Early Childhood and Child Care
In the lead-up to April 2020, Australia’s early childhood and care centres were experiencing significant decline in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian Government responded immediately with measures to encourage families to remain enrolled. Services were permitted to waive out-of-pocket fees for families where children did not attend care without forgoing the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) payment and families’ allowable absences increased from 42 to 62 days for the 2019–20 financial year.
The second wave of support, which commenced on 6 April 2020, was the $1.9 billion Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package. This was designed to ensure the viability of the child care sector and guarantee funding while continuing to make child care accessible to essential workers and vulnerable children. The package complemented other Government business support measures such as JobKeeper payments. Providers were able to apply for the Exceptional Circumstance Supplementary Payments in addition to weekly Relief Package payments. This included where:
- there had been an increase in the level of care provided compared to the reference period, which for most services was from 17 February to 1 March 2020
- providers were part of non-government schools and large charities or not-for-profit organisations, and ineligible for the JobKeeper payment.
The department worked with, and consulted across, the Australian, state and territory governments and with sector representatives to develop and implement a COVID-19 response for the child care sector. Regular communication was provided to the sector through reference groups, emails, webcasts, fact sheets and web pages to support services and providers, and to help them support families using their services. A review of the Relief Package in May 2020 found that it had been successful: 99 per cent of the 13,400 child care services nationally were operational and families were being supported with access to free child care.
The early childhood measure offered $5 million in CCCF Special Circumstances grants to support early childhood and care services within declared local government areas experiencing decreased demand and financial pressure as a result of drought. In 2019–20, the total expenditure on drought was $2,641,947.
A further $5 million was made available to support child care services affected by the bushfires.
In addition to the drought and bushfire support, a further $4 million of CCCF Special Circumstances funding was available for other unforeseen events or circumstances including:
- local emergencies
- natural disasters
- extreme weather events such as flood
- market failure
- any event where a closure would result in a lack of suitable child care for the community.
In 2019–20, the total expenditure from this component was $1,279,419.
The department—through peak bodies, child care centres and Services Australia—also provided families facing financial stress due to natural disasters with short-term assistance through the Additional Child Care Subsidy (ACCS)—temporary financial hardship. This provides 120 per cent of the hourly rate cap for 13 week periods. In most cases, the ACCS covers the full cost of care.
The Parliament also approved the change of the CCCF Special Circumstances grants appropriation from an annual appropriation to a special appropriation. This has increased flexibility for the Government to respond to emerging priorities and unforeseen events like bushfires and COVID-19.
The Australian Government committed $453.2 million to continue Commonwealth support for preschool in 2020–21 as part of the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education (UANP). This is in addition to the $449.5 million already committed in 2019–20, bringing the total amount of funding made available to states and territories since 2014 to more than $3.2 billion. This funding will support almost 350,000 children throughout 2020–21 and provides certainty and stability for the sector as part of the Government’s recovery from COVID-19.
An independent review of UANP arrangements conducted by the Nous Group found that this investment had driven real improvements in participation, with enrolments for 600 hours increasing from around 12 per cent in 2008 to 96 per cent in 2018.
Arrangements from 2022 are a matter for all governments and will be informed by the UANP Review as well as the Preschool Attendance Strategies Project being conducted by The Smith Family.
The department works to deliver the Australian Government’s national policy agenda to lift school performance and maximise student outcomes. This is being supported by record levels of Australian Government school funding distributed to schools on the basis of need.
In the 2019 calendar year, the Government provided, under the Australian Education Act 2013, approximately $8 billion in recurrent funding for state and territory government schools, and, through state and territory governments, approximately $12.4 billion to non-government schools. These funding arrangements are informed by the Schooling Resource Standard, which includes a base amount for every primary and secondary school student plus additional loadings to target disadvantage.
Over the course of the year the department progressed the implementation the Government’s new Direct Measure of Income methodology to improve the fairness of the way the Government allocates funding for non-government schools. Development of the new measure has been supported through collaboration with the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project and key stakeholder groups. It will ensure funding flows to the schools that need it the most.
The department also delivered the Government’s Local Schools Community Fund, a $30.2 million initiative that provided funding for small-scale projects in government and non-government schools. The Government also provided $160.9 million to block grant authorities for capital projects in non-government schools.
A highlight for the year was all education ministers signing a new education declaration – the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Mparntwe is the Arrernte name for Alice Springs where the declaration was agreed. The declaration sets out the vision for education in Australia and the commitment to improving educational outcomes for young Australians. It was developed in consultation with stakeholders through 2019 and builds on past declarations signed in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne that have guided Australia’s education journey over three decades.
Over the course of the year, the department continued to work closely with states and territories in the delivery of the eight national policy initiatives under the National School Reform Agreement. Signed by First Ministers in 2018, the agreement sets out three national reform directions to support:
- students, student learning and achievement
- teaching, school leadership and school improvement
- enhancing the national evidence base.
Some significant milestones were achieved in 2019–20:
- The Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training was delivered to the Education Council
- Education Ministers appointed the inaugural director of the national evidence institute, Dr Jenny Donovan
- The learning progressions and online formative assessment initiatives progressed to the ‘alpha’ phase of development.
Schools-related performance targets are based on national targets agreed with states and territories under the National School Reform Agreement and as measured under the national Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia.
Bilateral agreements with states and territories under the national agreement include activities that align with national reform directions to support improved outcomes for specific cohorts of students, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
The Australian Government provided approximately $40 million to non-government representative bodies in 2019 to support implementation of national reforms in non-government schools as part of the Non-Government Reform Support Fund.
School education in Australia was significantly disrupted by COVID-19. Through the collaborative efforts of all governments, and with the dedication of school systems, leaders and teachers, delivery of school education continued with a shift to online learning and learning from home for many students.
An early priority for National Cabinet was to establish COVID-19 National Principles for School Education to ensure all students could continue their education and progress through their year level. The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee provided practical guidance for school leaders to help reduce the relatively low risk of COVID-19 transition in schools during the pandemic.
On 9 April 2020, the Minister for Education varied the conditions of approval for independent non-government schools under Section 81(1)(c) of the Australian Education Act 2013 to require that these approved authorities must provide an option for students to attend school on campus unless advised otherwise by health or education authorities.
With extensive learning from homes across Australia at the time, education ministers took a decision to cancel National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) for 2020, the annual assessment of literacy and numeracy for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. To support understanding of the potential impact of extended periods of remote learning on disadvantaged students, the department commissioned six pieces of research from experts in the field.
There were significant concerns about the impact of the pandemic on students in their final year of school. The department worked with state and territory education departments and the Australasian Curriculum, Assessment and Certification Authorities to ensure that Year 12 students were not disadvantaged, senior secondary assessments would continue and students would receive a Senior Secondary Certificate.
The department delivered the Government’s commitment of $10 million of Special Circumstances funding to non-government schools to help them put appropriate hygiene protections in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The department also worked with the non-government sector to help schools manage their cash flow and financial viability during this time.
COVID-19 has also impacted the delivery of bushfire recovery support programs. Suppliers such as Beyond Blue moved their support to phone and online delivery, and included additional resources to help already traumatised bushfire affected communities deal with the additional challenges of COVID-19.
Higher Education, Research and International
A number of key policy reviews were finalised in the first half of 2019–20 to inform changes to the higher education sector.
The department implemented the findings of the Wellings Review and introduced performance-based funding to universities, commencing from the 2020 academic year. This model provides up to an additional $80 million a year to universities that improved student outcomes and achieved greater participation of Indigenous, low socioeconomic status, and rural and remote students.
Under the Rural and Regional Enterprise Scholarships Program, 1,100 scholarships were made available for those students commencing in the 2020 academic year, with special consideration provided for students affected by bushfires and drought.
The Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector were launched in November 2019. Developed jointly between universities and government agencies, the guidelines help safeguard universities from the risks of foreign interference, while maintaining the freedom universities need to conduct their research.
The Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education 2019 was established in November 2019. It recognises higher education qualifications and promotes mobility for providers and graduates. It also supports fair and transparent recognition for individuals—irrespective of the mode of delivery of their qualifications—and supports Australian providers to grow their services, protecting Australia’s global reputation for high-quality education.
The Higher Education Relief Package supported universities and other higher education providers to continue teaching, including through subsidised online, short higher education courses designed to support workers displaced by COVID-19. This included the addition of an undergraduate certificate to the Australian Qualification Framework, which provides opportunities for Australians affected by the pandemic to reskill, upskill and improve their future employability.
The department established a dedicated team to support the education sector, including a global reputation taskforce of key international education stakeholders, which met weekly. A contact centre for students and education providers was introduced, and arrangements were made for affected Year 11 and 12 international students from mainland China to enter Australia to continue their studies. Regulatory costs to education providers were reduced by $47.5 million across the portfolio, alongside a broad range of regulatory flexibility to support affected international students and education providers.
The Job-ready Graduates Package was announced on 19 June 2020 and is designed to deliver more job-ready graduates in the disciplines and regions where they are needed most. The package of reforms to Higher Education will create 100,000 new university places by 2030 and provide additional support for students in regional and remote Australia. The Government already provides more than $18 billion a year to fund Australia’s universities and this will increase to $20 billion by 2024. Subject to the passage of legislation, the package will commence on 1 January 2021.
The package will produce job-ready graduates that reflect Australia’s expected economic, industry and employment growth, which is why there is an increased focus on areas of industry and community priority as well as work relevant qualifications. The new arrangements aim to encourage prospective students to consider adding skills sought by employers, as well as their own preferences. The reforms will also support higher education providers to work closely with industry to ensure graduates have the job-ready skills and experience they need in a challenging labour market.
The department has established a taskforce to support the Minister for Education to develop this package, including supporting the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 through Parliament, and will prioritise implementation in 2020–21.
International, regional and remote students
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt early and strongly in Australia’s $40.3 billion international education sector. As the pandemic progressed—and border measures came into place—the effects on international education providers and students emerged, with education providers switching to online delivery to enable students to continue learning. These challenges persist, with uncertainty about when students may again be able to enter Australia to commence or resume their on-campus studies.
There was an immediate impact on the research sector, with the closure of many campuses pausing research and restricting access to field sites. Two temporary measures were announced to support university research and higher degree by research students during the pandemic:
- extending the current safety net arrangements for research block grants by 12 months
- providing extensions of up to six months for students supported by Research Training Program scholarships.
To improve higher education participation and attainment rates for regional and remote students, a national regional, rural and remote tertiary education strategy will be implemented. A 2021 national research roadmap is also being prepared as a new 10-year vision for Australia’s national research infrastructure landscape.
The department’s International Division is working to ensure Australia remains at the forefront of international education so Australian and international students can benefit.
In 2020–21, there will be a strong focus on recovery and renewal across the international education sector following COVID-19. The re-opening of international borders—subject to strict health requirements—will be an important step to re-establish education pathways for international students. The department will work with state and territory governments on plans for small-scale pilots for the return of international students.
A new National Strategy for International Education 2025 is being developed to reflect:
- the new global and domestic conditions for international education brought about by COVID-19
- longer-term shifts in global market dynamics.
The department is also supporting the sector to diversify the mix of international students in Australia.
Skills and Training
A skills system that delivers accessible, relevant and quality training remains essential to the jobs of today and tomorrow. A strong skills system has been critical to the immediate response to COVID-19 and will support economic recovery in the longer term. Modelling by Deloitte Access Economics suggests that improving the accessibility, quality and relevance of our skills system could boost Gross Domestic Product by as much as $76 billion over the next 30 years.
In 2019–20, the department implemented key elements of the Australian Government’s $585 million Skills Package and laid the foundations for reforms identified in Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System (Joyce Review), led by the Hon Steven Joyce. To meet the skills and labour market challenges arising from the impact of COVID-19, key elements of the package were accelerated.
The NSC was established, under the leadership of the interim National Skills Commissioner, Adam Boyton. Work also commenced to provide skills demand forecasting, labour market analysis and national efficient pricing. The NSC will help ensure the skills system can:
- anticipate and rapidly adapt to address critical skills shortages
- respond to the needs of industries and businesses
- support workers to upskill or reskill in areas of demand across the economy.
The NCI was established as Australia’s single, authoritative source of careers and training information, informed by the data and analytical expertise of the NSC. The NCI is playing a critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic to assist job seekers and school leavers to navigate a new economic environment by supporting them with the information they need to make informed decisions about their work, education and career options.
Skills Organisation Pilots were established in digital technology, human services and the mining sector, to trial new, industry-led approaches to qualifications development. This new approach is helping to develop critical skill sets that industry has identified in response to COVID-19 and to ensure that students have access to training and qualifications that meet the current and future needs of business. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Human Services Care Skills Organisation led development of the ‘Entry into Care Roles’ skill set. This will provide job seekers and displaced workers with entry level skills to work in the aged care and disability support sectors where there are critical workforce shortages.
Reforms to the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) were significantly progressed in 2019–20. The National VET Regulator Amendment Act 2020 passed the Australian Parliament on 13 February 2020 taking the first steps to improve ASQA’s regulation of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector. A rapid review of the authority’s regulatory practices, governance and culture and processes was completed in March 2020, and recommended a shift in the authority’s regulatory approach to focus on provider self-assurance and excellence in training. Work is under way to bolster the regulator’s capabilities and practices, including through legislative amendments to revise its governance arrangements.
Consultation with peak bodies, jurisdictions and relevant stakeholders during the year informed the development of the Foundation Skills for your Future Program. This initiative addresses the gap in the provision of free language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND) skills training for Australians who are employed or recently unemployed (less than nine months).
Australians with low LLND skills may be:
- locked into insecure employment, with limited capacity for advancement
- unable to successfully engage in further training to reskill and upskill, making them vulnerable during periods of economic slowdown.
The department also established a panel of 13 providers that will deliver the program over the next three years with initial project proposals received in June 2020.
Helping workers who lost their jobs during COVID-19 to get back to work quickly—or to connect with training and opportunities that strengthen their pathway to work—is a key priority for economic recovery. Another priority is to ensure young people exiting school now and over the coming years have access to high-quality training that provides a career pathway as the economy rebuilds. In response to these challenges, the department has delivered two key initiatives to increase capacity in the training system, and to support job seekers, school leavers and apprentices to engage or stay engaged in training to build the workforce needed for economic recovery.
- In the early stages of COVID-19, the department implemented the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy ($1.3 billion), including an apprentice and trainee re-engagement register. This is supporting small businesses to retain their apprentices in work and training. A further $1.5 billion was announced on 16 July 2020 to expand the subsidy to include medium-sized businesses, and to extend the measure to March 2021.
- The department led negotiations with the states and territories to deliver the JobTrainer Fund. This is providing up to 340,700 additional training places for job seekers and school leavers to reskill or upskill in growth sectors and to enable businesses to access the skilled workers they need. The department secured agreement from all states and territories to match funding and deliver training under JobTrainer, with training places available from September and October 2020.
All states and territories have signed the Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform, required to access the JobTrainer Fund. The Heads of Agreement commits all governments to:
- immediate reforms to support improved quality and industry engagement
- a pathway to agree a new long-term Skills Agreement that will support a high-quality, relevant and accessible skills system into the future.
The VET system is a shared responsibility of the Australian and state and territory governments. The department worked closely with states and territories under the former Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Skills Council to address the impacts of COVID-19 across the sector, and to ensure that it could continue to deliver critical skills training and keep students engaged.
To meet the critical skills needs created by COVID-19, the department has worked with industry and states and territories to establish the Australian Industry and Skills Committee Emergency Response Sub-Committee to rapidly identify the critical skill sets needed, and to deliver fast and agile processes for industry-led development of national training products.
The sub-committee has commissioned and approved training products to support rapid upskilling in essential services including developing:
- infection control skill sets for customer-facing workers to improve public confidence that it was safe to go back to shops, restaurants and to other public places when restrictions were eased. This skill set was supported by a joint funded $80 million Infection Control Training Fund that the department negotiated with states and territories to deliver 80,000 fee-free or low-cost training places in infection control
- a new entry-into-care roles skill set to provide job seekers entry level skills to start working immediately in the aged care and disability support sectors
- seven new fast-tracked training packages in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. These focus on cloud, data, cyber, and internet development.
The department also implemented a range of measures to address the impacts of COVID-19 on the training sector, including:
- regulatory flexibility and fee relief to training providers, including advice to support providers to adapt through flexible approaches such as remote or online delivery, through ASQA. ASQA is waiving certain fees and charges between 1 January 2020 and 30 June 2021 and reimbursing already paid fees and charges. This measure will provide up to $22.6 million in fees and charges relief for the VET sector
- support to students to find online VET options so they can continue to train for the future through a repurposed MySkills website. About 2,000 courses are available through the site
- fee exemptions for voluntary student loans ($8.9 million) between 1 April and 30 September 2020.
The accelerated implementation of key reforms to the VET system identified through the Joyce Review—combined with quick actions to deliver additional capacity and flexibility across the sector—has ensured the VET system is well placed to adapt to the challenges posed by COVID-19. The sector is well placed to contribute to economic recovery, and has established the foundation for long-term improvements.
The Australian Government’s employment and pre-employment programs help people prepare for, find and take up employment. In 2019–20, the department continued managing, adapting and improving these programs to ensure job seekers and participants can access the support they need, particularly during the bushfires crisis and COVID-19 pandemic.
The department’s support programs include jobactive—the Government’s mainstream employment service—and a range of specialist services and complementary programs to support specific groups, such as ParentsNext, TtW and Career Transition Assistance.
The department implemented enhancements to existing programs announced by the Government in 2019–20. The Career Transition Assistance program rolled out nationally on 1 July 2019 to assist mature age job seekers. To allow a greater number of mature age job seekers to benefit from this assistance, an additional $41.7 million in funding was allocated to the program from 4 May 2020.
The department also helped more young people connect with education and employment through enhancements to TtW, which provides intensive support to assist disadvantaged young people overcome barriers to enter the labour market or undertake training. On 1 January 2020, eligibility for TtW was expanded to include participants aged up to 24. From 1 July 2020, participants were able to take part in the service for up to 18 months. To further support youth employment, nine industry-led Youth Jobs Prepare, Trial, Hire (PaTH) Industry Pilots commenced in 2020, which aim to increase employer engagement with employment services—in particular, take-up of the Youth Jobs PaTH program—and inform future pathway into industry specific employment.
The Government announced reforms to the Harvest Labour Scheme in the 2019–20 Budget to support the agriculture sector and encourage more Australian job seekers to take up seasonal work. The new Harvest Trail Service also included an expansion of harvest areas from 11 to 16, and greater financial incentives for providers to place Australian job seekers into harvest work. The new Harvest Trail Service commenced on 1 July 2020 and will contribute to Australia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
The department provides a range of assistance to regions, workers and businesses in their employment and workforce needs. This includes maintaining a network of 15 employment facilitators who connect local stakeholders in 13 employment regions to existing programs, services and resources. The Regional Employment Trials program is also active in 10 disadvantaged regions to help develop projects with local stakeholders, and improve regional employment outcomes.
COVID-19 resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of job seekers accessing employment services—the jobactive caseload more than doubled to over 1.4 million people by the end of the financial year. In response, the department has worked closely with stakeholders to continue adapting and modifying policies and programs. This includes:
- changes to streamline job seeker registration and referral processes with Services Australia
- adapting program settings and requirements such as mutual obligations
- revising service delivery arrangements
- providing access to tools and support through online employment services to assist the most job-ready job seekers self-manage their requirements
- expanding the National Customer Service Line to help with the response.
The department launched the Jobs Hub platform on 2 April 2020 to help connect job seekers and organisations who are hiring. Employers can also contact the department for assistance with their recruitment needs.
As Australian borders closed to new overseas arrivals, the Government announced new visa arrangements on 4 April 2020 extending the stay of critical workers, including those in the Seasonal Workers Programme, to ensure the agricultural sector had the labour force it needed. The department worked with Seasonal Worker Programme employers to help move workers (with their agreement) to areas of high harvest labour demand, and to extend the current placement or redeployment of workers.
The department is focused on the future of employment services, including delivering the new employment services model from July 2022. Elements of this are being tested in two employment regions: Adelaide South in South Australia and the Mid North Coast in New South Wales.
The New Employment Services Trial (NEST) was phased in with the Digital First service commencing on 1 July 2019 for new job seekers who were most job ready. In addition, the Digital Plus service commenced on 1 October 2019 alongside a Digital Services contact centre to support job seekers who need help using digital services. Enhanced services, which refer more disadvantaged job seekers to an employment services provider, commenced on 4 November 2019.
Co-design and consultation have been key to developing and delivering the trial and the new model. An external reference group was established to advise the department and has met seven times. Working groups in both NEST regions have also been established to test policy and operational aspects with local stakeholders.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease and the economy re-opens, employment and pre-employment services will play a critical role in helping job seekers prepare for and find work, including training to upskill or reskill for critical vacancies. The department will continue adapting and managing these programs, including strengthening linkages with the skills and training sector, and managing the transition to the new employment services model.