Farewell message from CCA CEO Dr Don Perlgut

(In the following message, departing CEO, Dr Don Perlgut – pictured left, reflects on his time with Community Colleges Australia.)

As I reflect on my seven and half years with CCA, I am thrilled to have had the chance to live my values by working on behalf of and for not-for-profit community-based adult and community education (ACE) organisations.

Not all of us have the opportunity to work so close to our driving passions. I did. Every day, I knew that my work with CCA was helping make the world a better place, by ensuring that communities in Australia – through their local educational “social infrastructure” – were being strengthened by my efforts. And that CCA’s members – and our sector at large – were assisting many of Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners.

The data – which CCA painstakingly has documented each year since 2016 – definitively proves that the community education sector is far and away the best post-secondary sector at engaging First Nations learners, migrants and refugees, lower income Australians, older learners, disadvantaged young people, people with a disability and regional and rural residents. And women too: even through women are not disadvantaged as such, they experience significant discrimination in parts of the VET system and have financial outcomes well below men in important areas such as housing.

I have not done it alone. I have worked closely with two other CCA staff throughout my period as CEO, and it has been a true team effort. I have been unfailingly supported by a Board of Directors which maintained its commitment and fearlessness to advancing the cause. And I have felt the urgency from and the need of our members, always willing to share their stories and contribute their ideas and support. I thank them all.

Our sector has survived the worst of the not-quite-over COVID period. We lost NO members during the lockdowns and the absence of students, many of whom have still not returned. We have had members acquired by other members, but we have maintained our network so that the number of places serving students has remained stable, and actually increased in many locations. This is a tremendous achievement, maintaining the capacity for the future, and is not to be underestimated.

There are many challenges going forward. Despite our best efforts, 20% of Australian adults still lack the basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills to gain better jobs and participate fully in society. These foundational skills have an integral role in reducing Australian inequality – and by extension – improving national social and economic participation. For First Nations peoples, that figure is double – about 40% have minimal English literacy, increasing to 70% in remote communities. “So long as these adult illiteracy rates exist, meaningful progress towards many Closing the Gap targets will be impossible,” says the Lowitja Institute. I agree. The disadvantage experienced by many First Nations Australians is one of our national shames.

There is much work to be done. Connecting ACE students with TAFE, to encourage learners to transition seamlessly and efficiently from ACE to TAFE. Providing digital access to all so nobody is left behind. As the Reading Writing Hotline discovered, the rapid pandemic-induced shift to online learning “created inequalities between those learners who could function adequately and those who could not…. Many adults do not have the skills, understanding or access to technology to succeed in online education.” Ensuring the profit motive in education is wound back so that learners, communities – and the public purse – are not disadvantaged.

And, above all, reinforcing the capacity of place-based ACE providers to do what they do best – work in, by and for their communities.

I have been driven by a powerful combination of commitment to Australia achieving social, economic and racial justice objectives. I leave CCA, not to retire, but to continue my activities in other forums and on other platforms. In departing the ACE sector, I thank my colleagues, my advisors, my collaborators and my guides. The experience of leading CCA has been undeniably rich, and I will always treasure it.

Despite the extraordinary challenges the ACE sector has faced in recent years, I am confident that CCA and its members have a very bright future. There is an ancient Irish blessing – originally in Gaelic – that goes:

May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields.

Despite the “noise” (and there is a whole lot of that surrounding me), my sense of the current political, social, educational, cultural and institutional moment is that the wind is at our backs and the road is there to meet us.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr, Washington DC, 31 March 1968.

  • Don Perlgut, PhD, Sydney, 12 July 2023

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