If you can't read, you'll never be digitally included.

by Doug Jacquier,

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data and other research confirms that 44% of adult Australians (i.e. 9 million Australians aged 15 and over) are functionally illiterate. That means they can't read the instructions on a medicine bottle, effectively use a computer, sit a written driving test or understand what is being asked of them when they vote. Over a million Australians have a literacy rate so low on the standard scale of 1 to 5 that they fall between 0 and 1. (Note: This figure does not include recent arrivals yet to learn English.)

Despite the billions invested in education, our adult literacy and digital literacy rates mean almost half of adult Australians are not equipped for our rapidly changing society. As a nation, we need to face this situation openly.

Australia, unlike other OECD countries, has had no clearly articulated national vision to focus and motivate our efforts on adult literacy and numeracy since 1991, even though we are a signatory to UN Millennium Development Goals, which include:

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all
Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies

The personal impacts of adult illiteracy, including the associated stigma and social isolation, and the inability of parents to adequately support their children’s literacy and numeracy development, were heartbreakingly displayed in the SBS Insight special ‘Reading Between The Lines’.

Socially, functional illiteracy entrenches intergenerational cycles of disadvantage in education, health, employment and community engagement, compounded by ever-increasing government and business insistence on digital interaction to access benefits and employment. For example, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care reports that only about 40% of adults have the level of individual health literacy needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life. Low individual health literacy is associated with higher rates of hospitalisation and emergency care, higher rates of adverse outcomes generally, and lower uptake of preventive approaches like mammography and the influenza vaccine. Low health literacy can significantly drain human and financial resources, and may be associated with extra costs of 3–5% to the health system. Language illiteracy also often goes hand in hand with financial illiteracy, with devastating consequences in areas such as domestic violence and abuse.

Economically, the National Council for Vocational and Educational Research (NCVER) reports that with the economic situation that exists today, there is a general decline in the availability of jobs for workers with low literacy and numeracy skills. This group is doubly disadvantaged, as they are also the workers least likely to receive training to upgrade their skills, and are often more reluctant to return to formal learning. Australian Industry Group (AIG) research indicates that over 87 per cent of employers report that their business is affected by low levels of literacy and numeracy.

One academic has responded that “the problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing - and we are not keeping up. Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly.” An example of this approach occurred at the Barangaroo development site in Sydney, through an industry collaboration between Lendlease and TAFE NSW. ‘Pop-up’ colleges targeted vulnerable workers by providing foundation skills to improve literacy and numeracy, apprentice mentoring to retain apprentices, high risk license training, trades skilling and safety leadership development. 10,000 workers undertook formal skills training resulting in over 16,000 accredited training outcomes.

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Consultation has concluded. Below is a record of the engagement.