Clever countries look beyond the usual suspects

Clever countryWe should be a clever country but some of us are not getting a ‘fair go’.

Despite the increasingly fashionable use of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in everything from discussions of kindergartens to higher education, we seem to have conveniently forgotten that many Australians have no current prospect of enrolling in TAFE or university. With education the most effective passport out of disadvantage, you’d think we’d be investing our efforts in providing opportunities to these invisible Australians. But not so.

Australia’s community education sector provides educational opportunities to some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people. It gives them a chance to improve their basic skills to overcome disadvantage, find work and participate more fully in their communities. But the sector has to fight to be heard in reviews of our post-secondary education system, despite its long history and expertise in assisting people most in need.

But this may have changed last week. In Victoria at least.

On Thursday, Victoria’s Minister for Training, Skills and Higher Education Gayle Tierney released a Ministerial Statement on the Future of Adult Community Education (ACE), which outlines the Government’s vision for the sector and acknowledges its unique strengths in supporting and building the skills and knowledge of people with little formal education.

This is a significant breakthrough for the ACE sector in Victoria. And it’s a bold plan.

At a national level, there’s plenty of rhetoric about future proofing post-secondary education and enabling greater access, but it takes a healthy mix of foresight and courage to look for answers beyond the usual suspects.

There is a tightly held belief by successive governments and society more broadly that TAFE and university have all the answers to our post-school educational problems – but this is a misconception and one that has perpetuated for decades.

Our education system assumes the linear progress of students from secondary to post-secondary education. Those who don’t make it through, who drop out or fail along the way, tend to fall through the cracks. Many of them are picked up and assisted by the community education sector, which offers a second chance for people to develop the skills and confidence they need to return to formal learning.

Victoria’s Ministerial statement identifies priorities and goals for an integrated system to work more seamlessly and to accommodate these second chance learners. It outlines how the major players in our education landscape must relinquish some control and make room for respectful partnerships with the ACE sector. It’s a smart move. Partnerships that acknowledge ACE’s expertise; are less focussed on maintaining hierarchical silos and more concerned with the endgame – supporting people from all backgrounds to learn throughout their lives – are in everyone’s best interests.

Another way to build a clever and fair country is to think of education beyond the accumulation of particular competencies. You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see that an education system that just focusses on job skills required in the here and now will never deliver the job skills needed in the future. Until education is valued for a broader array of outcomes including social and health outcomes, it will never live up to its promise.

The 2018 Joyce Review of Vocational Education and Training outlined a number of key strategies to enable greater access for disadvantaged Australians – and the Commonwealth should support these. It should also develop a whole-of-government lifelong learning policy and renew its commitment to adult community education through a national Ministerial Declaration. This would be symbolically important for a sector that does a lot of the heavy lifting but is largely invisible in terms of recognition and resourcing.

Victoria has seen the value of recognising the sector. It’s time the Federal Government did the same.

Adult Learning Australia