Subject: (AMEP Forum Launch)


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for that introduction and welcome to chilly Canberra, it’s nice and warm in here though and I thank you all very much for being here today to participate in this forum, the Adult Migrant English Program forum. It’s a real pleasure to be here and to be able to open this event today and ultimately to be receiving the feedback from your input in to this forum today, because this is a fantastic opportunity for all of you to come together, build your networks and share best practice and future ideas around the programmes that you support on our behalf and you deliver on our behalf to Australian migrants or migrants to Australia. 

As the new and dedicated Minister for skills and training around Australia I am very aware of the vital role that your work plays in building the foundation skills of people who are newly arrived in Australia. We recognise the importance of foundation skills because we know that English language, literacy and numeracy skills give people more choices as they’re so fundamental to participation in the work force, in the community and of course in adult education and training. Foundation skills are increasingly recognised as being so important to our national productivity. Providing the basis for people to develop further skills that are necessary for employment and to fill the skills needs and skills gaps that Australian businesses face now and in to the future.

According to NCVER and ABS data, around 7.3 million Australians, which is about 44% of people aged between 15 and 74, do not have sufficiently high literacy skills to meet all of the complex demands of everyday life and work in a modern economy. Around 9 million people, around 54% of that aged cohort of Australians, do not have sufficiently high numeracy skills. This doesn’t mean that our population is either illiterate or innumerate, but it does mean that many people in our community may not have all of the necessary foundation skills to adapt to the changing economy and the increasing needs and different demands that Australian businesses and employers have for highly skilled workers. 

There is a strong positive association between English language, literacy and numeracy skills and labour market outcomes, a fact that would of course not surprise most of you in this room. There is of course, an even more profound effect on individuals and their capacity to build better lives through the increased employment opportunities that having those skills brings because this is not just a labour market story. Improved foundation skills have a tangible positive impact on people’s ability to socialise and to participate in our communities and in all aspects of life which flows on to benefits in their well-being, their health as well as their education; and not just for them, but also for their families, with studies demonstrating that children’s literacy improves as a result of increased and improved adult participation in foundation skills learning.

For new migrants and humanitarian entrants in particular, English language proficiency is key to how well they can establish a new life and participate in Australian society. The sense of belonging that comes from this should not be underestimated, not to mention the improved education employment outcomes. New arrivals to Australia bring valuable skills, experiences and insights to our society. They make a significant contribution to our economy and they make our lifestyle and our country much, much richer. English language skills are critical to making sure they have the best opportunity to get a head. They can make the best contribution, our country enjoys the greatest benefit from their contribution and that they can share their insights and skills with fellow citizens and workers. 

A recent longitudinal study by Macquarie University found that AMEP clients who were moving into employment received or obtained higher levels of employment or higher paying jobs when they were equipped with higher English language skills. This shows, of course, how important your work is, as people delivering the services to AMEP clients in boosting the opportunity and choice for new arrivals to our country. I understand that this longitudinal study will be formally released at today’s forum with a presentation on the study later in today’s agenda. 

Australian workplaces need more skilled employees and we are focused, as a government, on making sure people have the foundation skills and all of the necessary skills to meet the demands of the Australian economy and Australian employers. We are placing a strong emphasis on measures that build a highly skilled workforce, investing around $6 billion per anum in vocational education and training activities just from the commonwealth government level either by payments to the states and territories for their subsidy and delivery of VET programmes, by direct subsidy and payments from the commonwealth or through the increasing stream of income contingent loans provided through the VET FEE-HELP program. All of this is of course designed to promote economic growth, to build national competitiveness and to help people compete and secure jobs in the rapidly changing, global jobs market we face. 

Our Industry and Competitiveness Agenda, launched by the Prime Minister last year, has placed jobs and families at the heart of our efforts to improve opportunity through skills, training and employment. It is aimed at helping businesses, big and small, to grow and through their growth to create more job opportunities for Australians. Vocational education and training plays an important role in meeting this objective, as well as in strengthening foundation skills in our workforce and population. We are committed to ensuring that the VET sector delivers real jobs, through quality providers and quality courses that meet the needs of students and employers, industry and the wider community. We are currently making substantial investments to support, in particular, the development of English language proficiency and foundation skills for newly arrived migrant and humanitarian entrants and jobseekers through programmes such as the AMEP, supported by investment of around $240 million per annum, and the Skills for Education and Employment programme or SEE, supported of investment of around $140 million per anum.

Having taken on this responsibility for the VET sector and AMEP only recently, I am of course interested in ensuring that the foundation and the fundamental principles of the policy settings we have in relation to foundation skills, in relation to resettlement services, in relation to vocational education and training generally are all sound policies underpinned with sound principles. We need to make sure that as they operate, within of course the budget constraints of the day, that we do take opportunities such as this one to re-evaluate why there is a role for the Australian Government in funding English language training for new migrants to whom such funding and support should be directed, how far that role for government extends and whether the current SEE and AMEP programmes are the most effective and efficient ways of delivering this training, especially to those who need it the most.

In answer to the first question of course, as I’ve already touched on, the importance of English language in successful settlement is clear as is the rationale for Government assistance to achieve this, especially where individuals may be unable to pay for it or fund it themselves. The Australian Government recognises that in the absence of English language skills new arrivals are at greater risk of becoming disengaged and will not gain the necessary skills to effectively integrate and participate in our society both socially and economically. Such disengagement then comes at a high price, when talking about new migrants, greater welfare payments, increased crime rates, reduced productivity, intergenerational issues are all potential consequences of poor English language skills.  

On the other side of the coin there are wonderful stories out there of what a difference this assistance has made to people’s lives. One example is a young woman who arrived from Russia. She began improving her English literacy and numeracy skills with studies through AMEP. While her English skills improved, she felt she needed further training to be competitive when applying for jobs in a new country. So she moved into an AMEP employment course focused on communications for workplace professionals. With this training and insight behind her, she entered the SEE programme, which helped her find a volunteer position at a nursing home, while she also studied Business Administration.  Two years after her arrival in Australia this young woman secured full-time employment as a Customer Service Officer for a Registered Training Organisation. I’m sure in this room, there are many of you who have countless such stories of the success of individuals that you have helped contribute to. These sorts of stories highlight the importance of making sure we offer the best training opportunities.

While state and territory governments have responsibility for providing training and skills development including foundation skills training, the Australian Government is pleased to support this work especially in these areas of migrant resettlement. Under the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults, state and territory governments have committed to continue funding overall adult foundation skills training.

The Australian Government also makes substantial contributions to the states and territories through the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development, to give adult learners the best opportunities in the broader vocational education and training sector. Now, wherever there is shared commonwealth and state responsibility there is potential for cost-shifting, gaps in services and poor transparency over who funds what.  These are certainly issues that I’m eager to look at more closely at. They are issues that in a broad sense are being explored by the federation white paper process that the commonwealth government is undertaking, but they are also issues that when it comes to interaction on the ground between different programmes we welcome your feedback about the effectiveness of that interplay between commonwealth programmes and those state subsidy arrangements.

The Australian Government’s two major foundation skills programmes, AMEP and SEE, help develop the foundation skills of over 90,000 participants each year. This includes vulnerable, newly arrived migrants and humanitarian entrants and jobseekers. And there is no doubting the importance of these services that you help to deliver and what a difference they make in individual people’s lives. However, I posed the question earlier about whether these two programmes are the most effective means of supporting foundation skills training for migrants and jobseekers, whether they are effectively targeted and structured, and, if not, what are the alternatives. We should also ask whether some migrants and categories of migrants are able to make more of a contribution to the cost of their services when they enter Australia or at some other point, thereby freeing up more resources for perhaps more intensive support for those who may require it. 

The Macquarie University longitudinal study acknowledged the diverse needs of new arrivals, including professionals who already had formal education or gained qualifications prior to arriving in Australia through to low level clients with little or no prior experience of formal education. This highlights the importance of effectively delivering English language tuition that is ‘fit for purpose’ to meet the individual needs of those individual clients of such diverse migrant back grounds. Recent independent evaluations of both programmes has shown that both AMEP and SEE are valued programmes that provide substantial assistance to their clients. These evaluations are the launching point for us to consider what things we can we do best to meet the individual needs of clients, and how can we be more efficient, flexible and innovative when delivering these services. 

These discussions, about future directions for your programmes, form the focus of today’s forum and I look forward to hearing the feedback from your input about the things we can do to improve the outcomes from these programmes. The evaluations have identified areas for possible action which offer a great starting point for today’s discussion. One area identified was the opportunity for more structured or effective pathways for migrant and humanitarian entrants and job seekers, both through the AMEP and SEE programme, and into further education and training or employment. The experience of the young Russian woman I mentioned earlier highlights how important it is to be able to step through each of the different levels of the training opportunities available. 

Increased flexibility and responsiveness to client needs was also highlighted. For example, we should ask if a single entitlement model based around a set number of hours of English language training is the best starting point for all AMEP clients. Other issues including the benefits and risks of multi provider models, and minimising the administrative burdens on providers were identified as areas that can help to achieve better outcomes. It’s also important not to forget the bigger question of whether the current programmes are themselves the most effective means of delivering this training and whether they effectively compliment all of the other aspects resettlement services that are provided and are appropriately integrated in to that resettlement service offering provided to new entrants to Australia. For those of you who work across both Commonwealth and State programmes, as indicated before, I’d particularly welcome your views on ways this relationship could be clearer and more efficient.  It’s also valuable to think on what alternative arrangements could look like and what the pros and cons of these arrangements might be. 

Today’s forum is the start of an important discussion, on how we can get the best outcomes and deliver real opportunities for people through training, through education for their employment for of course, them to seize all of the opportunities that life in Australia has to offer. 

I want to again thank everyone in this room for your dedication to this important goal, for the hard work you do on the ground delivering services that support thousands and thousands of new Australians every single year.

Our Government is committed to improving Australia’s level of foundation skills to ensure that everybody has the best opportunity to contribute to a growing economy and to help people, especially new migrants, to get the best chances in life here in Australia. Both the AMEP and SEE programmes are helping these newly arrived migrants and particularly our humanitarian entrants to get a better start in their new home and to make a greater contribution to our wonderful country. 

It has been a pleasure to join you all today. I know, and I’m sure and confident that you’re all eager to get into the discussions of today’s forums. Please be bold, please be blunt, please be direct in what you have to say in the opportunities provided today because I, and in particular, the departmental colleagues who I have supporting me and who provide such valuable leadership and guidance in this policy area really do value your input. You’re here today to make a contribution, please do so; thank you once again.