ALA welcomes Ursula Stephens



We are delighted to announce that Senator Ursula Stephens has agreed to join Adult Learning Australia as an Ambassador.

Ursula has been a Senator for NSW since 2001 and Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector since 2007. Before entering parliament, she was involved in adult and community education, after training as a primary and special education teacher.  Her passions are community development, adult and community education, social justice and environmental issues, and she has been actively involved in grassroots movements in these areas in Australia for more than 30 years.

Thank you for becoming an Ambassador for Adult Learning Australia. What do you hope to bring to the role?

Thank you for inviting me—I’m very honoured.

First I want to champion the value of lifelong learning. Not just for older people, but for all of us. We live in such a rapidly changing world—not long ago few of us had heard of twitter or facebook, now its adult Australians who are the largest users of social media.  So we can only try to imagine the world we’ll be living in in 2020 and the new skills and knowledge that we’ll need.

I want to be able to meet with some of the people who are really making a difference in adult learning in Australia.  We have great practitioners, researchers and, of course, adult learners working quietly away, and I’m looking forward to the chance to support and affirm their work.

You’ve had a long-held passion for adult and community education and served on the board of Southern Region community college for many years. What initially attracted you to the sector? What has kept you there?

Fundamentally I really enjoy learning new things. I love those “ah hah” moments when the penny drops, or when I manage to produce a reasonable patchwork effort, or a new recipe, or write a new short story. I’ve always promoted learning circles and opportunities because it’s through sharing and learning that we grow as people and discover that the world isn’t all about us, but about relationships, networks and the friendships that can sustain us in tough times.

I enjoy sharing that sense of achievement and encouraging others to find the great pleasure in learning that I get.

I became involved in community education in the 1970s. I was teaching in Tennant Creek and studying special education. At the same time we had two children attending the local community childcare centre and I became involved in the committee. We had some dramas about a blocked drain in the children’s toilets and had to find some money and support to get it sorted. At the time people didn’t know where to start and I realized then the importance of building capacity in organizations to be able to lobby, write submissions, funding proposals etc. None of the Committee members had done that before, so we started searching for some guidance to help us do that and couldn’t find much.

Eventually we resolved the blocked toilet, but the outcome really was a short program auspiced by the Arts Council for community groups on exactly those issues.

About 20 people came to the workshop and it was so great that people asked for more. That was the basis of a fledgling community learning program in Tennant Creek.  We had a lot of fun and made great friends as we discovered new skills together. So that positive experience for me is what has kept me in the sector, and supporting adult and community education for more than 25 years!

You’ve stated you are ‘working towards an Australia that is vibrant and tolerant and acknowledges our responsibilities as international citizens.’ How can the Adult and Community Education sector contribute to the Australia you envision?

We’re so lucky in Australia that we live in a society that values education and I think we must never lose sight of the fact that education is not just about ‘skills’ for working—we also need to promote learning for life.  For me, that means promoting lifelong learning from the time young people are at school. Whenever I’m visiting high schools I remind students that there’s only so much can be crammed into a school curriculum—and the most important things are the skills that set them up for learning and living life beyond school.  I encourage them to try to be critical thinkers, to read widely, to try new things and to widen their circle of social contacts by getting involved in the community where they live.

I remind them that we have an amazing life in Australia—that other people aren’t so lucky, and that we need to explore how other people live to understand Australia’s place in the world.

So in the adult and community education space that means learning about and understanding changes that are happening in our world. Some of our learning will be immediately relating to changing circumstances and what we might say is ‘our need to know.’ At other times though, we need to nourish our souls and enrich our lives by going outside a comfort circle and experiencing unknowns—volunteering to support the homeless, or supporting a community group that can benefit from our expertise; cultural experiences that help us to understand the experiences of others, and sharing our wisdom and experiences with them, so that they can understand more about us.  Adult learning is always a two-way street.

In Australia, some states have a much stronger ACE sector than others. What are the roles of the State and Federal governments in strengthening ACE? Why do you think this has this not been approached more consistently across the country?

I’ve seen many changes in the way in which ACE is treated in my decades of involvement.  We have policies to ensure young people stay at school longer and have greater choices, including vocational skills, that a generation ago, would have been catered for at TAFE or in a community college. We have had a generation of Australians who have been able to access higher education as mature aged students, thanks to the reforms of the Whitlam government.  We have so many opportunities today for e-learning and workplace training.  So, systemically, the investment in ACE has been in two directions: second chance learning and formal support for those who need access to specific vocational skills as part of industry restructuring—workplace learning.

What falls through the gaps is the notion of ‘learning for growth’—which becomes about busy people being able to take some time to do just that.  And that is no longer the purview of the formal education sector.

So now we’re seeing the emergence of a very vibrant movement in the Men’s Sheds, in heritage committees and historical societies, in healthy ageing groups, in grandparents parenting groups where adult learning principles underpin the work they do together. Environmental groups including Landcare are grounded in strong educational programs, as is the SES, Out of Home Care, and the myriad of health related support groups.

In many ways we’re seeing a return to self-help groups, supported by governments at all levels.

Why is it not supported consistently across Australia?  I think ACE is still a ‘contested area of education’ and governments wrestle with the challenge of where best to invest public monies for the greatest impact. The COAG decisions have been to invest in early learning and school education. That is being reinforced by the Gonski Report which has highlighted the massive under-investment in school education that needs to be addressed.

An early report about this issue identified ACE as the Cinderella sector. 

I think for ACE the challenge is to rethink that perception – to take a strengths-based approach, to map the learning that’s happening in communities and to stimulate engagement in learning in new ways. The Government’s social inclusion agenda is one that focuses on engagement—the challenge for ALA is how to capture the social return on investment in adult learning and provide that information to decision-makers.

Welcome to ALA and we look forward to working with you.

Thank you. I look forward to working with many in the sector to strengthen awareness of the work ALA does, and the importance of lifelong learning to our society.

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