August 17, 2014

The kids are (not) alright

By Dr John Pardy & Sally Thompson

The Commonwealth Government has decided that Australia’s young people should be either “learning” or “earning”. Yet the institutions in which they are expected to learn have been under constant attack by state governments. As the Victorian coalition government heads into an election in November, it is timely to look back on their history of cuts to education and the impacts these are having on young people and their families.

Education is primarily a social good. It is central to the formation of a civil public. Yet not everyone comes to education equally. Some come with the advantages that come with privilege, while others struggle because of insecure income, housing and family relations. The measure of a civilized society is how it assists people who, through circumstances beyond their individual control, need a hand up and additional support. Sadly, not everyone shares the belief in education as a social good and as a consequence erode the foundations of cohesive communities.

Since the Baillieu/Napthine government came to office in 2010 there has been a sustained dismantling of education opportunities and a concerted undermining of the social good that they deliver. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and in rural and regional Victoria. The impacts of the education policy approach taken by Baillieu and Napthine are particularly devastating for young people across the state.

These policies are not an illogical failure to understand the relationship between education and equity, but rather, are a conscious decision by this government to divest in social inclusion and social mobility and invest in marketising education.

Instead of education being seen as a social good, it is viewed as a private and positional good that individuals and their families should “invest in”. This ungenerous policy logic soon follows with sentiments such as, why should the rest of us “subsidise” something that provides personal benefits? If people cared about their children they would “invest” in them. And if we’re all busy investing in our own kids, how is it “fair” that we’re called on to “pay for” yours? How is that “sustainable”? This approach to education fosters exclusion and turns its back on the social goods that emerge through supporting people to participate in education.

One of the first public education announcements of the Baillieu government was the withdrawal of $48 million of funds from VCAL coordination. For those who are unfamiliar with this program, VCAL is the Victorian Certificate in Applied Learning. VCAL provides a year 11 and 12 education for 20% of young people across Victoria whose education needs would otherwise not be addressed or accommodated. VCAL is popular amongst young people in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Allowing young people to gain a year 12 equivalent qualification through “applied” learning is an important tool of social inclusion.

Coordination funds in VCAL enabled schools and teachers to connect with employers and local community agencies to build a school experience that extended young peoples abilities whilst being engaged in socially beneficial activities. The teachers who did this work would connect with, for example, an aged care facility, and create opportunities for VCAL students to learn about aged care while participating in a public activity like building a new garden at the facility. Some students combine pre-apprenticeship courses with VCAL, while others do some VCE English.

The Coordination funding recognised the complexity and cost of this kind of delivery. It ensured that someone was responsible for making sure that young people were connected with school and involved in socially useful work and that they didn’t slip through the cracks.

On top of the withdrawal of VCAL coordination funding, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was redesigned to remove direct funding to those schools that accommodate and provide education to the economically disadvantaged. The redesign provided a marginal increase in the amount of money given directly to parents of disadvantaged young people and a removal of the funding that went to the schools who accommodated them. School services, such as subsidized excursions or breakfast clubs, provided to over 39,000 disadvantaged kids in Victoria were cut overnight. $400000 was taken out of the budgets of Hampton Park and Cranbourne Secondary Colleges, two schools on the south eastern suburban fringes of Melbourne.

Reforming the EMA reinforced the individualist notion of parents as “consumers” and “purchasers of services” on behalf of their kids, at the expense of the social good that comes from schools like Hampton Park and Cranbourne Secondary being able to include and accommodate students who are not well economically resourced.

At the same time that the government was cutting $48 million out of VCAL and $19 million out of EMA, it increased funding to private schools from $87 million to $100 million per year. If you view education, as a social good, useful in developing a cohesive and skilled population, then these acts together are unconscionable. However, if education is a rational investment in your own human capital and that of your kids, then pitting private schooling over government schools is entirely logical.

However, VCAL and EMA “reform” was merely the warm up act for the Liberal governments education agenda. In early 2012, the Baillieu/Napthine Liberal government announced that they would cut $300 million per year from the state’s TAFE budgets. These cuts affected the provision of student support services and teacher assistance for those with additional needs. At the time, the premier was quoted by the Age as saying “nobody could support endless subsidies for any industry.” (The Age, June 16, 2012)

Just before losing office, the Brumby Labour Government had introduced “contestability” in Vocational Education and Training. “Contestability” is essentially a voucher system whereby individuals can take up their “entitlement” either at their local TAFE, Private training organization or Community Education centre. Hundreds of new private training companies entered the market and suddenly Victorians in poor suburbs were fielding attention from hawkers wanting to “talk to anyone in the house who doesn’t already have a Diploma.” The courses on offer are delivered in a fraction of the time, often with iPads or Coles Myer vouchers used as an incentive.

While Labour initiated the policy of contestability, the Liberal government has used it to cement social exclusion by removing any feature that might protect TAFE in the “open market”. When the inevitable budget blow-out occurred, the Liberal government then reduced the “subsidies” for each course, forcing TAFE fees to rise dramatically and courses to close. A recent auditor generals report found that 7 of the 14 TAFE’s in the state are operating in deficit. Many are selling up campuses to stay viable.

The impact on Adult and Community Education has been almost as devastating. The ACE sector, which is made up of neighbourhood houses, community colleges and community learning centres, gets its funding from the same bucket as TAFE, meaning that most of it became, “contestable” at the same time. In order to root out the rorters and scammers, the level of compliance checks and regulations have skyrocketed. ACE organisations, who often only ran one or two accredited courses, found themselves drowning in paperwork and many have stopped offering courses. Some, like the State’s largest ACE provider, Morrison House in Mt Evelyn, have gone out of business, just down the road from the now closed Lilydale campus of Swinburne TAFE.

The Victorian government has created a narrative around cuts to public education that treats each one as a response to a funding crises, (TAFE cuts), the end of a start up program (VCAL) or a reshifting of priorities (EMA). We respond to each cut individually, by appealing to what we assume is a shared view of the value of education for all. However, everything the current government has said or done to education indicates a sustained attack on education as a tool for inclusion. We know it from their actions, but also from their words.

When they talk about “choice” they mean public funding in private hands. When they talk about “sustainable” they mean cut to the point that they’re willing to pay for. When they talk about “fairness” they mean every one for themselves. When they talk about “subsidising” they signal that they are exiting the provision of that sphere of education. When they talk about “investing” they’re talking about pushing the cost onto individuals with the state absolving itself of responsibility. Pay taxes and pay additional for your education too. Thousands of families across the state are struggling to understand why they no longer have access to education they could once rely on to get a lift up.

Ungenerous anti-social policies that use education to privilege a small group while systematically excluding others are a growing threat to the social cohesion of the outer suburbs and the vulnerable families who live in them. We will eventually discover that the only thing more expensive than investing in education, is not investing in it.

Dr John Pardy lectures in the Faculty of Education at Monash in the areas of adult, vocational and technical education. Sally Thompson is the Chief Executive of Adult Learning Australia.