The Foundation Skills Learner as a Responsible, Motivated, Choice-Making Customer

Year: 2019

Author: Argent, Garry

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The difficulties that many Australian adults experience with low level language, literacy and numeracy skills, often referred to as ‘Foundation Skills’, has been widely identified, acknowledged and researched over the past three decades. Widespread claims that low levels of language, literacy and numeracy skills in workplaces cost the Australian economy billions of dollars in lost productivity each year, have been referenced against, and supported by, large scale surveys such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) international adult foundation skills surveys in 1996, 2006 and 2013. These surveys claim - in figures that have remained relatively stable over this series - that just over half of Australia’s working age population have foundation skills to the level needed to meet the complex demands of work and life in contemporary economies. As a result, the deficit/lack, and development of foundation skills for the nearly 50% of the population who don’t meet these levels, have become a strategic priority for State and Commonwealth governments with a range of policy interventions and continual investment in foundation skills education programs.

This paper provides a description of the Foundation Skills policy apparatus that has developed in Australia during the last three decades. Drawing on the work of Foucault (1980) and others I will name this as a neo-Liberal apparatus. This apparatus comprises a ‘heterogenous ensemble’ of elements, that have particular relationships/connections, and which attempt to meet the ‘urgent need’ of large numbers of the working age population without Foundation Skills. By analysing the evolving, shifting and complex elements of this apparatus relating to key policy, I argue that the character of relationships between these elements is two-fold. First, as a commercial one in which foundation skills ‘products’ are developed as a commodity and then marketised to a Foundation Skills ‘customer’ that is increasingly imagined as choice making and responsible. Second, that the Foundation Skills sector increasingly responsibilises individual learners to make the right ‘consumer’ choices in terms of the development of their Foundation Skills - their ‘human capital’, so that they can secure a less parlous participation in increasingly risky, precarious and globalised labour markets. The implications of this paper reveal the governmental shift towards individual accountability for foundation skills learners and a wider interpretation and recognition of Foundation Skills as a solution to issues of workforce participation.