The COVID-19 pandemic has caused “disadvantaged Australians [to] face triple jeopardy – low vaccination rates, greater likelihood of being infected with COVID-19, and higher risks of serious disease and death from COVID-19,” writes Anne Kavanagh in The Conversation.
There is a fourth jeopardy for disadvantaged Australian adults during COVID-19: the loss of opportunities to participate in education and training. Disadvantaged groups are often the first to leave training as a crisis – such as COVID-19 arrives – and the last to return. Generally they also do not have the same financial or other resources to participate in remote or online learning, due to lack of proper digital tools and poor internet connections.
“It is essential for the states and the Commonwealth to start planning now for re-engagement of disadvantaged learners. If we do not fix this, Australia’s future skills base will suffer, and existing inequalities will be made worse. Now is the time; more needs to be done, and fast,” says Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia.
New research now shows Australians on lower incomes have died of COVID at four times the rate of higher income people, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, The first year of COVID-19 in Australia: direct and indirect health effects.
The report has received extensive media coverage, one of a series of AIHW research studies that show the poorer health outcomes of the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups that Australian adult and community education (ACE) providers do so well at reaching: low income Australians, Indigenous Australians, people with a disability and people in regional and rural areas. All three groups suffer from chronic social and economic disadvantage.
Unfortunately, these vulnerable groups also lag in Australian vaccination rates. Indigenous Australians, who did so well in 2020 at avoiding COVID-19, have been hit hard especially in northwestern NSW. Regional and rural population vaccination rates remain behind metropolitan rates, a worry expressed last week by a cross-party group of northern NSW state MPs. Low-income people also fare badly: ACOSS reports that “in regions with average household incomes above $2,000pw, about 75% had 65% or more adults partly vaccinated, but in regions with average household incomes below $1,000pw, none had 65% or more adults partly vaccinated,” with most less than 55% partly vaccinated.
As this week’s report from Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability shows, people with a disability – despite being in the highest priority vaccination groups – substantially missed out through the Commonwealth Government’s failure to consult, lack of transparency in decision making and failure to provide clear and easily comprehensible information, which caused unnecessary confusion and vaccine reluctance.
“As New South Wales and Victoria begin to emerge from lockdowns in the coming weeks, it will be essential to ensure that disadvantaged groups – who will often be the last to get vaccinated, simply through lack of access and not because of resistance – can gain the important education and training they will need,” said Dr Perlgut. “It’s not enough to ‘build it’ and assume ‘they will come’ to training, the way the Kevin Costner created a baseball diamond in the film Field of Dreams.”
Disadvantaged adult Australian students have many barriers to participating in learning, including mental health issues, negative previous experiences with school and low self-esteem in a learning context; these are particularly acute for younger learners.
The Role of Australian Adult and Community Education Providers
Last year – 2020 – saw a steep drop in the number of students engaged in VET with ACE providers, the first major drop in many years, much more than most other VET sub-sectors, according to data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). This took place nationally, not just in the states hardest hit by COVID-19.
Much of the ACE student decrease appears to be due to the COVID-19 impact of less formal learning undertaken by vulnerable and disadvantaged students – although informal, pre-accredited and non-accredited learning appears to have increased in 2020, in part compensating for reduced formal accredited enrolments. This trend appears to have resurfaced in July 2021 with COVID-19 Delta strain outbreaks and resultant lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria.
“CCA’s concern is that the most disadvantaged adult learners be given assistance to re-engage in education and training,” said CCA CEO, Dr Don Perlgut.