Adult learning in Australia—the big picture
President of ALA, Professor Barry Golding will be offering a ‘big picture’ view of adult learning in Australia during his presentation at ALA’s national conference next month. Quests speaks with him about the fascinating and at times concerning trends he intends to discuss.
1. In your presentation for the ALA conference, you will be drawing on two recent UK studies that provide fascinating insights into the links between lifelong learning and its importance over the life course as well as across the community. Can you give us some examples of these links?
Australia is, in my view, in desperate need of a wide-ranging study of the case for lifelong learning. What we have tended to do as an adult learning community in Australia is react to a wave of government agendas that are not always based on sound research and are not necessarily in tune with the social and demographic changes that make our case for fundamental reform of the existing system even stronger.
The Learning through life study in the UK in 2009 emphasised the need to account for an ageing population, including the need to rebalance resources in education across the life course and life stages. It particularly emphasized the need to acknowledge that people’s learning needs change across these stages. Even a cursory examination of Australian government policies shows a lack of acknowledgement of the need for adults in mid life to not only look for and develop work skills, but to develop skills to look after their families, and in later years, to learn to overcome the risk of social isolation, stay healthy and remain independent.
In a parallel vein, the monumental, evidence-based study of Mental capital and wellbeing as part of the UK ‘Foresight’ Project in 2010 similarly identified the need to account for the plasticity and receptivity of the brain throughout life, the multiple, values associated with learning through life, the incredible importance for better understanding the extent and effects (and huge costs across life) of mental health and ill-health and the impact of learning difficulties if they are ignored. Its main message is that learning is as much (or more) about wellbeing than it is about cognition, and that skills for work is only one reason to keep learning through life.
2. By contrast to the UK studies, the recent Australia’s country towns 2050 report and Australia’s skills and workplace development needs Discussion Paper make no mention of adult and community education. Why do you think is Australia is ‘dragging the chain’ with regards to understanding and valuing the importance of lifelong learning and its links to wellbeing?
Leesa Wheelahan recently observed, when criticizing the recent savage TAFE funding cuts in Victoria, that governments in Australia are currently enamoured with markets ‘as the best way to organize social life, including education.’ There is a fundamental lack of understanding about the social purposes and community benefits of learning in this market model. While paid work is one important outcome, to reduce education to a market where individuals only consume what they buy at work, and are only encouraged to participate and learn while of working age is a very slippery slope.
Most Australians recognize the importance of learning in other critically important parts of their lives: to be happy, to have an identity aside from work and to create multiple meanings across all life stages, to be aesthetic and practice religion and culture, to participate in a democracy, to contribute to the life of their children, family and community, to stay well and keep others around them well. It is important for ALA to provide evidence to governments in Australia of the incredible value of learning compared with its cost. A little spent on learning through the community reaps huge social, familial and community rewards, and saves on the huge cost of intervening with health and welfare services when things go wrong.
4. Education and training policies in Australia have a strong emphasis on market and skills-based education. Is ‘wellbeing’ simply too difficult to measure? Should public policy be concerned with maximising the wellbeing of individuals?
I agree that public policy should be for the public and community good, but am not sure it should just be for individuals, and certainly not just about work. When someone who is unemployed or withdrawn from the workforce re-enters the paid workforce, the benefits flow not only to the individual and the workforce (and to Australia’s productive capacity) in economic terms, but also to the economic and broader wellbeing of partners, families, children and communities, aside from saving governments money on expensive and acute public health and welfare interventions.
Around one half of people of working age are unwell. Perhaps our public policy objective should be also about empowering adults to get and stay well. The idea that skills, productivity and work go hand in hand is at best only partly true. Unless adults are happy and well at home and in the community, and this includes people already in work, extra skills gained from ‘training’ may not help anybody, including industry. We need to get beyond the idea that everything is about being skilled to get into work. Indeed one half of the working population has completed no formal training since school.
3. What is Australia’s ‘second tier’ education system that has been identified in the OECD’s PISA research?
While our schools do better on the OECD Program of International School Assessment (PISA) than countries like the USA we are well behind world leaders in education like Finland, Korea and Canada and our tertiary system (higher education and TAFE) is similarly below first tier. Countries that do well in these international comparisons tend to have comprehensive ‘all of life’ education systems. Aside from the raw rankings, we are the only OECD nation whose PISA results have not improved (and in the case of reading, gone backwards). Meantime one third of the adult population has such limited literacy skills such that they are unable to actively participate in modern society. These low literacy skills limit further the ability of adults to fully and productively engage in life and work. Without deliberate educational interventions, many of these low skills can become intergenerational. Meantime, as the Australia’s skills and workforce development needs Discussion Paper (July 2012, p.11) makes clear, ‘a significant proportion of Australia’s total current labour force is low skilled and may be vulnerable to job loss during a recession or to age-related displacement from the workforce.’
4. What does the ACE sector need do to promote greater understanding of the value of its work?
Aside from being patchy, fragmented and sometimes unrecognized as a national sector, as in the Discussion Paper referred to above, adult and community education in all its forms is particularly vulnerable to a ‘skills’ and entitlement-based (read ‘user pays’), market driven policy agenda. There has never been a more important time for ACE providers and peak body organisations to unite and communicate the value of their work, including through Adult Learning Australia, the nationally recognized peak body.
I believe we need a national report along the lines of the UK Learning through life report, that clearly articulates the multiple values of learning lifelong and lifewide, and sets the agenda for improving the increasingly limited opportunities to learn at any age, regardless of assets or income. If the ACE sector also becomes a market, those who are typically already educated and employed will be able to afford to learn. If public provision is to become a reality, we need to unite to convince governments at all levels of the cost savings aside from the expense. Parallel to this we need more emphasis on professional training and payment of adult educators, as exists in all top tier educational nations.