National Press Club Address – Canberra – Wednesday 19 July 2023

19 JULY 2023


Thank you to the National Press Club for the opportunity to speak to here today.  

The first time I have had this privilege.  

The first thing I did when I got this job, a bit over a year ago, was go back to my old primary school and give my teacher Mrs Fry a hug.  

Cathy started there, at Cabramatta Public School, in 1978.  And she is still there.  

I did that for a reason. It felt like the right place to start. 

But I also wanted to send a message. 

A message about what I think is important. About who I think are important. About the sort of Minister I want to be. 

I will never forget where I come from.  

I’m the first in my family to finish high school. The first to even finish year 10.  

Mum never really went to high school at all. She spent two years in bed with rheumatic fever. When she got better she couldn’t catch up and dropped out. Dad left at the end year nine and became an apprentice.  

They weren’t alone. That was pretty standard for working class kids in Western Sydney back then.  

We are a different country today.  

A lot of the kids I went to school with at Cabramatta Public School were migrants and refugees.  

They came from places like Vietnam and Cambodia. Chile, Uruguay and what was once called Yugoslavia.  

Their parents picked them up and plucked them out. Put them on boats and planes. Desperately seeking safety and a better life.  

A lot of those kids barely spoke English when they got to school. Guess where they are today? 

They are partners in law firms, engineers, multi-millionaire start up business owners. 

All of that has left an imprint on me.  

About the power of education. 

The most powerful cause for good in this country. 

And what it can do.  

But if we are honest, it still hasn’t made its way into every corner of our country.  

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

They’re also less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to university. 

The same is true if you grow up in the bush or the regions. Or if you are an Indigenous Australian.  

If you are one of those children, you are three times more likely to fall behind at school today.  

And not just that.  

Fifteen years ago the gap in reading skills of 8 year olds from poor families and 8 year olds from wealthy families was about a year.  

Now it’s two. 

Most of those children never catch up. In fact, the reverse happens. The gap gets bigger and bigger with every year at school.  

It shouldn’t surprise you then if I tell you that in the last six years we’ve seen a drop in the percentage of young Australians finishing high school, particularly poor kids and particularly in public schools. 

Six years ago, 83 percent of students in public schools finished year 12.  Last year it was 76 percent. 

And all of this is happening at a time when finishing school is so much more important than it was in my mum and dad’s day, or mine.  

Today it really is your ticket to the show.  

We live in a world where almost every single new job that’s created will require you to finish school and go to TAFE or uni.  

That means we need more people to do that. Not less.  

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

If you want to know what drives me, this is it. 

Not just because of what it means for the young people who are currently missing out, but for all of us.  

This is one of the big economic levers we have to pull, that will give us the skills we need to grow and create, compete and win in this century.  

And make sure we grow together, not apart.  

Almost one in two Australians in their thirties have a university degree today. But not everywhere. 

Not where I grew up. Not in the outer suburbs of our big cities. Not in the regions. Not in poor families. 

Only 15 percent of people from poor families have a university degree today. 

And it’s even lower if you are Indigenous.  

If you’re a young Indigenous bloke today, you’re more likely to go to jail than university.  

We all pay a price for this.  The cost of all these kids missing out. 

That’s what I want to change. 

And that, at its core, is what the three big reviews I have kicked off into our education system are all about.  

The first into our early education system, led by Professor Deborah Brennan AM and the team at the Productivity Commission.  

The second focused on school education, led by Dr Lisa O’Brien AM.  

And the third, which we call the Universities Accord, a big and broad review of our higher education system, led by Professor Mary O’Kane AC.  

Three extraordinary Australians. They are all here today. And can I thank you in advance for what you are doing.  

Each report will be individually important.  

But it’s how they knit together that has the potential to change the lives of people who aren’t even born yet.  

Make our education system so much better and fairer.  

And our economy stronger and more productive.  

All three will potentially recommend targets for where we need to be and what we need to do.  And all three reports will land on my desk in the next 12 months.  

Today I am releasing the Interim Report of the Universities Accord, but because all of this is so interconnected let me first give you an update on the other parts of the puzzle.  

This month our cheaper childcare changes started.  

This has cut the cost of early education and care for more than one million families right across the country.  

I think most people get how important what we do here is for workforce participation. Particularly for women. And what it means for productivity. Getting skilled workers back at work.  

But it also has a longer-term economic dividend. This isn’t babysitting. It’s early education.  

Don’t underestimate the value of that. The US President often makes the point that children who go to preschool are nearly 50 percent more likely to finish high school and go on to college or university. 

We currently provide universal access to every four-year-old for 15 hours of preschool a week.  

NSW is taking that to 30 hours a week by 2030. Victoria has said it will do that by 2032.  

Understand what that means. Six hours, five days a week. It’s almost like starting school a year earlier.  

The work that Professor Brennan and the team are doing is looking at all of that and more.  

The Prime Minister has said a number of times he wants Australia to have a truly universal early education system.  

What that could look like, what changes we would need to make, and what it would mean for every child and every parent, is what Professor Brennan and the team are working on.  

I mentioned a moment ago, if you are a child today from a poor family, from the bush or if you are Indigenous, you are three times more likely to fall behind at school.   

Fixing this starts here. Before school starts.  

Fixing this also means funding our schools fairly and tying that funding to the things that work.  

And that brings me to the work Dr O’Brien is leading.  

Every non-government school in Australia is either funded at the level David Gonski recommended, is above it, or is on track to be there by the end of the decade.  

But no public school is, apart from here in the ACT.  

That gap needs to close.  

At the election we made a commitment to work with the States and Territories to get every school on a path to 100 percent of its fair funding level. 

That funding is important, but so is what it does. 

I don’t just want to help close the funding gap. I want to help close the education gap I have spoken about today.  

That means tying this funding to things that will help children who fall behind to catch up.  Help more students finish high school. 

It also means fully funding our most disadvantaged schools, in each State and Territory, first.  

Schools like Gillen Public School in Alice Springs. 

It’s hard to find a part of the country where there is more disadvantage, or a bigger education gap, than Central Australia.  

Attendance rates are close to the lowest in the country. So are NAPLAN results and Year 12 completion rates. 

But at Gillen Public School something is happening.  

Eight years ago the reading skills of third graders was way below the rest of the Northern Territory. Now it’s above.  

What are they doing? Apart from phonics and a consistent, whole school approach?  Small group tutoring.  

Children who need extra help come out of their regular class every day and get the extra help they need in a small group.  

And it’s not just literacy that’s improved. So has behaviour and attendance. School starts to make more sense.  

I am heading there next week to have a look for myself. 

The Bill Crews Foundation runs a similar program at Chullora Public School in western Sydney. Two teachers with six students. 50 minutes a day. Four days a week. 

In 18 weeks they learn as much as a child is expected to learn in a year. They are catching up. 

They are just two schools.  

But they are like the emergency departments of Australian education.  

Ken Boston made this point a few years ago, and I think he’s right. In an emergency department there is everything possible to save lives. The best people. The best equipment.  

What if we rolled out what’s happening at these schools on an industrial scale? How many lives would it change? How many of those students would finish school and go on to TAFE or university? 

That’s what I mean when I say I don’t just want to help close the funding gap, I want to help close the education gap.  

I want to make sure we invest in the things that will make a difference.  Things that the evidence shows work.  

And that’s what the work of Dr O’Brien and her team is all about – recommending what we tie funding to in the next National School Reform Agreement. 

That brings me to the Universities Accord. 

We have a very good higher education system. The rankings, the research and the people it produces are proof of that. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Or fit for the future.  

I talked a moment ago about the fact that almost every new job that’s created in the years ahead will require a TAFE qualification or a university degree. 

36 percent of the workforce has a uni degree today.  This report estimates that that could jump to 55 percent by the middle of this century. 

And if that’s right, that means over the next two and a half decades, the number of people at university would increase significantly. 

There are about 900,000 Commonwealth Supported students at university today.  

The Accord team estimates that that could jump to 1.8 million by 2050.  In other words, double. 

Now that’s a rough estimate, but it gives you an idea of the skills challenge we face. 

And what this report argues is the only way to really do this, is to significantly increase the number of university students from the outer suburbs and the regions.  Students from poor backgrounds.  Students with a disability.  Indigenous students. 

If we don’t, we won’t have the skills and the economic firepower we need to make this country everything it can be in the years ahead. 

I have asked Professor O’Kane and the team to think long term. To come up with a plan for the next decade and beyond.  And to be bold. To offer up a few big spikey ideas.  They took me at my word, hence the echidna on the front page. 

Here are some of the ideas they are thinking about: 

  • a Universal Learning Entitlement, that helps as many Australians as possible get the qualifications and skills they need and ensures that all students from poor backgrounds and from the regions and from under-represented groups are eligible for a funded place at university. 
  • a new needs-based funding model for Commonwealth Supported Places – that builds in extra support for students from under-represented groups, to provide an incentive to universities to offer them a place and help them graduate, 
  • a National Skills Passport that includes all of your qualifications, micro credentials, prior learning, workplace experience and general capabilities, and the expansion of quality, stackable micro credentials and short courses to rapidly up-skill and re-skill the workforce, 
  • improving the integration of higher education and vocational education – and that includes creating new types of qualifications that combine both, 
  • more work integrated learning in more courses, including degree apprenticeships, and financial support for students doing compulsory placements, 
  • a jobs broker program to help students find part-time work in the area where they are studying, 
  • a National Student Charter, similar to the one recently introduced in New Zealand, to ensure there is a consistent approach to student safety and wellbeing, and a stronger role for the Ombudsman in addressing student complaints. 
  • a change to the way research is funded to put it on a more predictable footing, 
  • a wider range of institutions, with different missions, including, potentially, a second national university that’s focused on regional Australia, based on the University of California model, 
  • a levy on international student fee income to create a fund, a bit like a sovereign wealth fund, that could do multiple things like protect the sector from future economic shocks, and help fund things like infrastructure, research or student housing, and 
  • a new Tertiary Education Commission that would oversee the implementation of these reforms, provide long term advice to government, including where new institutions may be needed, and determine the mission-based funding that each university would get. 

They are just a few of the seventy odd ideas in here. Between now and the end of the year, when the final report is due, is a chance for everyone to test these ideas. Pull them apart. Critique them and improve on them. Or reject them and suggest others. 

There is also a lot in this report about HECS, or what we now call HELP.  

There has been a bit in the news recently about indexation. The Accord team are looking at that and the way the whole HELP system works. 

And they are being helped by the man who created it, Professor Bruce Chapman AO. 

This report makes it pretty clear that the most recent changes – the Job Ready Graduates Scheme – haven’t worked, and it “needs to be redesigned before it causes long-term and entrenched damage to Australian higher education”. 

Between now and the final report the Accord team will work on how to fix this and what other changes might need to be made. 

Big reform is hard and takes time, and not every great idea can be funded.  And so the final report will also look at what the top priorities should be and what reforms should be rolled out over time. 

This Interim Report though, says there are some things we should do right now, what it calls “first steps”, and I can announce today we will implement all of them.  

The first is to create more regional university hubs and establish a similar model for the outer suburbs of our cities. 

The evidence is that where these hubs are, university participation goes up. There are currently 34 around the country. We will double them. 20 more in the regions and 14 in the outer suburbs where the percentage of residents with university qualifications is low. 

The second is to abolish the 50 percent pass rule. 

The former government introduced a rule that if you have attempted at least eight study units and failed more than half you are not eligible for further Commonwealth support for that course.  

At Western Sydney University this year it has already led to 1,350 students being forced to quit. Most of them from poor backgrounds.  

More than 13,000 students at 27 universities have already been hit by this. Instead of forcing them to quit we should be helping them to pass.  

The third is to ensure all Indigenous students are eligible for a funded place at university if they are qualified for admission to the course. 

At the moment this only applies to Indigenous students who live in regional Australia. It applies if you live in Townsville, but not Logan. If you live in Armidale, but not Mount Druitt. If you live in Port Headland, but not Perth. 

Now it will apply to all. Doing this could double the number of Indigenous students at university in a decade.  

The fourth is to extend the Higher Education Contribution Guarantee for another two years to provide funding certainty to universities as the Accord process rolls out. 

As part of this, universities will be required to invest any funding remaining from their grant each year on things like enabling courses and extra academic and learning support for students from poor backgrounds, from the regions, and other under-represented groups. 

And finally, working with States and Territories improve university governance.  

This includes university governing bodies having more people with expertise in the business of universities, and a focus on student and staff safety and making sure universities are good employers. 

Can I thank you, Professor O’Kane, and the whole Accord team for this report – including three panel members who are here today – Professor Larissa Behrendt, Jenny Macklin and Fiona Nash. Can I also thank again Professor Brennan and Dr O’Brien. 

I hope you can see in what I have spoken about today the seriousness and the scale of what we are doing, and the purpose.  The common thread that runs through all of this. 

The Prime Minister talked on election night about how Labor Governments open the door of opportunity and how his government will open it a bit more.  

That’s what this is about.  

It’s what everything I have talked about today is about.  

Opening the door of opportunity.  

It’s education that does this more than anything else.  

It’s what I want for those kids sitting in Mrs Fry’s class right now. 

And that’s what makes the next 12 months so important.  

I don’t want us to forever be a country where your chances in life hinge on who your parents are, where you live or the colour of your skin.  

This is a chance to change that. At least to start to change that. 

To open that door wider.  

To make us a fairer country, and a stronger one.  

And to turn the country that currently lives in our imagination, into something real.