By Jenny Macaffer, Chief Executive Officer, Adult Learning Australia.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities and weaknesses and put many of the things we value at risk. Our critical response, health, aged care and communication systems, our food security and the ways we interact and go about our business, have been forced to dramatically change both in Australia and in most places around the world.

We know from history that earlier generations have lived through periods of uncertainty, but it feels like we are facing so many existential threats at once. Beyond the immediate danger of Covid-19, we must contend with climate change, species extinction, increasing water and food scarcity, and more. The pain and fear we are experiencing are entwined with our very identities. As Gina Rae La Cerva puts it, ‘It feels like a time of no future. There is no way of knowing what is coming next. How does one plan for uncertainty?’

Borders have shut between countries, including across the ditch with our friends in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Australia has never been more divided by boundaries, as our states, territories, regions and cities close their doors to one another.

In Australia, like many other countries, our democratic systems have been suspended. In Melbourne, where Adult Learning Australia (ALA) is based, Stage 4 (disaster level) has been declared. In a bid to stop the flow of the virus we cannot travel beyond a 5km radius of our homes, we have night-time curfews, permits are required for those allowed to work and we are limited to one hour outside exercise per day.

Businesses and industries are at risk. In Australia, July figures showed that almost a million Australians were without paid work.

The future looks increasingly uncertain. Older people in aged-care are dying prematurely in Victoria and New South Wales, the plans of young people are on hold, the newly unemployed have little or no prospects for jobs anytime in the future and already disadvantaged groups are being left behind due to low language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills, disability or discrimination.

Our Covid-19 experience, coupled with long term drought and bushfire trauma, has highlighted the deep inequalities and flaws embedded in our systems. Why would we expect an already failing system to perform well under stress? Privatisation of essential services and core functions such as health, education and communications does not work; the levers of control for these operations must be brought back into public ownership.

The reality is that we must change the way societies operate and economies work, to establish a thriving, just and sustainable world. We need to have conversations now, exploring new ways to create a world that aligns with the core values identified in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 4, ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’ Australia has signed up but has had little enthusiasm in attempting to meet the benchmarks. While New Zealand has pursued a Wellbeing Budget in an attempt to future-proof the country, Australia lags behind.

For us to transition from the old-world order, we need great thinkers, great doers, those with imagination and a vision for the future. Adult and Community Education (ACE) can play a part in helping us transition into new ways of thinking and doing things. We need leaders who recognise that lifelong learning is key to our recovery.

ACE can encourage critical thinking and social learning, engage with marginalised groups and help bring them back into learning. It invites intergenerational learning opportunities and reaches out to adults in regional and rural Australia. Our leaders need to recognise that learning doesn’t just happen through informal education systems, but throughout life.

ALA has been advocating throughout the pandemic to the Australian government for a National Literacy Strategy. Improving literacy skills can contribute to building community capacity and resilience as well as contributing to the economy. A new report on the socioeconomic impact of Tasmania’s investment in adult literacy and numeracy has found that building literacy and numeracy skills in adults across that state benefits those adults and also their families, communities and workplaces. It concluded that for every $1 the Tasmanian Government invested in the strategy, it saw a $5.20 return, providing a significant social, economic and cultural benefit to the state.

Although it is a global pandemic, it has local consequences. People and place are highly significant. Some areas are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19. It has brought home to us the importance of all households having access to quality neighbourhood facilities. Suddenly, everyone is out on local walking tracks and bike paths, accessing fresh air and open spaces in their allotted time; local food shops in lockdown areas and close amenities have become critical lifesavers.

ALA has emphasised the need for a place-based approach in our submissions to government. More than any other form of adult education, ACE is local, it lives and belongs in the community and, it carries the connections and the familiarity that locals need to help repair and rebuild their lives during and after Covid-19.

Covid-19 has taught us to appreciate what is close to us: our local towns and neighbourhoods, our jobs and schools, our parks and community facilities, our neighbours, our local shops, and most importantly, our family and friends. At a time when we need to be closer together, laws enforce necessary physical distancing from one another, and the police and our defence force supervise state and territory border crossings.

While the internet enables some people to keep connected, including community educators and learners through remote learning, for others it has been near impossible to manage online activities due to lack of infrastructure, affordability, or lack of skills and experience. In parts of Australia where telecommunications require a satellite phone, the hurdles are many, which is why ALA has signed up in support of the, ‘No Australian Left Offline’ campaign. There are also internet drawbacks including, high-level online use, increased online gambling, and cyber security risks.

Throughout Covid-19, I have been speaking with ALA members across Australia. I applaud their dedication to ensuring their commitment to supporting vulnerable learners. For some adult learners, it has been too challenging to carry on learning in the current situation. But others have persisted and are being maintained and supported through text messages, phone calls, hard-copy materials that are home delivered, or by participating in Zoom, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups.

ALA has advocated throughout the pandemic that the ACE sector is at risk and that urgent attention be directed to building and maintaining the capacity of the workforce. Professional development and support will strengthen their ability to cope with changing needs and help deliver high-quality learning pathway/bridging programs using flexible and mixed learning models.

As we bear witness to this period of change, it is natural to feel fear for the future, but there are also reasons to hope for something better. ACE is a trusted local resource that, along with other community endeavours, can help put hope into action. When looking over at our neighbour in the ditch, it is gratifying to know that ACE has been well recognised and resourced in Aotearoa. ALA would like to see the Australian government do the same.