The Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit


30 AUGUST 2022


Thank you to the Australian Financial Review for organising this summit. 

It comes at an important time. 

As you know, there’s another summit happening this week. 

And there is a natural synergy between the two. 

There aren’t many businesses that aren’t screaming out for talent at the moment. 

We have got the second highest skills shortage in the developed world, according to the OECD. 

Skills shortages are everywhere. 

Shops, pubs, clubs. 

Hotels, motels, airports. 

Schools, hospitals, child care centres. 

Companies big and small. 

And lots of those skills are forged in our universities. 

Engineers, nurses, teachers, accountants, software programmers, environmental scientists, and lots more. 

The 20,000 extra Commonwealth Supported Places I announced a few weeks ago are targeted squarely at building these sorts of skills. 

It’s a competitive selection process. Tenders are open and universities have until 19 September to put in their bids. 

They have got to be for places where we have a skills shortage. The sorts of skills you see on the National Skills Commission’s Skills Priority List. 

I have also made it clear that universities will be required to offer all 20,000 places to the Aussies we don’t see enough of on campus. 

Australians from poorer backgrounds. Aussies from the regions. Australians with a disability. Indigenous Australians. Australians who are the first in their family to ever step foot in a university lecture theatre or laboratory. 

I said at the Universities Australia Conference last month that I don’t want us to be a country where your opportunities in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin. 

They weren’t just words. I meant it. And I want to do something about it. 

This is the start. 

I want the Universities Accord, that I will kick off later this year, to look at this too. 

The last real review of our universities was done by Professor Denise Bradley almost fifteen years ago. 

She set the target in that review that by 2020, forty percent of young Australians would have a university qualification. 

And today they do. More than forty-three per cent do. 

But Professor Bradley also set another target – that by 2020, twenty percent of university enrolments should be for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. 

And on that front, we have failed. 

There’s no other way to describe it. In fifteen years, the dial has barely moved. 

I know a lot of universities are doing good things here. 

Last Tuesday, the University of Queensland set itself the target that 30 percent of its students will come from disadvantaged backgrounds within 10 years. 

The next day my old university, the University of New South Wales, set its own target of 25 in 5. 

25 percent of first year students from underrepresented groups in five years. 

This is big. It inspires me and I hope others here too. 

On their own, actions like these change lives. Acting together, reforms like these change nations. 

That’s why this will be a big part of the Accord. 

Another thing the Accord team will look at is how the pandemic has affected students and universities. 

You see some of that in the student satisfaction survey results that came out last week. 

The worst of the pandemic is hopefully now behind us, but we are still feeling the aftershocks. 

School teachers talk to me about it. So do Vice Chancellors. 

Two years taken off you takes its toll. What most of us in this room missed out on in the last two years we can get back. We can do this year or the next. 

It’s not the same if you are 18. Think about what you were doing when you were 18 or 21. You don’t get those years back. It’s why the mental health impact of the pandemic is so acute here. 

When I was 18 four bars meant a big night out. In the last few years its meant a good internet connection. 

And when you’ve been locked up online for two years, I get why some young people don’t want to go to uni.  Aren’t ready or aren’t coping. 

None of this is unique to Australia. 

In Melbourne, which was locked down longer than any other part of Australia, schools were basically shut, and students were learning remotely, for 25 weeks. 

In the US they were shut for 71 weeks. In Indonesia 77.  In India 82. 

Think about that. 

The impact has got to be enormous. Even if it’s temporary. 

But the pandemic has also made changes to the way we study and the way we work that aren’t temporary. 

There have got to be some things about how our universities work that have changed for good. 

Online learning is the most obvious example. Not on the scale it was during lockdowns, but bigger than it was before. 

So what does that mean for students, for the type of education they receive, how prepared they are for work? 

What does that mean for staff and how universities work? 

That’s something I want the Accord team to look at. 

I will have more to say about the Accord in the next few months. 

Today I am announcing the next steps I am taking to reform and improve the work of the Australian Research Council. 

We are the home of some of the most brilliant researchers and the most cutting-edge research in world. 

And the ARC plays a fundamental role in supporting, shaping and sustaining that. 

The work the ARC does is critical. But it also needs reform.

For a start we need to take the politics out of it. 

Delays and political interference damage our international reputation and make it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff. 

As I said last month, we need to make sure all future grant rounds are delivered on time, to a predetermined time frame. 

I have also committed to an independent review of the ARC and the legislation that underpins it. 

It’s the first review of the Act in more than 20 years. 

Today I can announce that that review will be led by Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Vice Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology.   

Margaret will lead a review team that also includes: 

  • Professor Mark Hutchinson, the Director of the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide, and 
  • Professor Susan Dodds, Senior Deputy-Vice Chancellor and Vice-President (Research & Industry Engagement) and Professor of Philosophy at La Trobe University. 

A formidable triumvirate – that bring with them a wealth of experience in government and academia, in STEM and the humanities, in running the ARC and using the funding it provides to develop new research. 

Their Terms of Reference are broad. 

I am asking them to look at the role and purpose of the ARC within the Australian research system so it can meet current and future needs and maintain the trust of the research sector. 

They will report to me by the end of March 2023. 

This week I have also issued a new Letter of Expectations to the ARC. 

I know the way the current National Interest Test operates is causing problems. 

When Brian Schmidt, the Vice Chancellor of ANU, tells you the research he did that won him the Noble Prize wouldn’t qualify under the current test, you know you have to make some changes. 

I think we need a national interest test, but I think we can make it clearer and simpler. 

In my letter I have asked the ARC to work with universities and researchers to make that happen. To develop guidance for applicants that is clear and simple and advise me on reforms to improve the process. 

Judi Zielke, the CEO of the ARC, has already started this work. Talking to many of you in this room, listening to your concerns about the National Interest Test and working with you on ways to address them. 

And it’s reflected in the guidelines for the new Industry Fellowship Program that the ARC is about to launch. The panel of expert assessors undertaking the peer review process will also assess the National Interest Test for each application. 

This is a step in the right direction and I thank Judi for the work she has already done here. 

I have also asked the ARC to consider how the National Interest Test is applied in different grant categories, recognising, for example, that the Discovery Program includes fundamental research that by its very nature may not have a clearly defined application or outcome. 

When I was a kid an Australian engineer, John O’Sullivan, went looking for tiny black holes. He never found them. 

But the tool he created trying to find them lives on today. 

It’s here in the room right now. It’s Wi-Fi. 

Can you imagine life without it? 

Can you think of an Australian invention that has had a more far-reaching impact on the world we live in? 

And it came out of research into the corners of the universe. 

Around the same time John O’Sullivan was looking for black holes Katalin Karikó was collecting rejections. 

Karikó is a Hungarian biochemist. For decades she obsessed over an idea that failed to win grant funding. Even got her demoted. But she persisted. 

Today we all know what that idea was. Most of us have had it injected into our arms. It’s called mRNA. Most of us know it as Pfizer or Moderna. 

What’s the point? What we do here matters. 

Research won’t always work out or take us to where we expect, but its big ideas and basic research that will change the world. 

Just finally on the ARC, another area where I have got a lot of feedback from universities is on the ERA assessment. 

It is critical in measuring the quality of our research, but it also involves a lot of work and needs reform. 

To fix this I have asked the ARC to discontinue preparations for the 2023 ERA round and come back to me by the end of the year on a plan to develop a modern data driven approach to the ERA, informed by peer review. 

Back to this week. 

One of the things that will be in the mix at the Jobs and Skills Summit is what we do with migration. 

That’s no surprise. But I also want us to talk about how we make more of what we have already got. 

At the moment only 16 percent of international students stay on after their studies end. 

A lot of those students are delivering us food and serving coffee in between classes. 

But when they graduate, they go home. Wouldn’t it be great if they stayed on and helped us fill some of the chronic skills gaps we have got? 

Seems like a no brainer. Other countries have cottoned on to this and have changed their visa settings and it’s something I think that’s worth looking at here too. 

This afternoon I am convening the expert members of the Council for International Education for the first time since the election to kick this around and hopefully it will get a run at the Jobs and Skills Summit. 

This is just one of the things I want us to think about. 

At Sydney University there is a student from Delhi named Tushar. 

He’s no ordinary international student. 

He grew up in a West Delhi slum between a railway line and the scrapyard where his father worked for $30 a week. 

An Asha Foundation scholarship helped him finish high school and go to university. 

When he got there Covid hit. What did he do? 

He formed a group called the Corona-warriors who volunteered to teach people in slums like the one he lived in how to keep safe from Covid. 

And now he’s here doing a Masters of International Relations, on a Sydney Scholars Indian Equity scholarship. 

He landed nine months ago and he’s already been voted on to the University Council. 

He wants to do a PhD and work for the UN – because that is where he thinks he can change the most lives. 

Can you think of a more potent example of the power of education? 

Last week the Indian Education Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, was here in Sydney.

It was the first time he had been to Australia. We spent the day together. We are about the same age. And I told him if we got in a time machine and went back to when we were born he wouldn’t recognise the Australia we found.

For a start around 80 per cent of the population was born in Australia. Most were of Anglo Celtic heritage. Today one of two Australians have a parent born overseas. The fastest growing religion is Hinduism. Up 50 percent in the last five years.

Back when I was born only 18 percent of Aussies finished high school and only two percent had a uni degree. 

That country doesn’t exist anymore. 

And then Dharmendra talked to me about his country. 

1.4 billion people. Half a billion under the age of twenty-three.   

We think we have a skills challenge.

He’s got the job of getting 50 percent of young people into vocational and higher education by 2035. That’s his target. 

That’s nation changing stuff. 

And he wants our help. He wants to see Australian university campuses in India. He told us so. 

There’s the challenge. 

The University of Wollongong has already signed a Letter of Intent to set up a campus in GIFT City in Gujarat. They are planning to be operational by September next year. But who will follow? 

There are only so many Indian students like Tushar that will ever get to study here in Australia. But we can also take that education to them. If we are up for it. 

I hope we are. The benefits for both our countries would be enormous. 

I have touched on a few things this morning: skills and the pandemic. The Accord and the ARC. International education. India. 

Different issues. Different challenges. But I hope in what have said today you see a common thread, and that’s how we do this. I think there’s only one way. And that’s working together. 

If you have known me for a while or worked with me when I was a Minister in the last Labor Government you know I mean it. It’s how I operate. 

And if you have let me pick your brain in the last 12 weeks, I appreciate it.  It’s just the start. 

And it’s not just me. It’s the way the whole government wants to work, and I hope you see that in the Summit this week.

I also think it’s what Australians are yearning for. I think they are sick of the interminable fake fights. They want a government that is serious and sensible. That works with everyone. That tries to find common ground. That’s focused on them.  On the here and now and what we leave behind.

Education is one of those areas where if we get it right, we will plant the seeds of trees that will provide shade for generations of Australians we will never live to meet.

There is not much more noble in this business than that.

Let’s do it together.