Public education available across the whole of life in all its forms is critically important in any democratic society for a wide range of purposes and benefits. This is Adult Learning Australia’s key policy plank. There has been no more important time for ALA to defend and enhance adult, community and further education in Australia, from ongoing attempts to turn it into a market-based ‘entitlement’ (read ‘user pays’) system.

This article sets out to explain why Australia desperately needs a comprehensive adult education policy and matching funding that is inclusive of the variety of skills and attributes as well as front-end vocational skills essential for lifelong and lifewide learning. If there was ever the need for a strong and inclusive view of public adult learning in Australia, it is now.

In a nutshell, a narrow, economic rationalist view of education and training has led Australia and its states and territories into a very small and dark adult educational space. Education has come to be seen by governments as a commodity whose product is a vocational qualification that either has to pay its own way or be of sufficient vocational value to industry for governments to subsidize.

There is a trend in many Australian states towards limiting adults to achieving only one publicly supported qualification in one field. If people need to train or retrain for a qualification in another field or at the same or lower level, for whatever good reason, governments are beginning to insist that it be at their personal expense. This slippery slope is leading inexorably but surely towards the removal of all government investment in education, even from public TAFE providers. It is time to name what is happening and to act to reverse these trends.

The recent draconian cuts to VET (vocational education and training) in Victoria should be a wake up call to those who think that only the so-called ‘soft skills’ are at stake here. Removal of TAFE’s full service funding and the new hierarchy of VET funding that rewards ‘hard skills’ in Victoria has made it impossible to run a wide range of critically important programs and campuses.

Aside from removing around 2,000 highly skilled and experienced full time TAFE jobs, plus around 8000 other part time and sessional TAFE jobs, aside from the many thousands of jobs in private providers across Victoria, it has greatly reduced the capacity of technical and further education to deliver the wide range of publicly funded programs that individuals, families, industries and communities desperately need but do not always have the propensity to pay.

Kangan’s vision for TAFE in the mid 1970s was for a new system of technical and further education that would provide opportunities to publicly address long-standing evidence of inequity in Australia, by location, by age and by participant group.

TAFE had been recognized internationally for its ability to recognize and address equity, provide diverse skills for business and industry and reach deeply and effectively into the community. It is disturbing in 2012, with evidence that neither of the other ‘education’ sectors (schools and higher education) are above second tier internationally and with serious problems with intergenerational educational inequity, government commitments to address issues of equity, literacy and withdrawal from the workforce through publicly funded VET have all but ceased.

Meantime one half of adults in paid work in Australia have completed no formal qualification since leaving school, one third of Australian adults remain functionally illiterate, and Australians are dropping out of the workforce at unprecedented rates (The Age, Businessday, July 13, 2012, pp.1-2).

It is remarkable that while the 96 page July 2012 Australia’s skills and workforce development needs Discussion Paper recognizes that ‘At least part of the answer for poor employment outcomes lies in the combination of low literacy and numeracy, low or no qualifications, low expectations, discouragement from seeking work, pockets of extreme disadvantage and other interpersonal/social barriers to participation’ (p.21), TAFE is only mentioned once, ACE is not mentioned at all and ‘Lifelong learning’ is dispatched in less than half a page.

The proud, public TAFE (technical and further education) brand has been systematically and deliberately tarnished through state and national government competition policies that have lowered the VET registration and quality bar and encouraged so called ‘private provision’ (albeit with huge government subsidies) in a race to the vocational bottom.

This has led, in Victoria, to what Assoc Prof Leesa Wheelahan has recently described as ‘… increased dodginess and rorting by unscrupulous private providers who have been trashing the reputation of TAFE and reputable private providers’ (The Age, May 8, 2012, p.13). In the absence of an effective learner voice mechanism across all forms of VET in Australia, all of this is has happened largely beyond public scrutiny.

If this were just about training for work, it would be alarming. It is not. In the next few decades, as the Australian population ages and the proportion of adults withdrawing earlier from the workforce increases, there will be as many adults not in paid work as in work and an increased need for retraining to fill skills shortages that are already acute.

There is a huge irony in a system of private VET provision that regards education as being about preparing young people for their one job until age 65, as people of all ages are needing more flexibility to move in and out of work, have families, retrain, work internationally, change fields and participate in work at any age.

The social determinants of health are well known internationally. There is copious evidence that education connects people of all ages to others in the community and keeps them healthy, happy and connected, quite apart from providing increased options for paid work. International research as part of the UK Foresight project has recently highlighted the close link at all ages between mental capital and wellbeing.

Having the opportunity to learn at any age is critically important as part of adapting to increasingly rapid change with age. It provides the soft skills and emotional intelligences like creativity, design capability and self-management that employers crave. It saves money on depression, crime, substance abuse and acute health interventions.

Maori people have known if for much longer: as ACE Aotearoa in New Zealand puts it, ‘Learning is through life, life is through learning.’

Many people in work, recently described as the ‘worried well’ are stressed, chronically sick or unwell but are just ‘hanging in there’ because they have to keep working.

Around one half of people not in paid work who want to work are also unwell, many damaged by work, physically and psychologically. The idea that it is possible to increase the proportion of adults with a higher-level vocational qualification and provide a ladder of opportunity but at the same time remove the first few, lower level access and pathways steps in TAFE, and not recognize or address chronic health issues through community education is nonsense.

The previously muted discourse about this serious crisis in public education for adults in Australia is starting to be heard partly as a consequence of concerns to unprecedented (and unexpected) recent cuts to public VET in several Australian states after a long and deliberate running down of the rich tapestry of learning previously available at the neighborhood level through adult and community education (ACE).

We have arguably squandered an opportunity to create a world-class public education system not unlike that in Finland during several decades of good economic times in Australia. The skills adults desperately need in 2012 for ‘… studying and understanding the profound interdependence of the globalised world, grasping a place in it and assuming social responsibility for our fellow citizens and other cultures’ (G. Bogatskyi. in Lifelong Learning in Europe, 2, 2012, p.50) are missing in all sectors of education.

The educational responses to the severe economic crisis now sweeping through Europe, and affecting our own economy through our global interconnectedness, are particularly pertinent to our current Australian dilemma. As a member of the European Network for Global Learning put it, ‘As long as we keep the citizen’s consciousness as it is and cut education budgets, we leave people in trouble instead of helping them to help themselves.’ (Lifelong Learning in Europe, 2, 2012, p.52)

There are many more opportunities in Australia, in the context of a relatively robust economy and ongoing skills shortages, than there are in Europe to reverse this, even if it takes several decades of research, political action and worker will to reverse this persistent policy and funding erosion of TAFE, particularly to the FE (further education) part of Kangan’s original, brave and still valuable vision.

Adult Learning Australia has an important role to act here as an honest broker with other peak bodies, the TAFE and other education sectors in trying to inform and shape the agenda, for more rather than less lifelong and lifewide learning. It is as much about the demonstrable and wider value of learning as it is about the cost.

-Professor Barry Golding is President of Adult Learning Australia, for 52 years the peak body for adult and community education in Australia.  Barry is Associate Dean, Research in the School of Education and Arts at University of Ballarat in Victoria, and Patron of the Australian Men’s Shed Association