31 December 2021
Well, that’s that: 2021, done. And what a year it has been. For me personally it has been an emotional roller coaster ride like none other I have ever experienced. Over the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021 I spent the equivalent of five months in New Zealand over two visits, including the sum of one month in quarantine. It was hands down the hardest period of my life. I left behind family to be with my ever brilliant and amazing mother in her final days. And I would do it all over again if it meant that I could spend more precious time with her – matriarch of 12, saint and unrivalled quiz mistress.
A couple of months after my return to Melbourne, my Adelaide-based eldest daughter gave birth to her first child and my first granddaughter. My daughter and her partner embarked upon parenthood without their extended families around them to share in those moments of joy or to support them through the tough times.
I was on a plane the very day that the South Australian borders opened. At just three and a half months old, little Arabella became world famous in Adelaide as the paparazzi captured her heart melting smiles and our first cuddle. We made front page news in The Advertiser (which is where I’ve ‘borrowed’ this photo from), featured on the South Australian Premier’s Facebook page, and made the news on all the major channels.
I share my stories here not because I harbour any delusions that I am the only one with stories worth telling. But because I am not. COVID-19 disrupted all our lives. We all have our stories to tell. Both good and bad. Whether it be of the challenges of being with family and friends; of chaotic households living, learning and working together 24/7; or of jobs, businesses and livelihoods gained or lost.
I am one of the lucky ones. I got to see my mother, when too many did not have the same opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. I eventually got to hug my (Ara)bella principessa. I kept my job, when many did not. (As a sole trader the only one who can fire me is me! In some moments I came close.) I have the job flexibility to work hours that accommodate the personal demands on my time. No one monitors whether I clock on to my laptop during ‘work hours’. I said “no” when life got in the way of work or my mental capacity to do it well (which, I have to admit, was a novel, necessary and liberating experience).
To top it all off, I have the best clients anyone could ever hope for, as they could not have been more understanding or accommodating. In addition to their humanity, I continue to be grateful for the trust they placed in me, their wise counsel, deep expertise, generous sharing of their time, experiences and ideas, and for their company over virtual interfaces during prolonged periods of lockdown.
The following is a quick whip through some of the projects and initiatives that helped me maintain some (but not all) of my sanity in 2021.
Last year I shared my experiences when, like many school-aged students across Australia, suddenly my youngest daughter’s learning was being delivered through a mix of online and other mediums. I tried (failed) to support her learning while I tried (and failed again) to maintain a façade of professionalism and efficiency with clients, all the while stressing over my daughter’s mental wellbeing and loss of learning due to prolonged periods of school closures.
This year, when the repeat button was hit, we were in a better place. We had moved our daughter to a school more able to support her learning and wellbeing during lockdowns. And interruptions by children and pets had become the accepted norm in the virtual workplace. Importantly, two projects provided healthy doses of perspective.
The first dose was assisting with the revision and update of the Commonwealth Education Policy Framework (CEPF). The CEPF has been used by Commonwealth countries since 2017 to develop, revise or review national education policies designed to advance the equity and quality of education and thereby progress the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) and targets for education. I had the opportunity to speak to senior education officials and experts from Commonwealth countries from every continent, big and small, rich and poor. What an eye-opener. When COVID-19 sent Australia’s students home learning continued. Perhaps not as well that many, including myself, would have liked, but it went on. In some countries it did not. Elsewhere it continued for some and not for others. Variously because it was difficult to justify investing in the infrastructure to extend the internet to small islands with sparse populations; or there were insufficient devices in households for mum, dad and the children to work and study; or as older children were sent to work to bolster their families’ depleted incomes. COVID-19 stalled progress towards SDG 4 and its targets. It highlighted the need for governments to prioritise their investments in education and for systems to build their resilience to withstand future disruptions, whether they come in the form of a pandemic, endemic, a climate event or other disaster, natural or man-made. The second edition of the CEPF is expected to be released in the New Year.
My second healthy dose of perspective was administered via the Teachers Report Card (TRC) 2021, which I was fortunate to be able to assist in pulling together. The TRC is a collaboration between The NEiTA Foundation (NEiTA) and the Australian College of Educators. The last TRC was five years and a pandemic ago. The TRC 2021 highlighted the paradoxical situation where 87 percent of teachers surveyed said that their profession is rewarding, yet almost just as many - 84 percent - had thought about leaving it in the past year. This bodes ill when the population of school-aged students is growing and the numbers of new entrants into the profession has been declining. Contributing factors included long hours, the burden and distraction of non-teaching work especially administration, unrealistic expectations, poor work-life balance, stress, low pay and limited opportunities for progression. The pressures were greatest on teachers in the states that were locked down the longest. In a blog NEiTA saw fit to recently publish, I ask the question: who is going to teach the kids?
Thankfully, the cloud of COVID-19 was not without its silver lining. Most felt that they were able to teach effectively despite the challenges. The vast majority attempted things that they had not done before and adopted new teaching methods. Just over half of the teachers surveyed said that all or most of the curricula at their schools were ready to be delivered online if the need arises. In other words, Australia has become more resilient to future disruptions.
Post-secondary education and credentialing
COVID-19 also brought to light and turbo-charged trends in post-secondary education and credentialing which were already in play pre-pandemic, including:
learners’ desire to continuously develop their knowledge and skills without having to fully exit the workforce;
their preference for bite-sized learning opportunities digested either on the job or from providers both traditional and non-traditional;
recognition of what workers and learners have already mastered or just learned via small-and sometimes micro-credentials that can either stand alone or stack towards mesa- or even macro-credentials, such as full qualifications; and
despite, or even because of, the omnipresence of technology, the pre-eminence of transferable skills which are a competitive advantage of being human, such as interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
There is no need for others to rethink, reimagine, reconceptualise, renew or re-anything as post-secondary education is already remaking itself. What is urgently needed from governments are reforms that lubricate rather than add friction to the wheels of creative destruction. Bold reforms are essential to support the quality, access and recognition of learning pathways chosen and travelled by all learners over their lifetimes. I expand on my thoughts on this matter on the Insights page of the NEiTA website.
I am in good company when pondering the future of post-secondary education. When speaking at the virtual launch of National Skills Week, the Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business shared his blunt assessment of the VET ecosystem and posed questions that challenged its very foundations. His questions did not disappear into the ether. They motivated one of my clients, and doubtlessly others, to share the cutting-edge things they are doing within the confines of current settings. The opportunity for governments is to leverage these examples and facilitate the sector to go even further by enabling and not confining innovation and initiative.
Skilled migration and the global talent pipeline
I am sharing this review two weeks after the Australian borders opened to fully vaccinated international students and economic visa holders. This followed an unprecedented 20 months of the borders being largely closed. That is 20 months of uncertainty for current and prospective students based offshore, weighing up their options about where to study and live. Twenty months of offshore migrants not knowing if and when they will make it to Australia. Twenty months of businesses not knowing whether they will have access to global talent to support and grow their operations as the economy rebounds. And twenty months of me agitating either on behalf of clients or in my own right to prioritise the COVID-safe entry of students and skilled workers as they are essential to the health and vitality of the economy.
Over the course of the year the Migration Program, which sets the planned level of permanent migrants, has been twice reviewed, and the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Migration has reviewed Australia’s approach to skilled migration. I assisted clients engage constructively with all processes.
The optimist in me sees the forced pause of COVID-19 as an opportunity for governments to reform their approaches for the purposes of attracting the best and the brightest from a shrunken pool of globally mobile talent. It also entertains the possibility that there is pent up demand from international students and skilled migrants that may see numbers swell, at least initially.
My inner pessimist worries that migration policy settings have not only been shaped by health concerns but by unfounded concerns that migrants take jobs and depress wages. I challenged both on theoretical and evidential grounds in a presentation on the labour market impacts of skilled migration delivered to Victoria’s commerce teachers.
I also fear that not only has Australia missed a boat, but that prospective migrants will be hesitant on boarding future boats. This is because not only has Australia been absent from the race for global talent, the treatment of talent both on- and offshore has been lamentable, particularly in comparison to competitor destinations. I expand on my concerns in an extended blog shared mid-year.
I am thinking of starting a new television show – Australia Doesn’t Got Talent. Okay, granted, this is a massive overstatement. But, in the absence of reform, Australia is not optimising the homegrown talent pool. And it has not dipped into the global talent pool nearly enough. As the economy rebounds it is no wonder that business and economic interests are lobbying on both fronts.
Current policies and initiatives also fail to take best advantage of global talent trained onshore. I did some work for two professions overseeing professional year programs for overseas graduates of Australian higher education programs. COVID-19 had impacted enrolments in the programs of both at a time when the need for work-ready graduates is great.
December 18 was International Migrants Day. Now in its seventieth year, this year's theme is aptly about 'Harnessing the Potential of Human Mobility.' COVID-19 has made this more, not less, essential. To rejoin the front pack in the race for global talent Australia will need to send a large flotilla equipped with powerful jet engines.
I am a policy wonk and proud of it. Much of my commentary above drives from big policy challenges. But what is policy? At the highest level I suggest that it is advice on priority issues that affect Australians for the purpose of finding solutions that make a positive difference in the lives of most. In other words, it is problem solving on steroids.
Take away the steroids and it looks a lot like strategy. To searching for ways to optimise those things that matter most to organisations. During the course of 2021 I continued to enjoy working with clients on their priorities, how they intend to go about progressing them, and in anticipating and addressing risks that may be encountered along the way. All the tools in my policy wonk’s toolbox had utility. Whether that be in articulating and understanding desired outcomes, thinking through the intervention logic, navigating authorising environments, co-designing solutions with critical stakeholders, or interrogating data for insights. I enjoyed immersing myself in the worlds of my clients and working with them to make their worlds better places, and look forward to expanding upon this work in 2022.
My review of 2020 ended on the bold prophecy that the road ahead looks bright. I imagined it to be the end of the COVID tunnel. It turns out that what I was steering into was the headlights of a flipping great convoy carrying the Delta variant, which has since run roughshod over us all. As I peer into 2022, I’m hoping once more that that is light I can see. And that there is better traffic management in place to avoid any U-turns due to the Omicron convoy.
Like many I am looking forward to spending catch-up time with family in friends - real live people in the flesh! To more cuddles with my granddaughter. And to continuing to connect in the virtual world in the in-between times, which COVID has schooled us so well in.
Similarly, to work and learning opportunities that blends the best from the real and virtual worlds.
It goes without saying that I particularly look forward to reconnecting with existing clients in the New Year. You guys rock!
As this review bears evidence to, I am both an optimist and a pessimist. So, it is only fitting that I end on the following quote.
“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” (William E. Vaughan)
Fare-bloody-well 2021! And Hello 2022! (Let’s hope it's not 2020 too!)
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