Lessons for Australian Adult and Community Education Providers from the Jobs and Skills Summit

The national Jobs and Skills Summit convened by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra on 1 & 2 September, with government, employers, unions and community organisations, set “to agree on immediate actions to help build a stronger economy and a stronger Australia.” The intention was to “take forward initiatives to help build a bigger, better trained and more productive workforce, boost real wages and living standards, and create more opportunities for more Australians.”

Prior to the Summit, CCA’s CEO Dr Don Perlgut, participated in the pre-Summit “VET Roundtable” with Commonwealth Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor and his senior staff. CCA submitted a briefing to the Minister that outlined how Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education (ACE) providers can and should play an important role in skilling Australia and to become an essential means to assist government efforts to meet skills gaps – especially of disadvantaged learners – and to move to full employment.

SUMMIT OUTCOMES

The Summit set out a reform roadmap with 36 immediate actions and 30 areas for further work: download the Summit Outcomes (PDF). Following the Summit, Minister O’Connor said the summit had focused on what can be done immediately to strengthen VET and get more people trained, while addressing longer term challenges that are “structural, systemic and cultural”. The Minister followed up with a lengthy interview on ABC TV Insiders program (4 September) – view on YouTube or read the transcript.

Three Summit outcomes have high relevance for Australian ACE providers: (1) commitment to increase TAFE places (part of Labor election policy), (2) improve skills and jobs pathways for women and equity groups and (3) “reinvigorate” foundation skills. These are summarised below, along with CCA commentary – CCA submitted to Minister O’Connor (PDF, 5 September).

1. An additional $1 billion in joint Federal-State funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023 and accelerated delivery of 465,000 fee-free TAFE places. In his opening address, the Prime Minister announced that the previous day the National Cabinet had “reached an agreement between the Commonwealth and every State and Territory Government to create an additional 180,000 fee-free TAFE places, for 2023.”

CCA strongly endorses additional resources to TAFE as the first step to revitalise Australia’s training system in a way that reaches all students. CCA strongly supports a strengthened TAFE sector as the anchor VET institution (see our policy on TAFE), however we are concerned about the possible unintended consequences for Australia’s ethical, community-based, not-for-profit ACE providers, which each year deliver training to almost half a million VET students – more than 10% of learners. CCA is keen, in the Prime Minister’s words, that the additional TAFE funding will be “the beginning, not the end” of progress on skills or training. CCA requests the Commonwealth to develop policy protocols around “free TAFE” that include appropriate “guardrails” to ensure that both VET students and the ACE sector are not inadvertently disadvantaged, to the long-term detriment of Australian skills.

ACE providers should not be disadvantaged by the larger marketing power of TAFE, so that students might skip ACE providers – which specialise in enrolling vulnerable and disadvantaged students (see below) – and enrol in TAFE courses just because of a higher level of “brand awareness”. Vulnerable and disadvantaged students could also enrol in inappropriate TAFE courses just because they are free and promoted, commencing higher level qualifications beyond their capability. The lessons of the disastrous VET FEE-HELP Loans program – as summarised by the Australian National Audit Office review – are that many low level learners enrolled in qualifications way in excess of their capabilities simply because they were seen as “free” and therefore desirable. Although “free TAFE” will, thankfully, not saddle learners with debt, if the free programs recruit students incorrectly, those learners will not complete the courses, wasting funds and potentially dissuading VET learners from engaging in further training.

CCA strongly supports national government policies that relieve the burden on vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and provide properly funded education, training and employment services. However, such funding should not and cannot be at the expense of the community managed, not-for-profit ACE providers, which substantially work with disadvantaged groups and have attained such a high degree of success.

2. Improve access to jobs and training pathways for women, First Nations people, regional Australians and culturally and linguistically diverse people, including equity targets for training places, 1,000 digital apprenticeships in the Australian Public Service, and other measures to reduce barriers to employment.

CCA is thrilled that the Government has made a strong commitment to improving access to training for equity groups and regional residents.

Australia’s ACE sector significantly over-performs with students from the most disadvantaged groups compared to TAFE and private for-profit providers. ACE providers have the highest government-funded student percentages of Indigenous (First Nations) people, people with disabilities, lower-socioeconomic background learners, women, regional/rural residents as well as people from migrant and refugee backgrounds. A recent NCVER report concluded that the most successful Australian regions that engage disadvantaged learners in VET and promote completion “report higher-than-average concentrations of community provision – especially important for learners with disabilities, unemployed and individuals with low prior educational attainment.”

CCA therefore requests that the Government establish policies that consider the ACE sector’s capabilities to achieve the objective of improving access to jobs and training pathways. CCA offers its assistance to ensure these policies are appropriate, targeted and draw on the strengths of the ACE sector.

3. The Government, in partnership with states, territories and stakeholders will reinvigorate foundation skills programs to support workers and vulnerable Australians to gain secure employment choices

Australia’s ACE providers provide some of the most important foundation skills delivery in all of Australia. We strongly support these programs and are keen for a quick completion of the current foundation skills framework, which has been long in development. CCA requests that future Commonwealth programs – such as the SEE Program and Foundation Skills for Your Future – have program guidelines that do not discriminate against small, medium and regional not-for-profit providers, as the current system does.

SUMMIT HIGHLIGHTS

Summit highlights included three speeches worthy of note:

Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute, gave an opening address entitled “Think big: a new mission statement for Australia”. Relevant quotes:

“Right now we are in the extraordinary position of having an unemployment rate with a 3 in front. And that has come alongside the fact that a record number of Australians are working. This matters. It means that more people who want a job now have one. It means that some people otherwise at the fringes of the labour market – young people looking for their first job, people with a disability, older workers, and the long-term unemployed – are now seeing doors open in in ways they haven’t in the past. Full employment also represents pain avoided.”

Full employment “will need an emphasis on taking on and training Australian workers – not just abled-bodied, job-ready 30-year-olds, but the younger people reaching for their first job, people with disabilities and older workers who still want to make a contribution.”

Disadvantaged groups benefit most when unemployment falls: “Lower-wage and lower-wealth workers have the most to gain. Their unemployment rates fall by more than other groups when the overall unemployment rate is lower. Macroeconomic conditions matter for inequality.”

Ross Garnaut, Professorial Research Fellow in Economics, The University of Melbourne, spoke at the Summit. Quotes:

“Low unemployment creates opportunities for people who long unemployment has made unattractive. Employment makes them employable. Full employment encourages women who had spent long periods out of the labour force, the infirm and old, the poorly educated, and those with little established engagement with the wage economy. It is hard work for employers. Many employers prefer unemployment, with easy recruitment at lower wages. Yet full employment has advantages for employers. Full employment brings larger and more stable demand for the products of businesses selling into Australia. And for employers who identify as Australians, it brings enjoyment of a more cohesive and successful society.”

Megan Lilly, Head of Education and Training, Ai Group, also spoke. Quotes:

“The current extremely tight Australian labour market provides us with a rare opportunity to tackle the seemingly entrenched disadvantage too many individuals persistently face in obtaining employment. Multi-faceted strategies are required. These include increased investment in our training system and further workplace reform.”

“Disadvantage is not limited to financial poverty or low incomes, but extends to social exclusion, material deprivation and higher expenditure needs. Women, first nations people, refugees, people with disability, culturally and linguistically diverse people are often over-represented among those who are disadvantaged. One-size-fits-all strategies and solutions to lift the employment participation of such individuals rarely succeed because disadvantage can impact an individual’s life in often complex ways. This is an important starting point for employers to understand.”

“Digital skills need to be developed in pre-employment programs to ensure that people do not remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. Digital fluency, the other side of that divide, in fact can help ameliorate disadvantage.”

“We have a draft National Foundation Skills Strategy (2022-2032) – draft being the operative word. This strategy urgently needs to be endorsed and implemented across the nation.”

“Government investment in increasing the literacy skills of adults has a direct and positive impact on labour productivity and on economic growth with the greatest impacts to be gained by investing in improving the skills at the lower levels.”

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