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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
Adult literacy and its importance

LO BIANCO, Emeritus Professor Joseph, Private capacity [by video link]

Committee met at 10:32

CHAIR ( Mr Laming ): I declare open the public hearing for the House of Reps Committee on Employment, Education and Training for the inquiry into adult literacy and its importance. We'd planned to hold this in Melbourne. As you all know, COVID restrictions have changed that. But today, despite all of those challenges, there are a broad range of adult literacy experts from across Victoria, and we welcome all of them joining us by phone today. In accordance with the resolution we made 31 July 2019 the hearing is being recorded and broadcast on the parliament's website and transcripts will be available and published on our website as well. We remind members of the media who may be listening of the need to fairly and accurately report proceedings.

Welcome, Professor. Could you please state the capacity in which you're appearing before the committee?

Prof. Lo Bianco : Thank you very much. I am a professor emeritus of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne. I retired last year. I worked with the Australian Council for Adult Literacy in preparing a substantial submission with Dr Keiko Yasukawa, which we lodged with the committee and which I believe you should have.

CHAIR: We do, thank you very much. We remind you that this evidence is under oath, legal proceedings of the parliament warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House and false or misleading evidence is a serious matter, potentially contempt of parliament. Could you please start, Professor Lo Bianco, with an opening statement, and then we'll proceed to questions and discussion.

Prof. Lo Bianco : I'd like to say that I welcome the decision of the committee to investigate this area. I think it's extremely important. I also believe it's greatly underappreciated. Because we've got an internationally competitive and generally very good education system, we tend to regard the adult area of education beyond schooling and outside of universities as a residual activity. Occasionally we think of it as interacting with the labour market needs or with the social opportunity and participation of disadvantaged adults. But I think it's really incumbent on us at this time in history to have a vision of lifelong learning that's actually integrated into the entire education and training activity of the society, and I believe if we look at the long-term history of adult literacy provision it's a compelling conclusion to reach that if we integrate a much better national policy of provision in this area, our entire society will benefit. Individuals will benefit because many of the disadvantages that they face in society in medical and legal and personal and other areas will be alleviated, but society in general will benefit both economically and in a lot of other ways that are not frequently appreciated. So just to conclude my opening statement, I want to say I'm delighted that the committee is doing this. The Australian Council for Adult Literacy's submission makes it very clear that we regard literacy as an integral part of a public education system for all Australians.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor. One of the things we noted as we went around the states was the variation in how individual jurisdictions manage adult literacy issues and that they can fall to different departments. It wasn't always clear to us what those lines of responsibility were. Did you want to venture some changes, reforms or improvements at jurisdictional level? What can governments be doing better to help advance what you've described, which is the important role that adult literacy levels can play both socially with social participation and with the needs of the economy?

Prof. Lo Bianco : I think the federal government has a particular responsibility for coordination, coherence and direction-setting in innovation. Some of the states do some of this, but it's always within the jurisdictions. As you rightly said, the diversity of provision, how adult literacy is managed and run and activated in different states, is not in itself a problem. However, what it does mean is that there's a lot of duplication. Occasionally there are systems that are using approaches that really could be replaced with something better, but they don't have the resources for innovation themselves. These are the kinds of problems that occur when there is an absence of overall coordination and integration. That's why in our submission we've called for a national policy. I think it's completely justified to do this. If you look at the economies that are most efficient in the world, that are most effective, they look at the knowledge and skill levels of their workforce in a much more serious way than we typically have done. So I think the case for is quite strong to remove this out of the residual kinds of ways it's been regarded in the recent past.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much for your submission and for appearing here today. You think at the very outset a national policy would be a key thing. I take from your paper that the adult education workforce is also an issue.

Prof. Lo Bianco : Yes, indeed. It needs replenishment. It needs support and upgrading. You see, we're facing a really historic moment with even what literacy is. We just need to keep in mind that artificial intelligence combined with cyberphysical systems is going to require much higher levels of literate comprehension and functioning than we've ever had for practically most of the population, if not everybody. This change really will impact on the teaching force in a big way, because all of us will have to learn a great deal more about how literacy works, the really quite radical ways it's going to change with AI, and I think that therefore we need to anticipate that this is going to happen, look at countries like Germany that have really thought carefully about where technology is taking communication in general and therefore communication in workplaces and societies and prepare our teaching force to make sure that we have a more competitive workforce. Also we should never neglect that amongst the people who are really disadvantaged by low literacy rates we've got many immigrants, many Australian-born people, housebound women or other people who have just not managed for—it could be illness, it could be socioeconomic disadvantage. There are lots of reasons why people fall behind, and if they're going to have any chance of catching up and plugging into what the society will offer, it will be through a policy like this. There's no other mechanism in society for this to happen.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes, the issue of adult literacy is not simply limited to one group of people. It's not just all recent migrants. Is there anything similar across all bands, or is the lack of homogeneity why we need to have different approaches? I think you say VET is good, but we need more than VET. Would that be one of the reasons?

Prof. Lo Bianco : Yes, it is exactly one of the reasons. If we go and look at why there are so many people who struggle with written language, we find that there's probably a cluster of six or seven principal reasons. Recent immigration is one, but we need to keep in mind that many immigrants are highly literate either in their own language or in English as well, so for many of them it won't be in question. But for some of them it will be, and for those where it is a problem, there's a compounding issue of not knowing English and also having literacy difficulties. So that's one category. Another category are Australian-born and sometimes people of multiple generations in Australia who either because they live in rural areas where there is a disproportionately higher rate of literacy difficulties or because of health problems in their own lives as individuals or for any number of reasons, including the way literacy was taught, are overrepresented. But there's also another category, and this tends to be people who've worked in particular kinds of jobs who might have achieved reasonable literacy rates in school but then went into jobs in which there was really no requirement for ongoing literacy activity.

Illiteracy is one of those things that surprises a lot of people. It's not like once you have literacy you've got a permanent inoculation against literacy problems in life. If you never use the reading and writing skills you gain in school, they actually fade away. Then we have the big factor that's often not taken into account, and that is that what counts as literacy has itself changed radically, like you have to have technological literacy and literacy in all the new forms of interactive AI. So even for people who are relatively okay at reading and writing on paper, we find that when we look at their literacy performance in relation to graphs and tables and complex number-based or even simple number-based activities—that's why numeracy should always be part of what we're talking about here—when we include number activities within the literacy tasks, the literacy performances nosedive. Then you have on top of all of that this revolution in AI that's just going to change the way workplaces and schools operate, and we can see that we really do need to treat this seriously and invest in it and develop a policy in which I'm not saying the federal government should run a lot of programs. I don't believe that's the case. I think the states as jurisdictions and the various others are the right places to deliver activity, but the federal government should actually help to coordinate, should help innovation and should help the cohesiveness and professional workforce development, some aspects like that, to keep the sector very up to date and then to integrate it into training in workplaces, universities et cetera.

Ms HAMMOND: So my last question, Professor, although I could ask many more, is about the WELL program. You mentioned the WELL program in your paper and said that it was a good program. What was good about it, and were there measurable outcomes from that program that attest to its success?

Prof. Lo Bianco : Yes. That's not an area that I specialise in. But when I ran the activities that produced that paper, we got very good feedback about how effective it is, and it's mostly because of integration. It's English language and literacy, so it's really important to keep in mind that we can't separate. Teachers can't be narrowly specialised. They need to know about spoken language development, about technology and also about the circumstances of many of the learners who are extremely disadvantaged in our community. I wouldn't want to make too much of a play of it, but we really do need to also keep in mind that because of the compounding disadvantages that happen to people who are shut out from the possibility of representing themselves in life, in society, in legal environments, we have an overrepresentation of low-literacy people in the criminal justice system. So it's really all across the board in our society, and it merits a national policy for that reason.

Ms BELL: Thank you, Professor Lo Bianco, for being with us today. It's great to have such an expert online. I wanted to throw a bit of a business lens, I suppose, across literacy in order to highlight any opportunities that perhaps we're not taking up, considering that a very large percentage, I believe it's 90 per cent, of employers are small business owners and perhaps small-to-medium enterprises. Is there in your view an opportunity for business to work hand in glove with government in order to educate or provide English second-language courses for their own employees when they are entering the workforce in that sort of environment? Do you think there's opportunity there for business and governments to work together?

Prof. Lo Bianco : I do. I think that's a good point. I think especially for small businesses we can't expect them to have the organisational wherewithal, the resources or even the expertise to do these things in-house. We shouldn't expect them to do it. They need support. Workers move from job to job or from employment to other activities in life—training, recreation; whatever else people do—so it's incumbent on the society to raise the overall average level of educational ability and skill of our community. We know that this is exaggerated now because of the COVID crisis that we've all had to endure and are still enduring, but actually the exposure of our economy once everything opens up is going to be much greater because we're going to have to compete now in a system in which many countries are going to be trying to recover ground that they have lost. So I think that we have to see it as part of a long-term lifelong education activity, bring small business and business firms and the agencies of businesses and the unions together to talk about the ability of workers to compete for the new jobs that will be created in the economy, as is being done very well in Germany, and also anticipate where some of these—now, I'm sure there are areas of government where this kind of forecasting is being done, but is it being done with a view of what the literacy consequences will be? I don't think so. I've never seen any evidence that when people do industrial forecasting, they actually look at the language, literacy and numeracy changes that are involved in that. Those are things that are usually found later when there are problems with industrial accidents, people not being competitive for jobs and firms losing position. So I think that we can be better than we have been in the past and actually anticipate this so when we do forecasting, we should look at what the language consequences—and I mean language to include literacy and numeracy here,—will be of these very deep changes in technology.

Ms BELL: Thank you for that response, Professor. Would you also say that in an environment like Industry 4.0 the literacy and numeracy needs of those businesses are quite specific?—

Prof. Lo Bianco : Yes, they are. Sorry, had you finished?

Ms BELL: I've limited experience with the Industry 4.0 particular businesses, be they IT or high-tech medicine and those sorts of areas, but I would imagine they have their own kinds of issues with literacy and numeracy or their own language issues in some cases. So there could be an opportunity for those businesses, particularly health, to work with government and businesses in terms of working together to educate their workforce to have a higher level of literacy and numeracy in those areas particularly.

Prof. Lo Bianco : You've put your finger on a very important point, which is that we can't expect that schools can solve this problem, as it were. Obviously, school literacy is incredibly important. I wouldn't underestimate that for a minute, but we can't expect that even if we did everything perfectly in schools there would never be a need for ongoing literacy learning in workplaces and in the community, because there will be. You can't anticipate what the literacy demands of the health workforce will be going into the future, because a lot of it will involve the handling of sophisticated technology, sophisticated chemical and medical procedural knowledge. All of these things have literacy practices associated with them, and you learn them on the job. You learn them in situ, but you learn them usually through just hanging around and picking them up. That's just too slow and too risky, and the changes are going to be too fast. So your point is absolutely right. A lot of the new literacies are specific to particular domains, and they won't be transferable beyond them.

Ms BELL: And so there's an opportunity there for those businesses to supply the avenues or the pathways through, as opposed to apprenticeships or the VET sector. This is a very specialised literacy and numeracy kind of prerequisite for those industries, is what I'm thinking.

Prof. Lo Bianco : Yes, some of them we can group together. They'll be similar. In services industries there'll be similarities. In the medical, health and allied professional areas there'll be similarities. But then when you move into automotive or technology or other areas, obviously they're going to be quite different because the knowledge stocks are themselves totally unlike each other, what technologies are used in those places are very different and how the artificial intelligence and interactivity works are also differentiated.

CHAIR: Professor, just maybe a final point on developing a specialist workforce, do you see that decisions of governments at various levels have contributed to any sort of corrosion of the specialist workforce? Secondly, where specifically would you start to develop that specialist workforce? Again, would it be through microcredentialing or would it be the slower process of training from scratch at tertiary level?

Prof. Lo Bianco : That's a really good question. I wouldn't imagine we should start from scratch. The professionals in this area are amazingly dedicated. We're very lucky to have the devoted individuals because they enter into a relationship with their students and they care for them. There's a really very deep-rooted—I think we can be very proud of the workforce in this area. I think we have a dedicated, committed workforce. It's perhaps ageing now; it needs to be replenished, and also everyone needs upgrading. Exactly how it's done I think should be networked through, so maybe the reading-writing show based in New South Wales or through jurisdictions, but there should be coordination and standard-setting and also innovation funding available from the federal sphere to make sure that there are no parts of the country, because I'm really worried about rural areas, not so much states—I'm thinking of the Northern Territory or Queensland, which have got large rural hinterlands—in which it's quite likely that these services are going to get very thin on the ground when you get out to where people might actually need them very much. So unless they're coordinated in some coherent way with some forecasting, because all of the technology changes are going to impact on farming as much as any other industrial urban-based area, the country and the town are both equally impacted by what we're going to be facing.

CHAIR: Much appreciated. Was there a final remark you'd like to make?

Prof. Lo Bianco : I think in our submission we talked about many of the areas I've mentioned today. But I just did want to say that if you look at the history of the appreciation of adult literacy as an issue in Australia, it really arises in World War Two with serving soldiers in Egypt and a few other places and the awareness of the people in charge of these soldiers that they actually didn't understand a lot of what was written and sent to them. Then when they came back, many of these people went into jobs in which there was no really regular expectation of a high level of literacy functioning, so the whole adult literacy area faded from view and became like a welfare activity that good-hearted people did for many, many years—decades, really. But I think in recent years there has been an appreciation that that's not good enough. Whilst it's wonderful that those individuals are dedicated enough to do this, there is a national question here as well, so I think if we look at it, we can see a trajectory where the entire justification for a national policy is now very clear. So thank you for the possibility of making these remarks, and I hope that you found our submission helpful.

CHAIR: It has been very helpful, and my apologies: I have neglected to let you know that we have Ms Sharkie and Mr Hamilton as well listening in, I presume from Adelaide and Toowoomba. First of all, Mr Hamilton, if you have a question, we would certainly welcome that. If not, welcome to this morning's proceedings.

Mr HAMILTON: Thanks very much. No question at this point.

CHAIR: Wonderful. Ms Sharkie from Adelaide, thank you very much for joining us as well, and we certainly have time to accommodate a question or two for the professor if you are ready to go.

We'll go to Ms Sharkie again through the day. Thank you very much, I want to say, Professor Lo Bianco, for starting our day today. We're getting through the hiccups of going virtual for the first time. A result of today's transcript will be sent to you. You'll have an opportunity to make any necessary corrections. If there's additional information that you'd like to send to us—we haven't requested any more—that's also possible within seven days, and of course you can contact the secretariat directly as a result of any other questions that may arise out of today's hearings. Thank you very much again for joining us.

Prof. Lo Bianco : If I just may make a very brief additional remark that I meant to say before, it is that I hope that your committee will also look at the [inaudible] element of adult English, because I think there's from the federal government's point of view an important, to use that old cliche, synergy between these two areas that should be an avoidance of duplication. So thank you for your interest in this, I wish you well and good day.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Professor Lo Bianco.