Democracy and Citizenship

The Role of Adult and Community Education Providers in Sustaining
Australian Democracy


Community Colleges Australia (CCA) has released a discussion paper on the role that Australian adult and community education (ACE) providers can play in sustaining Australian democracy and supporting civil society. You can view a full copy of the paper here (PDF, 423kb).

CCA prepared the paper as a submission to the Australian Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee Inquiry into Nationhood, Identity and Democracy, and to stimulate discussion on how ACE sector can contribute to the maintenance of Australian democracy. CCA’s submission has been published by the Committee as submission number 179.

The Value that Australian ACE Sector Brings to Australian Democracy

The Australian ACE sector provides a great deal of value to support Australian democracy. Given the importance of education to democratic functioning, the sector’s expertise in education and training of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – particularly through foundation skills of language, literacy and numeracy – means that we have a unique role in ensuring that Australian democracy thrives.

Our sector also provides sustainable not-for-profit community-based institutions – some of which have operated continuously since 1913 – and these institutions provide the “glue” keeps communities functioning, ensuring the maintenance of community social capital. Confidence in society’s institutions is essential to maintain civic trust.

Although universities are traditionally thought of as places of civics education, Australian vocational education and training (VET) probably has a much greater role, because of the VET sector’s engagement with lower socio-economic status (SES) students. Low SES students are particularly clustered in VET Certificates I and II, with higher SES students most prominent studying at Diploma level; see Table 1 below.


Community Education Providers Reach Many of Australia’s Most Disadvantaged Post-Secondary Students

Table 1 below compares 2018 Australian enrolment percentages for specific vulnerable and disadvantaged groups across three profiles: the university sector, all VET students and the sub-set of not-for-profit community education provider VET students.

The results show a distinct pattern of how the most VET students are, on balance, a much more disadvantaged group than university students. Of VET students, community education students are further more disadvantaged. In comparison to university students, twice as many community education students are “low SES” (in the bottom quarter - 25%); have a disability; or live in regional, rural and remote areas. In addition, community education providers enrol four times as many Indigenous people and more than seven times as many people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Table 1: Australian University, VET and Community Education Student Cohorts: Equity Group Percentages Compared, 2018

University student enrolment proportions (%) Total VET students program enrolments (%) Community Education provider students program enrolments (%)
Student Group
Low SES (bottom 25%) 17.0 28.2 34.6
Students with a disability 7.3 8.0 16.0
Indigenous 1.9 5.9 7.6
Regional and rural 19.8 31.2 36.6
Remote and very remote 0.8 2.6 2.1
Non-English speaking background 3.4 24.1 25.3

(For notes on the Table, see CCA’s full Discussion Paper, pp. 7 & 18.)

The Worldwide Challenge of Democracy

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 and the election of President Donald J Trump in November of that year, increasing numbers of commentators have attempted to analyse and develop solutions to the challenges and crisis facing democracy in Western countries. In How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn that, “the guardrails of American democracy are weakening,” an erosion “of democratic norms that began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s.”

Political scientist Lee Drutman says that the causes of the challenges facing democracy include “the backlash to the financial crisis and increasing globalization, immigration, changing demographics, and urban/rural polarization.”

Other titles now crowd bookshop shelves, such as Democracy Divided, Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane’s On Hate, and books by recent Australian visitors Fintan O’Toole (Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain) and Ece Temelkuran (How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship).


The Current Challenge of Australian Democracy

The Museum of Australian Democracy’s Democracy 2025 project warns that, “Across the world, trust in democracy is in retreat. Urgent action is needed.” The 2018 project report notes that Australians with the lowest incomes are least satisfied with how democracy works, stating:

Satisfaction in democracy has more than halved in a decade [from 86% in 2007 to 41% in 2018] and trust in key institutions and social leaders is eroding. By 2025 if nothing is done and current trends continue, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions — resulting in ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic wellbeing.


Why does this matter? Weakening political trust erodes civic engagement, reduces support for evidence based public policies, promotes risk aversion in government, and creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces. Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit. Without trust we don’t have the ability to address complex, long-term challenges. Trust is also closely tied to democratic satisfaction.

Analysing the results of the May 2019 election, the ANU’s Australian Election Study found, “Australians' satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s.” Faith in Australian political institutions is also suffering. Sam Roggeveen (The Lowy Institute) writes that “Australia is not exempt” from world influences due to a “hollowing out” of Australia’s political parties: “At the 2019 election the Coalition’s primary vote was 41.4%, its second-worst result since 1972. Labor was at 33.3%, its poorest result since 1934.” This resulted in the highest-ever primary vote share for independents and minor parties, at 25.2%.

Australian institutions are responding. The Australian Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy has published a discussion paper and received 168 submissions. The Democracy 2025 project based at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra has developed extensive resources and recently hosted a cross-party discussion on how to reform Australian democracy.

Other high-quality education resources for Australian school students include The Story of Our Rights and Freedoms, Australian Human Rights Commission and Cool Australia’s Democracy Rules: An electoral education resource, Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), ABC Education, The Museum of Australian Democracy and Education Services Australia’s Civics and Citizenship website.

Australia has a history in democracy education: the Discovering Democracy program brought in during 1997 by then Minister Dr David Kemp (now Chair of the Museum of Australian Democracy Board) in 1997 included an adult education component through the establishment of a “Civics and Citizenship Learning Circle Program” for the adult and community sector. More than 500 groups registered with Adult Learning Australia as civics and citizenship learning circles.

ACE Ministerial Policy Declarations

Ministerial ACE policy declarations from Victoria and South Australia (New South Wales will follow in 2020) acknowledge the importance and role of the adult and community education sector in Australian education, training for employment and participation in society. The Victorian statement’s first goal is, “To engage and support adult learners who need to develop their core foundation skills for work, further study, and to participate in society as valued citizens.” This reflects the last Commonwealth statement (2008) – now outdated but still relevant – in which the fourth principle stated, “Increased provision of vocationally focussed programs by ACE is supported while its community and citizenship capacity building agenda continues.” The South Australian statement (2017, PDF) speaks of “encouraging participation in social activities and … developing socially and culturally informed citizens, our communities become better places to live.”

CCA believes that the role of Australian adult and community education providers in supporting Australian democracy needs be acknowledged by the Commonwealth Government, with a renewed national ACE policy statement that supports national VET goals and stands near the centre of a national strategy for the maintenance of Australian democratic institutions and support for civil society.



At a moment of political change and loss of faith in many democratic institutions, both in Australia and world-wide, it’s time to return to the some of the historic and ideological roots of adult and community education. Australia’s active and vital ACE providers have maintained and sustained a collective infrastructure and developed a resilient capacity to adapt to change and to support the communities in which they operate. It’s time to re-acknowledge their strengths and the value that they bring to Australian society and our democratic functioning. CCA seeks active means to make this happen.

CCA Would Like to Hear from You

Community Colleges Australia would like to hear from you, with your comments and responses to this discussion paper. Some of the questions to address include:

  • What do you see the role of adult and community education providers in promoting and sustaining democracy in Australia?
  • What specific citizenship educational models and programs have worked in your community or region, and why? We would like to share “best practice” models.
  • What democracy and citizenship-related projects, activities and events are appropriate for Australian ACE providers?
  • How important are foundation skills – language, literacy, numeracy, employability and digital – to the sustainability of Australian democracy? If they are important, what can be done to increase the provision of foundation skills?
  • Is your organisation interested in partnering or collaborating with CCA or our members in efforts to encourage Australia democracy and good citizenship?
  • What potential sources of funding are available to assist CCA or Australian adult and community education providers to develop and disseminate resources and educational programs?
  • Are there issues or matters that we have missed in preparing this paper?

Please contact us: we would like to hear from you.