Is equity on the Federal Government’s training agenda?

Jul 2, 2021

Is equity on the Federal Government’s training agenda? As the Government continues to make changes to vocational education and training resulting from economic issues highlighted by the current pandemic, the question arises as to whether educational opportunities and funding are being equitably applied.

A recent media story told of wealthy individuals in places such as Thailand travelling outside their home countries in order to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The story starkly highlighted the different vaccination opportunities available to those with money and those without, an equity story apparent in too many areas of our society.

Educational opportunities pursue similar patterns whether it be the private and public school divide, or the ability to pay for a course at university or TAFE. Steadily rising fees and decreased government funding for tertiary education have reduced educational opportunities in many countries including Australia.

The 2021/22 Federal Budget continued the trend with total government funding for higher education decreasing by 8.3% in real terms between this financial year and next year, and by 9.3% in real terms from 2021-22 to 2024-25, according to analysts. Meanwhile, total funding for vocational education will drop 10.8% next year, and another 24.2% between 2021-22 and 2024-25.

Such cuts have resulted in calls by opposition parties for the Federal government to explain how Australia can rebuild its economy and make needed shifts in its workforce if it is continuing to cut funding rather than invest in its tertiary education, both teaching and research.

There are areas such as JobTrainer where funding is increased, another $500 million, but much of this funding will go to for-profit private providers to deliver skills training, rather than any investment by the Federal government in the public TAFE system, where equity has overall been part of its brief.

A report published in October 2020 by Victoria University and the Mitchell Institute, considered the issues around educational opportunities in Australia, concluding “that parts of our population are missing out and falling behind. There are very uneven levels of academic learning across different groups of young Australians and wide gaps in achievement as learners progress from stage to stage.”

The report outlines how:

“based on the estimates, Australia’s education and training systems are failing up to one in three young people. At age 24, by which age we can start to see the developed products of our education and training systems, about 30 per cent are not involved in full-time education, training, or work. But the rates are higher for those from low SES backgrounds (49 per cent) and those in regional areas of Australia (37 per cent).”

The recent infographic from NCVER –  Student equity in VET: participation, achievement and outcomes add more to this story, highlighting the number of students from the identified equity groups and how they are faring in vocational education and training.

The publication covers people with disabilities, Indigenous people, those from low socioeconomic circumstances, those who speak a language other than English at home, those living in remote and very remote areas, and those unemployed or not in the labour force. Comparatively high numbers of these students continue to study at TAFE necessitating funded support services, and many were impacted in terms of employment resulting from COVID-19 stand-downs.

Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) partnered with AVETRA in coordinating a day of the recent AVETRA conference on equity and diversity. This included a keynote address from Emeritus Professor Anne Jones, Victoria University, and a panel discussion around the issue: What role can adult and vocational education and training play in addressing equity and diversity?  Here is what Anne had to say in a follow-up interview:

“I think the VET sector has unique opportunities and responsibilities to address inequity. We know that individuals from low SES and other disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to undertake vocational than higher education. At its best VET provides transformative opportunities for such learners, access to decent jobs and further learning. However, all too often VET delivers less successful outcomes for low SES students, early school leavers and women compared with more advantaged VET learners.

It is critical that the VET sector transforms rather than reinforces disadvantage. This is particularly important given that when we look across the whole lifecycle many more Australians participate in VET than in other forms of post-secondary education. VET is uniquely positioned to increase equity.”

She, along with many others, emphasises the role VET has played and must continue to play in increasing equity. She went on to comment on how little attention was given by many policymakers to diverse student needs, including the 2020 Productivity Commission report written to inform the new national agreement for skills and workforce.

“In my experience,” she says, “VET teachers generally do their best to support the needs of diverse individual students. However, there is insufficient funding to develop their capabilities for working with diverse students, nor enough resourcing to support them. Personally, as well as dedicated funding, I would like us to work towards ensuring that VET institutions – peak bodies, boards, staff – more closely represent the diverse communities that come to VET. If we could achieve that I think other significant changes would follow.”

For most of us truly involved in vocational education and training, equity of access and opportunities is a critical aspect of quality. To date, it has not figured prominently in the discussion and reforms of the Federal Government around skills. Since August 2020, the Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment has been undertaking a program to help determine its workforce of the future. It states: “Australia’s future economic prosperity depends on a skilled, mobile workforce that can meet the needs of industry.  As the nature of work globally changes, qualifications need to address the changing skills needs of employers and prepare individuals for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Perhaps the Federal Government and Department need to be reminded that Australia’s future economic prosperity must be equitable and include all Australians. Government policy that makes this clear in any changes related to VET, supported by appropriate funding, would also be a good place to start.

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