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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

AH SEE, Ms Connie, Head Teacher, Yarradamarra Centre, TAFE Western

CAREY, Ms Susan, Director for VET Delivery, TAFE Western

Committee met at 13:38

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Snowdon ): I now declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students.

I welcome everyone here today. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land—the Wiradjuri people—and pay our respects to their elders past and present and to the elders of all Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It is very important that you understand what I am about to say. Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of the parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest. It can be considered a serious matter to attempt to mislead the committee. This hearing is open to the public and is being audio broadcast live via the internet. A transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee's website. Before we begin proceedings, I would like to introduce other members of the committee.

Mr NEUMANN: I am Shayne Neumann, the federal member for Blair and shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and ageing in the federal opposition.

Ms CLAYDON: I am Sharon Claydon. I am the member for Newcastle. I am really thrilled to be here; thank you for having us.

Mr PERRETT: I am Graham Perrett, member for Moreton, southern suburbs of Brisbane.

Mr COULTON: I am Mark Coulton, member for Parkes. I am based in Dubbo, among other places. This committee has come here to see what you are doing.

ACTING CHAIR: I am Warren Snowdon. I am the member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory—which is all of the Northern Territory except Darwin—and 42 per cent of my of electors are Aboriginal people. Welcome. Thank you for being here today. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we open it up for discussion?

Ms Carey : Yes, thank you.

Ms Carey then spoke in language—

I acknowledged that we are meeting on the lands of the Wiradjuri people in the Wiradjuri language, which I have been privileged to learn a small part of because Wiradjuri elders in our community have given permission for non-Aboriginal people, particularly staff, to learn some language. I would also like to pay my respects to elders past and present.

One of the reasons I want to acknowledge the Wiradjuri country in language is that it is a significant part of what TAFE Western does. It is very much in its DNA to support Indigenous education. One of the ways in which we do that is ensuring that staff have cultural competence. We have a lot of visual symbols around our sites. Here at the Yarradamarra centre, which is Wiradjuri for 'learning', we are encouraging staff to learn language. We have a stretch reconciliation action plan which we are very proud of and it is no insignificant achievement. It is an Aboriginal employment strategy. As an organisation, we believe that supporting Aboriginal education is not only about delivering quality products. Approximately 30 per cent of our student cohort is Aboriginal.

Sorry, I should have started by acknowledging that Rod Towney who is our director is unwell, which is why you have Connie and I as substitutes. So if there are questions we cannot answer can we please take them on notice and get back to you, given Rod's ill health.

Approximately 30 per cent of our cohort are Aboriginal. We deliver courses that are specifically for Aboriginal students. However, we also deliver courses right across our footprint. There is a wide range of courses that Aboriginal students participate in. Part of our philosophy is that there is not a difference but at the same time we acknowledge that sometimes students need additional support. So we have six Aboriginal student support officers right across our footprint. Their role is specifically to support individual Aboriginal students with any barriers to learning. Connie might like to talk about our significant achievements in language before you ask us questions.

Ms Ah See : Thanks, Susan. I have only been a part of the staff of the TAFE Western institute since March 2011. I have a long background in education, from 1992 onwards. I can honestly say that TAFE Western goes above and beyond in its approach to Aboriginal programs not only for Aboriginal students but for all students and staff. The Yarradamarra and Winnunga centres are unique within our institute. Winnunga opened two years ago. It is focused on Aboriginal health. This centre here is focused on Aboriginal education across our institute, from Lithgow to Broken Hill.

Ms Carey : Perhaps I should also add that we do have some programs that target particular employment areas to encourage Aboriginal people on a pathway to employment. Many of you would be familiar with IPROWD, which has a really long history in this institute. Mark Coulton has been an excellent supporter of this program. IPROWD is a pre-employment program to support Aboriginal people to enter the police force. We also have the iSMILE program, which targets Aboriginal people who want to become dental assistants. It is a pathway to dentistry. This is a partnership with Charles Sturt University. We are about to launch iCOUNT, which is a partnership with the finance industry and CSU to grow the number of Aboriginal people in the finance industry.

The approach that we have established recognises that it is about pathways and also about support. That support is considerable, is important and comes at a cost as well. If you have students in the IPROWD program who have left their community to engage in the program then they need additional support because they are sometimes off country and sometimes quite isolated. The mentoring support that keeps them engaged in the program is one of the determinants of success, as is the post-course mentoring. This is about: 'Okay, you've finished your course. What is the application process?' It is helping people to understand what are sometimes quite complex bureaucratic processes, if I can be so bold to say.

Ms Ah See : Our Aboriginal languages program has grown significantly over the last three to four years. Not only do we teach in Wiradjuri; we also teach in Gamilaraay. We have gained permission from Gamilaraay elders to teach off country here at Yarradamarra. Last year we launched for the first time an online Wiradjuri certificate I, so students can sit at home and learn to speak Wiradjuri via the computer. We had one Wiradjuri boy who was working off the oil fields in Queensland. He would finish his shift, open up his laptop and sit there and learn Wiradjuri. It was a fabulous achievement. If it were not for TAFE Western support and the support of the AECG and the Wiradjuri Council of Elders it would not have happened. We are now looking at developing online courses in four other languages: Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay, Muruwari and Paarkintji. Last year we had over 250 students go through the program from certificate I through to II and III.

We have also had conversations with VAEAI and the Victorian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group looking at how we can support them to develop the same sort of process for learning languages online. We have also been in conversation with South Australia. We had a professor from India interested in our languages program. He has invited us to India to talk about how we are running programs to reclaim and rekindle our languages across New South Wales. It is growing fabulously at the moment.

Our graduates of certificate I, II and III are then employed through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Language and Cultural Nest. Within the north-west Wiradjuri region, we have over 2,000 students from kindergarten right through learning Wiradjuri language at the moment. This is a win-win for us. We skill people up and then the language nest employs them in the schools to teach language, to teach Wiradjuri.

Ms CLAYDON: Are we allowed to ask questions? No.

Ms Carey : Please do.

Ms Ah See : Please ask.

Ms Carey : We'll talk for half an hour if you let us!

Ms CLAYDON: It is fabulous. I saw a similar program operating in the Kimberley region. The language nest at that school is great. How many graduates have you got of the certificates I, II and III who are now going on to be employed in that language cultural nest?

Ms Ah See : From last year, we have five graduates from certificate III now employed.

Ms CLAYDON: Is that the level? Do they have to have a certificate III in order to teach at a school?

Ms Ah See : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Are you employing linguists? Who does the training?

Ms Ah See : We do. I currently have my masters of Indigenous languages through the University of Sydney. My other staff have completed their qualifications as well. We also work alongside Uncle Stan Grant from the Wiradjuri Council of Elders on programming, resourcing and that sort of stuff.

Ms CLAYDON: Did I hear right—you have 250 students doing the language courses?

Ms Ah See : Went through last year.

Ms CLAYDON: That is fantastic.

Mr NEUMANN: I am interested in the connection that the TAFE has to the local schools and how you go about that connection to make the transition from high school through to TAFE, particularly for Indigenous students.

Ms Carey : We have a comprehensive TVET program—TAFE VET in schools. TAFE Western is one of the largest providers of those programs in New South Wales, so that is funding that comes from the Department of Education to schools to pay for TVET courses. There is a high proportion of Aboriginal students who choose those courses because they are vocationally-based, so there is a lot of hands-on. The language program is a slightly different aspect of that, but we also deliver some school-based apprenticeship trainees. One area is education support. There is a group of Indigenous students across our footprint who are employed at primary schools as school-based trainees. Their work component is actually being in the primary school assisting Aboriginal students, partly to simply give a role model about the value of education, but they also do the Certificate III in Education Support as part of their Higher School Certificate. There is also IPROWD schools model where the students are doing part of the IPROWD certificate as part of their HSC. They are specific targeted programs as well as the broad range of TVET programs.

Ms Ah See : That one is a bit different, because they travel in every Tuesday. They come from various areas around Dubbo, not just Dubbo. They come in every Tuesday from 12 till three, then the rest of the week is their time to do study and the VC.

Ms Carey : How does the languages program work? That is slightly different.

Ms Ah See : We ran TVET last year with all the three senior campuses, and it was on a needs basis. We also ran TVET music last year through Yarradamarra—not just for Aboriginal students.

Mr NEUMANN: Tell us about the reasons why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in this region may not be completing courses. We have heard that there is a dropout rate at universities and TAFEs as we are going around the country. Are we experiencing the same dropout rate?

Ms Ah See : We have not had that.

Mr NEUMANN: You have not had that? What are you doing well that we can adopt? You are going to give us a recommendation here. What is it?

Ms Ah See : I think that TAFE Western, in my time here, has made from Lithgow to Broken Hill a culturally safe place to be. You can see that from just walking into centres—the artwork, the signs in the language, the uniforms—it is just from the leadership of Kate Baxter and Sue and Andrew and Rod, with the support of the Aboriginal student support officers, the Aboriginal community consultants and Aboriginal staff in general.

Mr NEUMANN: Have you got any facts and figures to support the retention rates and completion rates?

Ms Carey : It is unfortunate that Rod is unwell, because he completed a research project for NCVER on completions and attrition for Aboriginal students. We can make that available to you. The other aspect is that we put a lot of resources into mentoring and support both during and post, and that does come at a cost. I go back to the IPROWD model; it is the fact that in the six month period after finishing the course the graduates have access to support. That may be to help them to apply for the police force, because it is a targeted program particularly for industry, but it may also be about finding other employment opportunities or working their way through the process to go to university. Sometimes it is things as simple—and I say 'simple', but they are not if you do not understand them—as how you go about organising your flights and your travel and getting from A to B. If you are someone from a small country town it can be quite intimidating to need to go to Sydney for those sorts of processes. I think the other thing that makes a difference is that, once you establish a reputation for being a place that is culturally safe and where Aboriginal people are respected and nurtured, then it does grow, so you have to invest time and energy up-front.

Ms Ah See : I think also, as an example, with our Aboriginal languages program we do not just teach here; we teach in Orange, Redfern, Cowra, Narromine, Forbes, Gilgandra and hopefully Wellington soon. At all those centres we teach via a block every month—a Thursday, Friday, Saturday—to fit around people that work and have children. We ran two summer schools, one from 14 to 18 December and one in January, in our holidays, to fit around people that work and have kids.

Ms CLAYDON: Were the summer school classes full?

Ms Ah See : They were to capacity. There are only three of us that actually teach, but, at the same time as we signed up the elders in each of those areas for the certificate I in Aboriginal languages we also signed them up for a certificate II in music, and then they form a choir for those centres. So we have got three Aboriginal choirs now, in Dubbo, Orange and Cowra, and hopefully we will have one in Walgett next term. It is those sort of strategies too that we build into it.

Ms Carey : I think one of the critical things is the wraparound services. If you look at a course in isolation and say, 'Here's the course; here's the content; here's the outcomes,' and that is all you are focusing on in terms of quality teaching and assessment—which is important—and you are not looking at the wraparound services, you are actually missing the other things that get in the way of people having a successful outcome. That is things like having access to support services. TAFE Western, as with any TAFE New South Wales institute, is a full service provider. So our costs are higher because we have Aboriginal student support officers, counsellors, librarians and activities like the Harmony Day activity that was occurring in our student hub as you arrived. Those sorts of things give a sense of community and a place to be. We also try to deliver courses in as many ways as possible to give accessibility. With our TAFE Western Connect, we deliver sometimes through the Connected Classrooms—language is delivered through that—so people do not necessarily have to travel and come off country to engage in training. I think that is also important.

Mr PERRETT: I was just wondering—and you touched on it with that answer—about the wraparound services at the end. Normally it is, 'Here's your certificate; there's the door; see you later.' So you are value adding by making them utilise it. You did say that it results in higher costs, so there is a price for that.

Ms Carey : Absolutely, yes.

Mr PERRETT: How do you extract that money? Is it in the fees up-front, basically?

Ms Carey : No.

Mr PERRETT: Do you wear it overall?

Ms Carey : You cannot include it in the fees—

Mr PERRETT: That is what I thought.

Ms Carey : because, depending upon the particular course—a lot of them are set fees—with IPROWD, for example, the federal government, through the Indigenous Employment Program funding, actually pay for that mentor support, because it is recognised as being part of an important outcome. That actually allows us to employ someone part time as a mentor to have the engagement with the students. There have been a lot of programs where building in mentor support does make a difference. In the ideal world, we would give it to every student all the time. It is not practical, though.

Mr PERRETT: And obviously there are some that do not need it at all and others that do need that helping hand.

ACTING CHAIR: Can you give us a picture of the total size of the student body?

Ms Carey : In TAFE Western?

ACTING CHAIR: Yes. How many campuses do you have, if you have more than one? How many staff do you have?

Ms Carey : We cover over 60 per cent of the state geographically. We have 24 sites. We go from Lithgow to Broken Hill and the Queensland border down to Cowra in the south. We have about 20,000 to 25,000 annual average student enrolments, and approximately 30 per cent of those are Aboriginal. But if you want specific figures I will have to take it on notice.

ACTING CHAIR: How many staff are there?

Ms Carey : Part of our workforce, by its nature, is part-time casual. A lot of our teachers, because of their industry expertise, might deliver anything from three hours a week to 25 hours a week. We have approximately 1,500 staff, and about 800 of those are teaching staff.

Mr NEUMANN: How many Indigenous staff are there?

Ms Carey : Can I take that on notice? We have our AET unit, which has six Aboriginal community consultants. They are based across our institute. They are actually meeting today; if you were not pushed for time you could talk to them. There is an Aboriginal student support officer attached to them. There are 12 staff and their educational leader—so 13 staff whose job specifically is to work with community and Aboriginal students to build training and employment opportunities and to support students.

ACTING CHAIR: What proportion of your staff and students live out of Dubbo?

Ms Carey : Quite a large percentage. Our three largest sites are Orange, Bathurst and Dubbo. Again, if you want specific statistics I will take it on notice.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.

Ms Carey : We can look at our data by local government area, which actually tells you where people are based, or we can look at where they are enrolled. We tend to look at both, because with the apprenticeship market, for example, the nature of our geography means a lot of our apprenticeship training is done as block release. So you could have people who live and work in Brewarrina and come to Dubbo to do block training—they would be enrolled through Dubbo but they actually live in Brewarrina.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you track students post their life here?

Ms Carey : It is very difficult to do, and it is interesting you ask that question because we were discussing this at our last governance meeting. The university sector—and Jenny, my colleague from CSU, is sitting behind me—finds it a little bit easier to track graduate outcomes. It is quite challenging for us. With the way that our systems are and the nature of the students, getting that sort of data is really difficult.

ACTING CHAIR: Are you able to provide us with data on retention and achievement?

Ms Carey : Yes. The changes to Smart and Skilled last year skew our data a little bit, because prior to the implementation of Smart and Skilled our data was by calendar year, so if you were an apprentice doing a four-year course you would be enrolled four years. Now you are enrolled by qualification, so I need to put the caveat on it that you have to recognise that there has been a difference in how we count enrolments now.

Ms CLAYDON: TAFE in New South Wales has undergone some pretty significant 'challenges'—to be kind—in terms of impact on staffing numbers and teaching hours and all that. There is an increased impost on students now coming to TAFE, and one of the things that was brought to our attention this morning was that one of the local high schools expected to see a decline in students coming across to do some of their additional training here at TAFE, and one of the reasons for that was the financial barrier. Could you talk to us a little bit about the impact that that is having, on this centre in particular and more broadly if you want.

Ms Carey : We certainly saw a decline last year, which is understandable. Whenever conditions change, you see a decline. That decline was within 20 to 25 per cent. Again, I am giving you a vague figure, an approximate figure. Aboriginal students are exempt from paying the fee, so we have probably seen less impact on Aboriginal students. The challenge we have, because of our footprint and our distances, is that the cost of delivering training, particularly to meet our community service obligations, which we take seriously, is quite expensive. We have fewer students more geographically dispersed. By its nature, that makes the training more expensive. If you have a set fee and fewer students, that makes it more challenging.

Ms CLAYDON: We spoke with the Delroy campus earlier today. They carry a cost out of their school budget for students to come to TAFE. There may be some sort of exemption from paying fees. But the school is carrying some of that cost. Obviously they were very happy to do so—not necessarily happy; I am sure everyone's budgets are tight. They were saying that it is becoming phenomenally expensive for them to do that. It was their expectation that this year there would not be the number of students that they would normally send across to TAFE.

Ms Carey : The funding arrangements to have students engage in TVET courses has changed, and that has had an impact. You are right—that is exactly what has happened. It is obviously not my area of expertise, but the funding that schools receive for this type of delivery does depend upon the nature of the school. Some of them have access to additional funding to address disadvantage and some do not.

Mr COULTON: This is a little bit removed from what we are talking about, but, from my past life in an education organisation, one thing that can be done is to tag people into education through a lifestyle course—or whatever you want to term it—and when people have success with that they eventually build into other courses. We have a shortage of aged-care workers and workers in other sectors. I am wondering how you are going in that department. It is not young students, but when the adults in a family can be involved in education it is sometimes easier for the children to follow. I am wondering whether you are doing something about the intergenerational aspect.

Ms Carey : In terms of lifestyle courses, no, we are not able to deliver them. We are a vocational education provider, so our qualifications are linked to employment outcomes. There are some courses at lower levels and opportunities for statements of attainment, for skill sets in particular industry areas, as a taster or a feeder strategy. We have limited funding for that. We do have opportunities, and I will give you an example. We have just delivered some hospitality essentials out at Walgett, working in partnership with Cafe 64, which Mark would know. It is a cafe in Walgett that hires predominantly Aboriginal people with disability. That has had a great outcome and has led to generating community interest in furthering hospitality skills. There are some opportunities, but they are limited, and they are limited predominantly by funding and priorities.

Ms CLAYDON: I do not know this western area so much, but is there a presence of private training providers in the region?

Ms Carey : Yes.

Ms CLAYDON: Are they taking many Aboriginal students? If so, how have they set themselves up in competition?

Ms Ah See : Last year they did. This year, because Aboriginal people have woken up to that whatever-you-want-to-call-it, they are now coming back to TAFE.

Mr PERRETT: Trickery.


Ms Ah See : Scam.

Ms Carey : We certainly had some practices that we were not happy with.

Ms CLAYDON: We saw them all around the country.

Ms Carey : We had examples of private providers coming into communities—Bourke is one example—and literally walking the street and offering financial incentives.

Mr PERRETT: The FEE-HELP, you mean?

Ms Carey : Yes. I think it is a combination of Aboriginal people realising, but the changes to the VET FEE-HELP have also made a big difference. It is not such an easy process for a private RTO to access that now.

Mr COULTON: In Coonamble they were offered $100. In some cases, there was no evidence they actually signed the form. It was an absolute disaster, whereas—I will use Coonamble as an example—TAFE has a presence there, is well regarded and has, over the years, done bridging courses and a whole range of things.

Ms Ah See : We had students last year saying how sick they felt because they said to their mother or their father, 'Sign up; you'll get a laptop and $50.' They felt sick afterwards, knowing that they are now thousands of dollars in debt.

Mr COULTON: Fourteen and a half thousand dollars debt. This provider probably took over $1 million out of Coonamble in a week. Hopefully, some of those changes will stop that.

Ms Carey : We could see them in Coonamble, then Bourke and then Walgett. Training Services New South Wales—or, as they were last year, State Training Services—were aware of it and doing everything they could. Unfortunately it is too late when people have signed up and committed to a debt they did not realise they had committed to. It is an issue.

ACTING CHAIR: Connie and Susan, our time is up. Thank you very much for talking to us. The value of your input has been greatly appreciated.

Mr COULTON: Pass our regards onto Rod. We hope he is feeling better.

Ms Carey : We will. This is my promotion time for the Bangamalanha Conference, a biannual conference we hold looking at post-school Aboriginal education and training. We would be delighted to see any of you participate.

Ms Ah See : As we say in Wiradjuri, mandaangguwu, which is thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks. You will be sent a copy of the transcript, and, if you have got a problem with it, bad luck!