Economic 'rationalism' threatens adult migrant education

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

By Afrodity Giannakis

The NSW Adult Migrant English Service (AMES) is the biggest provider of English classes to newly arrived migrants and refugees. Until 1993, most of its classes were directly funded by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA).

At that point, English for Work classes were introduced, funded by the Department of Employment, Education and Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA). This gradually resulted in a decrease of the DIMA funding and a larger proportion coming from DEETYA, until it was about 50-50 from the two departments. The DEETYA funding has to be won through competitive tendering. This implies that AMES and TAFE must compete for funding with each other as well as with private providers.

The DIMA funding from has been under threat by both the previous and the current federal governments. The Coalition government is considering the introduction of tendering for DIMA funding as well in 1997.

The AMES Teachers Association (AMESTA), which is part of the Teachers Federation, faced the same situation with the previous Labor government, whose unofficial agenda was also to open AMES funding to tender. It is not being properly informed or consulted by the government or AMES management.

The TAFE "reforms" pursued by the NSW ALP government go against its election promise not to privatise core government services like education and health.

Hilmer agenda

Privatisation or "reforms" that open up the way to privatisation remove government funding from public services and hand over public assets or funding to private operators, whose sole concern is profits, not a quality service to the public.

These policies predate the Hilmer report, which in August 1993 put everything together to facilitate their implementation. The document focuses on the introduction of competition to markets traditionally dominated by public monopolies, and also on the restructuring of public monopolies.

The implementation of competition policies is far from serving the public interest. One of the Hilmer principles, labour productivity, is linked to loss of jobs and a heavier workload for the workers remaining in employment. This has been a widespread experience. For example, according to a 1995 report by the Industry Commission, labour productivity in the water, sewerage and drainage industry grew by 54% over the six years to 1992-93 while the number of jobs declined by 25%. The Melbourne Water Corporation reduced employment numbers by 46% over the same period.

Unions have said that the Hilmer recommendations would cost thousands of jobs, reduce public services and lift charges. The Public Sector Research Centre of the University of New South Wales has found that in competitive tendering, service quality often suffers, access and equity are likely to be neglected, and job numbers and conditions are reduced.

Even the proponents of these policies have their moments of honesty — especially when not addressing the general public: according to Business Review Weekly of April 24, 1995, "As subsidies are gradually removed from public monopolies, consumers will face higher costs for water and transport."

There are many examples of the disastrous consequences of privatisation and related policies, both in Australia and overseas. Since British Telecom was privatised in 1984, charges have gone up, by around 40% for most consumers. Public telephone charges have risen by 100%.

In the four years after the 10 British water companies that supply three-quarters of the water were privatised in 1989, charges rose nearly three times as much as inflation. Disconnections increased from 7673 households in the year of privatisation to 21,286 in 1991-92. There was a matching increase in hepatitis and gastritis.

In New Zealand, corporatisation and privatisation of power companies have increased electricity prices for domestic users by up to 29%.

In Australia, the Industry Commission has calculated that competition "reforms" in water would increase residential charges by 21%, while commercial water users' charges would fall by 59%.

The Public Transport Union has summarised the effects of privatisation of services in a submission to the Industry Commission. These include: reduction in the wages of workers and quality of service; transferring wealth to the rich at the expense of the workers; lack of accountability to the government and the public; leaving consumers to fend for themselves; reducing union membership; reducing working conditions; and lessening ecological sustainability.

Implications for education

Economic "rationalism" in education has devastating effects. Tendering for DEETYA courses has affected conditions for both teachers and students. Tendering requires reducing costs, which is certain to bring down employment and educational standards.

Another factor affecting conditions and quality of service is the often low standards of private colleges. The "trainers" are on low salaries and have inferior working conditions compared to the teachers at public providers. There are also inadequate resources and accommodation at these centres.

AMES has a long tradition of quality service, and the interests of the teachers and the students are quite well represented by the union. These two facts have, to a large extent, protected the service and ensured a relatively steady flow of DEETYA tenders, while keeping up a high standard.

Despite this, there have been drawbacks. For example, there is always uncertainty about what classes will be offered from term to term. This causes disruption for students because of the inability to plan teaching programs on a long-term basis.

If DIMA stops its guaranteed funding to AMES, a great degree of job insecurity and casualisation of teaching positions will ensue. We are currently getting a taste of this with the federal government freeze on labour market programs. The freeze is affecting the English for Work classes. It is likely that there are plans to reduce funding for these programs in the new financial year. AMES teachers are already losing jobs, and students are missing out on English classes.

There is plenty of additional evidence showing that economic "rationalism" in education is against teachers' and students' interests. In Queensland, TAFE colleges compete against each other for core funding, at the expense of educational standards and working conditions. One of the results is that exploited, low-paid tutors are doing the work that should be done by teachers. In WA, the TAFE counselling service has been abolished.

Competitive tendering is also wasteful. In 1992 federal documents showed that tendered course provision for English for Speakers of other Languages was 38% more expensive per student hour than courses provided through direct funding to AMES.

The general public does not seem to support the Hilmer agenda. According to a 1994 Economic Planning Advisory Commission study, a big majority of Australians support government provision of infrastructure. In Victoria, public opinion polling has shown that two-thirds to three-quarters of Victorians do not want their utilities sold, and over 90% don't want them sold overseas.

Need for action

But governments of both parties have been going ahead with the Hilmer changes, disregarding public opinion. They don't hesitate to use lies and stealth in order to achieve their ends.

In order to halt (and reverse) the process towards AMES's demise as an organisation of high employment and educational standards, intense and sustained action is needed.

An AMESTA general meeting has foreshadowed a proposal to authorise industrial action against any fundamental restructuring of AMES. This must be followed through with determination.

We have already lost services and conditions: among other things, bilingual staff were phased out some years ago, and the 510-hour limit on tuition entitlement for Adult Migrant English Program students was introduced.

Following industrial action by NSW TAFE teachers at the end of last year, it was announced that the Hilmer principles on competitive tendering would not be applied to TAFE. This is proof that we can make gains through action.

AMES is only one of the sectors in the Hilmer scheme. In order to fight back successfully, concerted struggle against all expressions of this ideology across all sectors will be needed. Alliances and cross-union campaigns — including broad educational campaigns — are necessary. It's the only way to stop the further erosion of hard-won conditions and living standards.
[Afrodity Giannakis is a teacher at Parramatta AMES.]