Disadvantaged Australians fared worse during COVID-19 and have lost out on learning

Disadvantaged Australians have fared far worse than all others during COVID-19. A new report from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) reinforces the tremendous challenges the pandemic has posed for disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians. Those findings have been reinforced in turn by two NCVER reports which show disadvantaged adult learners have left training in greater numbers than more advantaged learners.

The ACOSS report, entitled Australian experiences of poverty: risk precarity and uncertainty during COVID-19 (available here) concludes:

“Although the pandemic impacted everybody, people on low incomes experienced many of its negative effects in specific, harmful ways. This was due to a range of issues, including (but not limited to):

  • The digital divide, which impeded people’s ability to connect with others and access resources that improved isolation for many;
  • Health and mental health concerns;
  • Isolating in underheated, crowded circumstances;
  • Higher energy and utility costs;
  • Increased parenting stress; and
  • Disadvantaged home learning situations.”

The report, which draws on studies of poverty in Australia in 2020 and 2021, the first two years of Australian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, states:

Jobs: “The job status and income of participants were especially affected by sector lockdowns, geographic restrictions, and level of competition for jobs. They described a sense of having exhausted resources and strategies that had previously been successful in maintaining quality of life, such as juggling multiple small jobs and taking on informal work.”

Employment Service Providers: “Participants’ relationships with Centrelink and employment service providers were, in some cases, described as long histories of stigmatising and punitive treatment. They described how they developed ways to navigate inconsistencies and frustrations in dealing with Centrelink and employment services.”

CCA CEO, Dr Don Perlgut comments: “There is no doubt that the experiences of Australians living in strained economic and social circumstances have affected their engagement with post-secondary training, as NCVER reports make clear.”

Government-funded VET student numbers declined in the first six months of 2022 from the same period in 2021, down 6.5% nationally. This was most acute in community education providers – down by 27.2% nationally – more than any other provider type.

Government-funded VET students from the most disadvantaged cohorts also declined in greater percentages than the overall student decline. For example:

  • Indigenous student numbers declined 7.5% nationally, greater than the total decline.
  • Students from the lowest two SEIFA quintiles (the bottom 40% of wealth/income) declined 7.3% nationally, also exceeding the overall student percentage decline.

The move to online learning has been substantial during the pandemic, reports the NCVER:

“VET delivered through blended delivery (that is, online in combination with another delivery mode) has experienced sustained growth, from almost 23% of subject enrolments in 2019 to just over 29% in 2021…. The proportion of online-only VET subjects increased by more than 3% in the year the COVID-19 pandemic was declared (2020)…. Since 2019 there has continued to be a decline in the proportion of VET subjects with no online delivery. This was most pronounced in the first year of the pandemic, with a decrease of almost 7%, followed by a smaller decline of just under 3% between 2020 and 2021.”

This move to online delivery has also created challenges for disadvantaged students, and is consistent with the findings of a recent report from the Reading Writing Hotline, which concluded:

“Provision of LN [literacy and numeracy] programs is best done face to face rather than online. The move to digital delivery tended to disproportionately disadvantage LN learners due to:

  • limited digital literacy skills;
  • lack of access to secure internet access;
  • print-based resources being preferable for adult LN learners;
  • lack of access to home computers; and
  • insufficient self-directed learning skills to manage online programs.”

“Community Colleges Australia strongly advocates for more attention to be paid to the learning re-engagement needs of disadvantaged adult learners. We have proposed a significant outreach and support program: the need for that remains high,” said Dr Perlgut.

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