of Australia’s not-for-profit community education providers are de facto social enterprises, defined as “businesses that trade to intentionally tackle social problems, improve communities, provide people access to employment and training, or help the environment.” This year’s Conference strived to ensure that delegates understood the different models and approaches that Australian social enterprises could take.

Wendy Perry, Managing Director of Workforce BluePrint, talked about social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial education from a local, national and global perspective.

Angie Sceats from Two Good Co – one of Australia’s most noted social enterprises committed to tackling domestic violence – described the Two Good approach, including a program that reconnects women from long-term unemployment to full-time work.

Kevin Ekendahl (Audit Express) gave an excellent overview of social enterprise, differentiating it from social procurement and describing the social enterprise “ecosystem”. He detailed how community providers can become involved: through providing basic social entrepreneurship training, encouraging awareness, delivering skills and training for new social enterprises and incubating social enterprise in their own organisations.

Judy Foster (NSW/ACT Manager of Philanthropy Australia) built on Kevin’s presentation by describing how Australian philanthropy approaches funding social enterprises. She spoke of her training with the School for Social Entrepreneurs. She spoke about her experiences in working with private and public ancillary funds. “It’s widely recognised that social enterprise is becoming more and more important to achieve maximum social impact,” she said. She provided practical tips on how to engage with philanthropic funders, noting that many funders now regard “disruption of the status quo” as “important in creating social change.”

Foundation Skills Remain Important

Australia’s not-for-profit community providers are experts in the teaching of adult literacy and numeracy – and related digital literacy (“tech savvy”) skills.

Lisel O’Dwyer (Team Leader, National Research, NCVER) is currently leading a CCA-sponsored NCVER research project on foundation skills in rural and regional Australia. With the assistance of Theresa Collignon (CEO of Macquarie Community College) and Evelyn Goodwin (CCA Manager of Policy & Projects) she ran a workshop on foundation skills that engaged Conference participants and illustrated the importance that the sector places on the topic.

CCA is planning on working with other national and state peak organisations to examine the future of foundation skills delivery, with a planned national summit in mid-2019.

Innovations From the Community Sector

Despite concerns about the future of Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) sector (shared by CCA) – VET funding continues to lag behind all other education sectors – the Conference showed that community education providers continue to produce energetic, original and cutting edge approaches to engage students – especially the most vulnerable – in Australian post-secondary education and training. Building on CCA’s 2016 “innovation” conference theme, a number of providers detailed their approaches.

Jan Levy and Luke Close from ACE Colleges (Lismore) detailed their college’s approach to Indigenous education programs. Of 1913 students in 2017, 418 – some 21% – were Indigenous. More than 50% of the NSW Government’s “ACE (Adult and Community Education) Community Service Obligation” funding goes to Indigenous programs; 3 of the 6 program staff are Indigenous, running 5 separate programs, including the award-winning Licensed and On the Road drivers education program.

Gerry Lister described how the Youth Development Foundation (Brisbane) focuses on young people (15 to 29 years old) who are at risk of disengagement from education, social inclusion, training and employment. She described the inspirational story of Jasmine Ridgeway – one of the eight Community Education Student of the Year finalists – who, at 21 years of age, has turned her life around and is now working as a YDF Business Trainee.

Margaret Teed (City East College, Bondi) detailed the work of the City East Mentor program, which supports the integration of professionally skilled migrants and refugees into employment, by matching professionally skilled migrants and refugees with volunteer mentors, who use their knowledge and experience of the Australian workplace to assist mentees in their job-seeking. Of the 201 “match” mentoring pairs to date, 104 have already found employment in their profession. The program constitutes one of Australia’s best examples of innovation in social inclusion.

Jennifer Trybula from TecNQ in Townsville provided an in-depth case study on how to use digital marketing successfully to engage students, families and potential learners in a competitive environment and a “noisy” world.

Dr Robbie Lloyd (Port Macquarie Community College – PMCC) continued his “mission” to ensure that the community sector – and the VET sector more broadly – deals with Australia’s mental health challenges. Reflecting on his recent CCA-sponsored survey and on PMCC’s five years of working with vulnerable communities to improve mental health and social and emotional wellbeing (MH/SEWB), Dr Lloyd observed that depression and anxiety are very prominent. More than 70% of CCA members have a pastoral care or wellbeing program, with most interested in developing further programs. Unlike schools, TAFEs and unies, the ACE sector has no funding provision for MH/SEWB. CCA has committed to working with PMCC to develop this further for the ACE sector.

Playing by the “rules” – the role of government regulators

Four speakers outlined the importance of understanding government regulations and detailed the expectations of regulators:

Dr Gary Johns, Chief Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) described how the ACNC’s five year strategic plan is working to create a visible charity market through additional transparency of charity activities and funding.

Ms Saxon Rice, Deputy Chief Commissioner and Commissioner, Risk Intelligence and Regulatory Support, ASQA, explained what ASQA’s current Regulatory Strategy means for community RTOs. She noted that ASQA regulates 181 community-based adult education providers (4.5% of all ASQA-regulated providers), which had 109,264 enrolments in 2017 (3% of total enrolments). Since ASQA’s establishment in 2011, the regulator has conducted at least one audit activity in relation to 122 community providers. Ms Rice’s talk was complemented by a quality delivery workshop led by ASQA’s Manager of Regulatory Operations Gayatri Mahesh.

David Collins, Executive Director of Training Services NSW (part of the NSW Department of Industry) discussed the funding support for ACE providers from the NSW Government. He outlined a new strategic direction, where his Department will seek to work in partnership to build the capacity, durability and responsiveness of the community sector.

Lessons from the USA

The presentation by keynote guest speaker Dr Ricky Shabazz, President of San Diego City College – established in 1914, with 18,000 students – reminded us that the USA is much more than just “red states” and “blue states” and other obsessions of the current “political moment”. He described how the USA has more than 1,000 associate-degree granting institutions enrolling more than 12 million students – almost half of all US undergraduates, including more than “2.1 million students in 114 community colleges in California – the largest system of higher education and the largest provider of workforce training in all of the USA.” California community colleges “educate 70% of the state’s nurses, 80% of all firefighters, law enforcement, and emergency personnel, and graduate 7,700 nurses each year.”

Two-thirds of California community college students come from minority ethnic backgrounds, and 80% of students take basic English and mathematics courses when they commence. His district’s commitment to social justice begins at the top, with the support of the Board President and Chancellor, and is reflected in numerous ways to ensure that disadvantaged students are given opportunities, such as “clothing banks” so that they can dress properly for job interviews. One key to success in engaging disadvantaged and minority students: “Ensure that your faculty (teachers and trainers) reflects the ethnic and racial backgrounds of your students,” said Dr Shabazz.

Dr Shabazz was featured in two interviews during his visit to Sydney: The Australian’s Higher Education section featured him in the lead article in the 13 November paper and Campus Review has posted an 18 minute audio podcast interview about his life and work.

Looking After Our Young People

Much of the Conference was devoted to ensuring that community education students are supported to achieve their potential. These two presentations reported on recent research projects:

Living in the Digital World

CCA and individual members have begun working with international technology company Cisco, which offers a highly detailed and well-constructed set of digital teaching resources aligned to the Australian VET curriculum through its corporate social responsibility program. The program is committed to “empower social change agents with technology and expertise” with the goal to “accelerate global problem solving to benefit people, society, and the planet.”

Raymond Janse van Rensburg, Director, Systems Engineering, CISCO Australia & New Zealand, reinforced Cisco’s expertise and commitment through a presentation on Paving the pathways in a digital world.

Conference Welcome

In addition to the Conference’s two full days of sessions, delegates and partners were treated to a “welcome drinks” cruise on Sydney Harbour on Tuesday, 13 November.



Conference presentations are now available on CCA’s website.

CCA thanks Conference sponsors, Conference Chair David Fuller (CCA Chair and CEO of WEA Illawarra), and all the speakers and session chairs for their energy, enthusiasm and willingness to engage. Most of all we thank the participants for making the Conference possibly the most special event ever run by CCA.

Don Perlgut, PhD, CEO, Community Colleges Australia

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