A Year for Big Ideas – Universities Australia Gala Dinner – Wednesday 22 February 2023

UNIVERSITIES AUSTRALIA GALA DINNER
22 FEBRUARY 2023 

A YEAR FOR BIG IDEAS 

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This is a moment. 

This year we get a chance to be part of history. 

To recognise our history. 

And put it in our Constitution. 

This year we get a chance to paint a bigger picture of Australia. 

A country where people have lived for more than 60,000 years. 

A people here before Cook or Hartog. Before Homer wrote the Iliad. Before the Sumerians wrote on clay. 

Before any written history. 

And we have a chance this year to give that history a voice. 

Why do a people like this need a voice? 

Because they still die younger than the rest of us. 

Because they are less likely to finish school. Because they are more likely to go to jail than university. 

Think about that. 

This is a chance to change that. 

That’s not me saying this, it’s Indigenous Australians. 

They are asking for this. Asking us just to listen. 

Asking for what is a pretty modest change to the Constitution, a way to be heard, but something that could change the lives of a lot of people. 

That’s something worth voting for. 

Every now and again there are moments, when just maybe, we get a chance to turn the country of our imagination into something real. 

This is one of them. 

This is a year for big ideas. 

It’s a year for big ideas in education. 

And that’s what I want to talk to you about tonight. 

But before I do, there is someone I want to thank who helped us get to this point. 

And that’s the extraordinary Michele Bruniges. 

Michele retires as Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Education in a few weeks’ time. 

Michele has dedicated her entire working life to what we all know is the most powerful cause for good. 

First as a primary school teacher at Leppington Public School.  

Then as a high school teacher at St Johns Park High and Ingleburn High.  

She was also a TAFE teacher and a teacher in the Adult Migrant Education Service. 

Michele has run the education department here in the ACT and in NSW. 

And for the last seven years, she has run it right across the country. 

For every former student who has stopped you in the street and said “thank you Miss”, there are a million more who could. 

Who’ve never met you, but whose lives have been changed inexorably by you. 

On behalf of all of them. Thank you. 

And for everything you have done to help me find my feet in my first few months in this job, from the bottom of my heart thank you.

I am going to miss you. 

Losing your wise counsel is only made a little bit easier by the quality of the individual who will step into your shoes. 

I think all of us here would agree, there is no one better prepared or more capable to do this than Tony Cook. 

And that’s good, because we have a lot of work to do. 

As I said, this is a year for big ideas. 

Our big reforms in early education start on 1 July, but it doesn’t end there. 

It’s just the start. 

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister announced that Professor Deborah Brennan AM from UNSW would lead the most comprehensive review of our early education system in Australian history. 

You know how important the first five years of a child’s life are.  Everything you see, everything you hear, everything you eat, every smile, every laugh, every friend, every book, every lesson, shapes the person you become. 

The truth is it isn’t childcare.  It’s education.  And not every child gets the same access to it.  Not every child gets the same spring-board into school. 

This is a chance to change that. 

The Prime Minister has made it pretty clear what he wants.  The Labor Party created Medicare, universal health care.  We also created universal superannuation.  He wants to add to that a truly universal early education system. 

That’s part one. 

This year we also start work on the next National School Reform Agreement. 

If you are a child from a poor family or from the bush or are an Indigenous Australian, you are three times more likely to fall behind at school today. 

That’s the awful truth. 

And every year the gap grows bigger. 

There is unfinished business here. 

Except for here in the ACT, government schools still aren’t funded at 100 percent of Schooling Resource Standard. 

We have committed to work with States and Territories to fix this. 

Funding is important, but so is what it is spent on. 

This is our last best chance to really shift the dial. To tie funding to the sort of reforms that will build a better and fairer education system. 

What are those reforms? 

In the few weeks I will announce an Expert Panel, whose job it will be to give Education Ministers that advice this year. 

And of course in higher education there’s the Universities Accord, led by the indefatigable Professor Mary O’Kane AC. 

This year is an opportunity to tease out and tackle all of the issues in education. 

But weaving through all of this is a common thread. 

I said this conference last year, if you are a child from a poor family you are less likely to go to pre-school, you are less likely to finish high school and you are less likely to get a university degree. 

I want us to fix that. 

These three big pieces of work give us the chance to find the ways to do that. 

Of course, I know, it’s the Accord that is most on your mind. 

What’s possible? What can we achieve? What needs to change? What needs to happen right now? Where do we need to be by 2030? Or the decade after that? 

Yesterday the Accord Ministerial Reference Group met for the first time – and we poked around at some of these questions. 

And today Professor O’Kane and the Accord team released a Discussion Paper that asks a lot more.  49 questions to be exact. 

I asked them to wait until after Christmas to put this out.  I didn’t want people sitting on the beach writing a submission.  

But summer is now almost over and I want your ideas. 

This room is full of a lot of smart and imaginative people.  

And a lot of very competitive people.  

You compete against each other.  Every time I meet with a Vice Chancellor, or a group of Vice Chancellors, that’s abundantly clear. 

But I know you’ve got ideas that won’t just make your universities better.  In this room are the brains and ideas that can help reshape and reimagine higher education.  Set it up for the next decade and beyond. 

And that’s what I need from you when you look at the questions in this Discussion Paper. 

A quick update on a couple of other things. 

International students are coming back. 

The number of international students starting a degree over the past year is up 38 percent on what it was the previous year. 

That’s good news. 

A big part of that is fixing the visa mess we were left with. 

The number of students waiting for a visa has been cut by more than half in the past seven months. 

The average waiting time for a visa has been slashed – from 40 days to 12. 

This doesn’t just happen. It has happened because we have put on a lot of extra staff to process these visas. 

Students from some countries are coming back faster than others. 

In the last year there has been a 160 percent jump in the number of students coming from India to start a degree. 

On the other hand, the number of Chinese students kicking off degrees in the last year has dropped. 

But the decisions by the Chinese Government a few weeks ago now means that’s about to change. 

We now estimate that by the end of this year it’s likely we will be back to the same number of international students starting a degree as there were before the pandemic. 

That’s good news. 

The biggest export we don’t dig out of the ground is coming back. 

But that’s not enough. 

On the current trajectory the total number of international students enrolled in our universities won’t get back to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2025. 

We can do more. 

At this conference last year I said I thought there was more we could do to get more of the students we teach and train to stay here after their studies end and help us fill some of the chronic skills gaps in our economy. 

That’s now going to happen. 

Yesterday Minister O’Neil and I announced that from 1 July 2023, international students who graduate with skills that we have a critical shortage of will be able to work in Australia for an extra two years. 

That means for someone with a bachelors degree they will be able to work here for four years instead of two. 

And someone who gains a PhD can work here for six years instead of four. 

Other countries are eating our lunch at the moment. 

Some are back to pre-pandemic levels. Others are past it. 

This will help attract more of the best and brightest to study here in Australia and help Australian businesses screaming out for skilled workers. 

I also last year said that I thought there was more we could do off-shore. 

Next week I will head to India. 

There I will sign the Mechanism on the Recognition of Australian and Indian Qualifications. 

It locks in the rules for mutual recognition to access  education in both our countries, including the qualifications we provide online and offshore. 

And, I am advised, it’s the broadest and most favourable recognition agreement that India has signed with any country to date. 

I am also taking with me a few people in this room on this important trip. 

11 Vice Chancellors, 5 peak groups and 1 regulator to be exact. 

The Foreign Minister will be there at the same time and the Prime Minster the week after. 

I want to thank you in advance for coming. It shows how serious we are. 

How seriously we treat our relationship with the world’s biggest democracy. 

And what we are doing in education and research, the partnerships we forge, are a big part of that. 

It’s the first of two trips I’ll make to India this year. 

I also want to briefly touch on research. 

I promised last year to end the political interference.  

To end the days of Ministers vetoing things they don’t like the title of.  

To end the delays in signing off grant rounds. 

And to simplify the National Interest Test. 

And that’s what I have done. 

I also promised to review the ARC Act. 

That work is being led by Professor Margaret Sheil alongside Professor Susan Dodds and Professor Mark Hutchinson and I know they have been engaging with you on this. 

The Australian Economic Accelerator legislation is also back in the Parliament.  

It’s a great example of the major political parties working together, government and universities working together and universities and business working together.  

Something we need more of. 

And in a few weeks I will introduce legislation to create a Start Up Year. 

A lot of universities have start up incubators and accelerators and offer grants to students to help them build businesses from scratch. 

This will add to that, offering HELP loans to bring their business ideas to life. 

That Bill is the result of a lot of consultation with people in this room and I thank you for it. 

It’s a better Bill because of the work we have done together over the last few months. 

There are a lot of other things we are working on together. 

The UFIT and our response to the PJCIS report on foreign interference is just one example. 

So is the work you are doing with TEQSA on AI and how it’s changing the way we teach and assess students. 

I said when I spoke here in July last year I want to be a harvester of good ideas. 

I hope now you see I meant it. 

And if not now, then by the time the work of the Accord team is done. 

This is a year for ideas. To test them and weigh them. 

To work together to imagine something different. 

And if we can do that, then next year the hard work of implementing them begins. 

Turning our collective imagination into something real. 

Not everything we think of will be right. 

Not everything we think of will we be able to do. 

And not everything we do will make a difference straight away. 

My six-year-old is currently obsessed with two things. Soccer and the musical Hamilton. 

It has been on high rotation in the last few months. 

There is a line in one of the songs that talks about “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see”. 

Writing this speech that line kept repeating in my head. 

Planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. 

That’s what real, long-lasting reform is. It grows with time. 

That sort of reform though, only happens, and only endures, if it is planted in good soil and if it’s tended to by bipartisanship. 

That’s my hope for this year. 

That we test each other and trust each other. 

That we forge a genuine Accord. 

A blueprint for real and long-lasting change. 

That we make the most of this moment.