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Learning for life

By Stephen Jones - posted Wednesday, 18 October 2006

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced in its July 2006 communiqué that it was supporting a National Reform Agenda (NRA). The reform proposals involve the introduction of changes in the relationship between the Commonwealth and state governments that promise improvements in national economic productivity. According to the communiqué, the NRA will result in an integrated approach that will improve prosperity and increase workforce participation.

The proposed reforms have been supported by each state government as they search for ways to increase funding streams from the Commonwealth. The idea is based on a funding model where states will receive bonus payments for improvements to an agreed set of outcomes. At this stage there appears to be no consideration of the role local government can play.

Interestingly, lifelong learning has emerged as one area where COAG has agreed to focus its attention. Not your wishy-washy adult community education here: COAG wants economic results. After all, COAG is looking for all the solutions it can to the skills shortage. Difficulties emerge when deciding which outcomes are economically worthwhile and how they should be measured.


Emphasis will be on increasing the proportion of adults with the skills and qualifications needed to be productive and working. According to the background of the communiqué, the outcomes must be consistent with the long-term interests of the individual and the economy, and increase the nation’s productivity.

This means the focus of lifelong learning will be narrowed to vocational courses measured by the increase in the proportion of 25-64 year olds attaining Year 12, Cert II or Cert III qualifications.

Of course, the COAG approach leaves out a whole gamut of adult education courses that could be of value to both adults and the community. However, it will help remove the stigma that lifelong learning is a hobby for the retired and elderly.

Lifelong learning has long been perceived as the poor cousin to formal learning. Programs for adult learners have not been valued by government or industry. Add to this the reluctance of most adults to participate in any form of education after leaving school and we are already facing some tricky policy questions.

Aside from deciding how we are going to convince more workers that they need to keep learning as well as working, we need to consider the key policy questions around how such a challenging task would be initiated and implemented.

What are the institutional arrangements COAG needs to put in place to bring about this “learning and earning nirvana” where workers are employed and learning new skills that help keep them productive and working longer?


State government’s first option will always be for the TAFE sector to pick up the baton, but research shows that its focus is on 15-24 year olds looking to start their careers. Besides, TAFE colleges are driven by numbers so are really focused on the major metropolitan areas. The TAFE has so far shown little interest in regional and rural areas where student numbers are low and access is a problem. However, these areas are needed to encourage new ideas and new industries that a culture of lifelong learning can help encourage.

TAFE colleges tend to be risk averse and bogged down with government requirements, procedures and hierarchy. In today’s competitive training market we need to consider those communities that will not have the numbers to support the provision of such standardised services.

What about employers? Can they be relied on to promote lifelong learning for their staff? Research is showing that small and medium enterprises have not engaged well with training. It’s all too difficult to arrange for workers to spend time away from work training (cost) and deciding which course will best suit the needs of the business (profits).

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About the Author

Stephen Jones is a Perth based writer and policy analyst.

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