Funding - A disincentive to adult learning?

Australia's plan to limit tax break is labelled 'irrational'

Stephen Exley

With a potential A$14.5 billion (#163;8.6 billion) of school funding up for grabs, it is no surprise that the Australian government's flagship education reforms are dominating the headlines ahead of next month's general election.

But experts have warned that part of the money will come from cutting opportunities for adult learners, which could have a serious impact on the country's economy and exacerbate an already worrying lack of skills among its workers.

At present, adult education is tax-deductible for Australians in employment, providing a valuable incentive to engage in on-the-job training, acquire professional qualifications and take other courses to improve their career opportunities.

But the Labor government has proposed introducing a A$2,000 cap on the benefit, which could dramatically increase tuition fees and related costs for learners. At present, the tax relief can also be claimed on textbooks, travel and accommodation expenses.

Australian businesses have been quick to wade into the row, with the Scrap the Cap alliance of 70 industry and professional groups arguing that, although the policy would generate A$520 million a year in revenue, it could damage national productivity to the tune of as much as A$6 billion.

In 2010-11, more than 172,000 people claimed in excess of A$2,000 in expenses, and campaigners fear the cap could deter tens of thousands of learners from furthering their education.

As well as being "economically irrational", the policy would also discourage learning for pleasure, according to Barry Golding, president of Adult Learning Australia. "Learning beyond work is extremely valuable," he said. "It adds life to communities. It adds to the capacity of parents and grandparents to help children and grandchildren learn. It would be a sick, sad and sorry society if all we had in life was work."

Australia is experiencing a severe skills shortage in many sectors and is engaging in its largest immigration drive in four decades, targeting workers such as mechanics, welders and electricians.

Professor Golding said that the cap will exacerbate these problems. "I would have thought that as an ageing nation with widespread skills shortages, (with) half of its adults not in the workforce (being) without a completed post-school qualification and with one third of its adults functionally illiterate, Australia would be thinking and acting differently," he said. "Nowhere is Australian adult education mentioned in any of this policy and rhetoric."

In the face of such opposition, the government has now delayed its decision on whether to press ahead with the policy until May 2014, keeping the issue out of the way until safely after the general election. But with opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne also refusing to confirm that he would scrap the plan, the plight of adult learners remains precarious.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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