Universities Australia 2022 Gala Dinner



I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. 

And commit again the government that I am proud to be a part of to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

About 30 years ago a young woman named Julie went to the University of Technology Sydney.

And we are so lucky she did. 

She became a nurse and a midwife. She wanted to help people.

And while she raised two of her own kids, she did a PhD.

Today Professor Julie Leask is a world leader in research on what people think, feel and do about vaccinations.

Her work helped us get the COVID vaccination rates we have today.

And she and her colleagues are now doing the same thing with UNICEF working with partners in Indonesia and in the Pacific. 

I can’t begin to imagine how many lives she has helped save.

That’s just one person. One story. 

Here’s another.  

A boy called Eddie from the old English town of Bath.

Eddie was obsessed with guitars. And genetics.

He became the first person in his family to go to university.

He crossed the world, and became a professor at the University of Sydney.

And when the pandemic hit, he was part of a team that analysed the genomic sequence of COVID and was the first in the world to release it. 

Moderna used this information to develop the first COVID vaccine, days later.

Just like Julie, it’s hard to imagine the number of lives Professor Eddie Holmes has helped save.

They are not alone.

In the teeth of the pandemic, thousands of medical students and pharmacy students vaccinated tens of thousands of Australians at locations right across the country. 

Not just that. I know your staff donated to charities and handed out food hampers to students left stranded. 

I am not sure if most Australians know what you did. 

I’m not even sure if the last government did. Or at least if it appreciated it. 

But I want you to know the government that I am part of does. 

And not just that. 

We want to harness that same spirit and the same extraordinary set of skills and talents to help us tackle all of the other great challenges and opportunities we face. 

Everything from climate change to nuclear subs. From how we educate our youngest to how we care for our oldest.  From the future of work to how we make our cities work better, and so much more. 

Everything you have to offer, from Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences to STEM.

None of that should be remarkable. What is remarkable is that it needs to be said. 

A few weeks ago the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Professor Mark Scott, talked about the election being an opportunity for a reset and a fresh start. 

And he talked about universities being “in the solutions business for government”. 

I think Mark is bang on. 

There is so much good we can do, working together.

That’s what I want to do. 

And that, at its core, is what the Australian Universities Accord will be about. 

A reset. 

And an opportunity to build a long-term plan for our universities.


Drawing on the advice of the leadership in this room, your staff, unions, business, students, parents, and all political parties. 

Looking at everything from funding and access, to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions and also how universities and TAFEs and other higher education and vocational education providers and training institutions work together. 

To lead this work, in the next few months I will appoint a small group of eminent Australians. 

I want this to be a bipartisan effort. I want it to come up with reforms that last longer than the inevitable political cycle. 

I also want your help and guidance, and that starts with making sure we get the Terms of Reference for this right, and I’ll be engaging with you on these soon. 

But I also want you to know where I am coming from. 

I am the first in my family to go to university. I’m the first in my family to finish high school. In fact, I am the first to finish Year 10. 

My mum and dad never even dreamt of going to university.  

They grew up at a time when most working-class kids in Western Sydney didn’t even finish school. 

We are a different country today. 

At school I was surrounded by kids who told me stories about boats and pirates and rough seas. 

They weren’t figments of their imaginations.  They were refugees. I’m still friends with a lot of those kids. And I can tell you today they are partners in law firms, they are pharmacists, multi-million dollar start up business owners, and lots more. 

That’s the power of education. 

But it still hasn’t reached into every corner of the country where it’s needed. 

The fact is kids from poorer families are still less likely to go to pre-school than kids from wealthier families. 

They are less likely to finish high school. 

And they are less likely to go to university.

NAPLAN data tell us that reading and maths skills of kids in primary school have improved in the last decade. But not for kids from poorer backgrounds. 

If you are a child from a poorer background chances are you are a year or two behind children from wealthier backgrounds in reading and maths.

And by the time you are in Year 9 you can be four or five years behind.

Just think about that for a minute.

We have hit the first target that Julia Gillard and Denise Bradley set for us over a decade ago. 

In 2008 when the Bradley Report was published 29 per cent of 25-34 year olds had a bachelor degree. 

Professor Bradley set us the target to reach 40 per cent by 2020. 

And we did. It’s now more than 43 per cent.

But she also set us another target.

That by 2020, 20 per cent of enrolments should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

At the time it was about 15 per cent. And it has barely moved. 

Where you live also matters.

In our capital cities more than 48 per cent of 25–34 year olds have a degree. 

In regional Australia just over 20 percent of 25-34 year olds have a degree. 

In the more remote parts of the country it’s around 16 percent.

And it’s even worse than that for our Indigenous brothers and sisters. 

That figure is less than 10 percent. 

Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are Indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university.

I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin. 

None of us want that. But that’s where we are today. 

I am not naive. I know this is hard to shift. 

I know a lot of the things we have to do to shift this need to happen long before a student is ever old enough to walk through your door.

But you also have a role to play.  Improving access and retention.  

Just over 70 percent of students who walk in the door of a university walk out with a qualification.

That’s the average.

It’s lower if you come from a poor family.  It’s lower again if you come from regional or remote Australia.  It’s lower again if you are an Indigenous Australian.

On election night the Prime Minister talked about widening the doors of opportunity a bit more.

Part of that lies with us.

Not just for people like the boy I was.

Not just because the consequences are intergenerational.

And not just because in places like the one I now represent, not acting means even further entrenching disadvantage.

But because if we act we all win.

I apologise in advance for this, but here comes a cricket analogy. 

I promise I won’t do this all this time, but there is a phrase in cricket called “batting down the order”. 

The idea is that everyone in the team can bat and score runs.  Not just the top few. 

If we want to succeed as a country this century we need to be a country like that. A country that bats down the order. 

We are the best country in the world. I really believe that. And the most valuable thing here isn’t the minerals in the ground. It’s what’s between our ears. 

But that on its own is not enough. Brain power is just like data. It’s how we use it that counts. 

If it’s untapped it’s unused.

And if most of the new jobs in the world in front of us require a VET qualification or a university degree, we need to make sure that more of us have got them. 

Rich. Poor. City. Bush. Black. White. 

That’s what I mean by batting down the order. 

As a start I am pleased to announce tonight an expansion of the work of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education based at Curtin University.

I was at Curtin last week talking to the team there.

The Centre has been around for a while.  And it does good research.  But I want to see a step change.  I want to see real results.  That means trialling, evaluating, implementing and monitoring the sorts of things that will really shift the dial.

That needs your buy in and mine.

And I am providing $20.5M over the next four years to help do it.

We can do this.

The economic centre of gravity is no longer on the other side of the planet. 

It’s so much closer. You know what I am talking about. 

The businesses. The consumers. Two thirds of the world’s middle-class consumers will be on our doorstep by the end of the decade. 

It’s like another continent, rising out of the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. 

And the sorts of products and services that they will want from us require highly skilled workers.

With all the hard and soft skills to help enmesh ourselves in Asia and win in an incredibly competitive environment. 

That’s what makes what you do next so important. 

Our future will be shaped more by what we do here, in education, than almost anything else. 

And that includes what we do next with international education. 

I am very conscious what an incredible national asset this is. 

I know you employ more people than mining or agriculture. 

That you’re our biggest export that we don’t dig or drill out the ground. 

And that this brings with it more than just dollars.

If you love studying here and living here, you take that affection back home with you.

And in the world we live in that’s invaluable.

I also know we have got some rebuilding to do. 

COVID has smashed international education. Being told to go home or being left to rely on the kindness of charity also hasn’t helped.

I want to work with you to help rebuild.

That starts with sending a clear message to students around the world that we want you to study with us.

Next month the Indian Minister for Education is intending to visit Australia.  That will be an important opportunity to forge a relationship with him and build on the strong foundations we already have to teach and train more Indian students in Australian institutions.

We need to do that with other countries in our region as well.

I know the backlog in the processing of student visas is also a big issue ahead of the start of Semester 2. 

I have asked the Secretary of my Department to work directly with the Secretary of the Department of Home affairs on this.

In the last few weeks Home Affairs has brought on more than 100 new staff to assist with the backlog.

And if we are serious about diversification, we have to diversify what we offer.  In particular, online and offshore.  Degrees going to students, not the other way around.

I also think there is more we can do to get more of the students we teach and train to stay after their studies end and help us fill some of the chronic skills gaps in our economy.

Only 16 percent of our international students do that at the moment.

In some of the countries we compete with for talent it’s a lot higher than that.

This is something I’d like to see discussed at the Jobs Summit in September. 

There are lots of other things I want us to work on too. 

I know how important the research our universities do is, and how highly regarded it is around the world. 

I get how the research you do today helps build the country that we will live and work in, in the next decade and the one after that.

And I think there is more we can do together here to turn Australian ideas and discoveries into Australian jobs. 

Collaboration is key.  The former government did some good things to encourage translation and boost commercialisation.  

We will build on that with the creation of Start Up Year loans that will help up to 2,000 final year students and recent graduates to bring their ideas to life. 

In the next few weeks the Minister for Industry and Science and I will put out a consultation paper on this, to seek your views and your advice on options for how the Start Up Year loans should work.

I also know there are things that need to change. 

The delays and the political interference in the way competitive grants operate need to end. 

It damages our international reputation.  It also makes it harder for you to recruit and retain staff.  

I get it.  You work with industry. We want you to work with industry. Industry want certainty. Time means money. They want to get on with it. So do you. 

That’s why it is important that all future grants rounds are delivered on time, to a pre-determined timeframe.  

It’s my job to make sure the Australian Research Council has competent leadership and is functioning well.  That its objectives are clear and that its processes are rigorous and transparent.  

As part of this, as the Senate Committee recommended in March, and as I know many of you have called for, I will initiate an independent review of the role and function of the ARC as set out in its enabling legislation, with a particular focus on the governance framework and reporting mechanisms.

This will compliment work already underway by the ARC reviewing its internal administrative processes.

The story I told earlier about Professor Eddie Holmes, shines a light on the value and importance of international collaboration.

Science and research don’t recognise borders.

But we know they exist.

I want to thank you for the work you have done engaging with the PJCIS on its work and its report into National Security Risks Affecting the Australian Higher Education and Research Sector. 

We’re working on our response to that inquiry now, and it will reflect the value we place on the integrity and independence of Australian research and our shared interest in strengthening our nation’s security and resilience. 

Safety and security are issues for everyone who works or studies or lives on campus.

Wherever you live, study or work you deserve to feel safe, and be safe.

As we know, that is not always the case, in this building or in our universities.

The results of last year’s National Student Safety Survey are shocking. One in six university students tell us they have been sexually harassed and one in 20 sexually assaulted.  

I want to thank Catriona on the work Universities Australia has done here already and thank you for the measures you have implemented.

But, I urge you to do more.

I am keen to work with you on that, and all the things I have talked about tonight, and so much more. 

This is a new government. And with it comes a new opportunity. 

A chance to do things differently.

To reset.  To rebuild.  And reform. 

A hero of mine, Paul Keating, used to say politics is all about courage and imagination. 

But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

To quote the great man, you need to be a “skilled harvester of good ideas”. 

That’s what I want to be. A harvester of good ideas. Working with you. Listening to you. Learning from you. And harnessing the best you have to offer. 

That’s why I have been to about a dozen universities in my first few weeks in the job.  And more tomorrow and in the weeks ahead.

One of Keating’s heroes was another extraordinary Australian.

A man we have named a university after.

John Curtin.

Curtin was a copy boy, an orator, a unionist, an editor, a politician, a war time leader.

And a thinker.

And he thought that universities must have a soul.

That they should be “a friend of the reformer, the host ever willing to receive the initiator, the champion always ready to defend the poor and the obscure”.

And that:

“The great university should find its heroes in the present; its hope in the future; it should look ever forward; for it the past should be but a preparation for the greater days to be”.

As we end tonight and begin tomorrow let that be our guide.

Thank you again for the opportunity to talk to you tonight.