“Long tail” of COVID-19 impacts disadvantaged Australians’ education most

Mar 12, 2023
COVID-19 virus

COVID-19 disproportionately impacts disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians. What does that mean for their engagement in post-secondary vocational education and training (VET)?

There is – and will be for some time to come – a “long tail” of impact by COVID-19 on disadvantaged Australians and communities, which will impact their ability to participate in training. This is especially significant when combined with natural disasters and housing stress like we have seen on the NSW north coast and far west. We applaud government efforts to support re-engagement of and outreach to affected learners. The majority of Australians now act as if COVID is over; it is not, and those most impacted are disadvantaged groups and communities: people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, migrants, First Nations peoples and even young people.

Excess deaths from COVID-19

COVID-19 has caused 20,000 more deaths in 2022 than would have been expected if the pandemic had not happened, says the Actuaries Institute: “While most of the excess deaths are in older age groups (65+ years), excess mortality is a significant percentage in all age groups in 2022.” These are not small numbers says ABC’s Dr Norman Swan, and some studies predict that at least 10% of “people with COVID-19 will develop lasting symptoms” including chronic fatigue. According to the RACGP, many of these “individuals with long COVID may have lifelong disabilities if no action is taken.”

COVID and disadvantaged Australians

COVID deaths are more than three times higher in lower socioeconomic groups, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). “The higher a person’s socioeconomic position, the healthier they tend to be – a phenomenon often termed the ‘social gradient of health’. In countries at all levels of income, health and illness follow a social gradient: the lower the socioeconomic position, the worse the health.”


Migrants (overseas-born residents) suffered unusually high COVID-19 death rates – up to four times higher, compared to Australian-born. “Experts say Australia’s reliance on migrants to undertake essential, insecure work and a failure to engage migrant communities early in pandemic planning is a key reason” for the higher rates, says The Guardian Australia.

First Nations Australians

COVID-19 impacts are relevant for First Nations peoples, who are disproportionately represented amongst the poorest Australians: “40% of Indigenous Australians reported gross adjusted weekly household incomes in the bottom 20% of income distribution.” This results from a complex mix of poverty, worse access to primary health care, household over-crowding, high incarceration rates (where medical care is often poor) and Australia’s general inability to “close the gap” on Indigenous unemployment and other factors of disadvantage.

Young people

Australian young people are much less impacted by death and severe COVID, however they report the highest level of psychological distress of any age group compared to pre-COVID. A Headspace survey found that “COVID has clearly had an impact on young people”, with three-quarters (74%) saying their mental health was a little (47%) or a lot worse (27%); 86% reporting a negative impact on either their mood, well-being or sleeping; 90% reported negative impact on activities; 77% reported a negative impact on relationships; and 77% had work and/or study impacted.

Training numbers are down

Government-funded VET student numbers for the first nine months of 2022 (January to September) dropped nationally by 6.1% from the same period in 2021, according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). Community education student numbers dropped by 3.3% (delivered by 283 providers); worst hit was TAFE (down 8.3%) and other government providers (down 14.4%). Certificate III student numbers increased, but all other qualification levels dropped.

What does this mean? It could result from lower unemployment, or an inflated set of government-funded VET numbers in 2021 from state government support delivered especially by TAFEs. It could also mean that disadvantaged groups still need re-engagement into training.

We simply cannot afford complacency, or, in a variation of the line by Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams, the “build it and they will come” approach.

To provide training and assume learners will show up is not the right solution.


First published in Community Colleges Australia March 6, 2023

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