Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit – Melbourne – Tuesday 22 August 2023

THE HON JASON CLARE MP
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION

AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW HIGHER EDUCATION SUMMIT

MELBOURNE

22 AUGUST 2023

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I said in February that this would be a year of big ideas. 

And I hope you can see now that I meant it. 

A few weeks ago, I released the Accord Interim Report. 

There are plenty of them in there. More than 70. 

Some spiky. 

Some a bit more cuddly. 

But the biggest and most important point the report makes is this: In the years ahead a lot more jobs are going to require a university qualification. 

That means more students at university. 

It also means more higher education institutions. 

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

The Accord team estimate 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 sort of skills challenge we face in the years and decades ahead. 

The Accord team also argue that the only way to significantly boost the percentage of the workforce with a university qualification is to significantly increase the number of students who are currently underrepresented in our universities: students from our outer suburbs and the regions, students from poor backgrounds, students with a disability and Indigenous students. 

You have heard me make the case many times for why we need to increase the representation of students from poor backgrounds, from the regions, and Indigenous Australians in our universities. 

Because it is the right thing to do. 

The Accord team take that argument a step further. They say it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s what we have to do. 

Unless we do, they argue, we are not going to have the skilled workforce we are going to need for the economy that lies ahead. 

Now the hard part. How? 

How do we do this? How do we get there? 

As I said, there are lots of big ideas in this report, but this isn’t just a year for ideas. 

It’s also a year to debate them. 

To thrash them out. 

To make sure we get the targets right and the policies to get there. 

And I want to thank everyone here who is part that. 

Whether it’s an editorial or an oped, a comment in a workshop or just a conversation at work. It all helps. 

The media are part of that. 

And I want to specifically acknowledge the work of Julie Hare. 

The education portfolio is very fortunate to have dedicated, experienced and passionate education reporters who cover it. 

Not every portfolio has that. 

And I hope that news organisations across the country maintain that focus with dedicated, experienced reporters. 

Just like the Australian Financial Review does. 

Public policy is better for it. 

All of this debate helps Professor O’Kane and the Accord team decide what should ultimately be in their final report. 

So please keep going. 

At the end of this, they are going to have to make some tough choices. And so will the Government. 

We can’t do everything. We can’t fund everything. 

So what’s most important? 

And what’s the best way to do it? 

What can wait? Be staged out. 

What should be ditched? 

This is not just about one Budget. 

This is about the next few decades. 

So that makes the debate we are having right now – and that I want to have – really important. 

This is also the year we start the hard work of implementing some of these ideas. 

There are five recommendations in the Interim Report. 

We’re implementing all of them. 

Three weeks ago, I introduced a Bill into the Parliament which implements two of those. 

The extension of the demand driven system to all Indigenous students, no matter where they live. 

Something the Accord team say could double the number of Indigenous students in our universities in a decade. 

And the abolition of the 50 per cent rule, which the evidence now shows is disproportionately forcing young people from poor backgrounds and the regions to quit university. 

But not just that. 

This Bill also requires universities and other higher education providers to put in place a dedicated plan—a Support-for-students policy—under which they will be required to proactively identify students who are at risk of failing and set out what they will do to help them pass. 

It’s based on a pretty simple premise. We should be helping students to succeed – not forcing them to quit. 

Last week I released a Consultation Paper on that and am looking forward to your feedback. 

Importantly, the Opposition has indicated their support for the Bill. That’s a good thing. 

I especially welcome some of the really supportive comments from my friends in the National Party. 

Bipartisanship isn’t easy, but where we can get it it’s important. 

Because what I know you want, and what I want, is certainty and stability. Reforms that last longer than one election or one government. Reforms that set us up for the next couple of decades. Reforms that are built to last. 

One of the other recommendations of the Interim Report is about university governance. 

In particular, who is appointed to university governing bodies, how we ensure that staff are properly paid, and how we make sure that staff and students are safe on campus. 

I think I have made it pretty clear that what we have done so far, particularly when it comes to the safety of students, is not good enough. 

I know this is not just a problem in our universities. 

It’s everywhere. In our homes, our workplaces. In our Parliaments. 

But where sexual violence and harassment is we have to confront it.  

Universities aren’t just places where people work and study, they are places where people live. 

The Accord team said this is one area that can’t wait for the Final Report. 

That the Commonwealth should work with States and Territories on this now. 

That Working Group has now been formed and met for the first time last week, and it includes Patty Kinnersly, head of OurWatch, a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia. 

Expect that Working Group to work with you, and expect them to provide recommendations to me and State and Territory Ministers later this year. 

Today, I also wanted to provide an update on international education. 

International student numbers still aren’t back to where they were before the pandemic, but they are close. 

That’s a good thing. International education is an extraordinarily valuable national asset. It doesn’t just make us money, it makes us friends. 

It’s also not just about students coming to Australia to study, it is about Australian universities going to students overseas.  

In March I went to India with about a dozen Vice Chancellors to sign an agreement on the mutual recognition of qualifications in our two countries. 

The Mechanism for the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications between Australia and India is the most comprehensive education agreement of its type that India has signed with another country. 

And in a few weeks I will be back, along with another large delegation of Vice Chancellors and university leaders. 

This time to open the first two campuses of any international university permitted by the Indian Government – Wollongong and Deakin. 

It’s a sign of how good our universities are and how strong our partnership with India is. 

And there is more to come in other countries in our region. 

Western Sydney University, Deakin University and Central Queensland University all recently announced plans to establish campuses in Indonesia. 

This is part of the future of international education. 

It’s not just students coming to Australia to study, it’s Australian universities going to the world. 

But there are also serious challenges in international education. 

As students have come back so have the dodgy and unscrupulous players who are trying to take advantage of them.  

Who manipulate the system and undermine it. 

Who encourage people to use it as a backdoor to work here. 

This is a serious threat to the integrity of one of our biggest exports and it has got to be stamped out. 

This crosses over my portfolio, as well as the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Skills and Training. We are working on this together and you can expect reforms to be announced soon. 

Today I also want to talk to you about another area where reform is needed. 

Last year at this Conference I announced a review of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Act. 

The first in more than 20 years. 

I suspect outside of this room, not a lot of Australians know much about the ARC, what it does or whether it even exists. 

But we are all the beneficiaries of it. 

The work the ARC has funded and supported has helped: 

  • Bring the internet to Australia,
  • Get quantum computing off the ground,
  • Drive the uptake of solar panels on rooftops here and overseas, and
  • Helped the world respond to COVID. 

They’re just a few examples. 

The ARC plays a unique role in this country. It supports basic and applied research across the disciplines. No other agency does this. 

And that work helps make and change the world we live in. 

It helps create new knowledge. 

Spur innovation and catalyse productivity. 

Every dollar of National Competitive Grants Program funding generates more than three dollars of economic output, according to work done by ACIL Allen. 

The ARC is important. 

But the legislation that underpins it is old and creaking. 

And as we all know over the last few years it’s been bedevilled by political interference and Ministerial delays. 

At least four of my predecessors have interfered on at least six occasions in the last few years to upend the independent peer review process. 

Interference and delay makes it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff, and it damages our international reputation. 

That’s not good for our universities, and it’s not good for business either who want to work with our universities. 

I promised last year to end that.  

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

To end the delays in signing off grant rounds. 

And that’s what I have done. 

I also promised to review the ARC Act. 

Last year at this Conference, I announced that that review would be led by Professor Margaret Sheil AO, the Vice Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology and a former CEO of the ARC. 

Margaret has led a mighty triumvirate that includes Professor Mark Hutchinson and Professor Susan Dodds. 

I released their final report in April and today I can announce the Government’s response. 

The review made 10 recommendations to improve the governance of the ARC, its purpose, how it works, its oversight and budgetary arrangements. 

The Government has agreed or agreed in principle to all of these recommendations. 

The key recommendation is the establishment of an ARC Board. 

The Board will be responsible for the appointment of the CEO and the approval of grants within the National Competitive Grants Program. 

The Minister for Education will be responsible for: 

  • The appointment of the Board, in consultation with the Minister for Industry and Science,
  • For setting grant guidelines including key areas of national priority to be progressed through the ARC,
  • For setting expectations and key performance measures, and
  • The approval of nationally significant program investments such as Centres of Excellence. 

To strengthen the integrity of the ARC grant allocation process and protect it from political interference in the future, the grant guidelines set be the Minister will be a disallowable legislative instrument. 

This means that any future Minister who seeks to use the ARC as their own political plaything will be subject to the scrutiny of the Parliament. 

The Minister for Education will have the power to direct the ARC not to fund or to recover funds from research grants where a national security risk is identified. 

Where this occurs, the Minister will have to notify Parliament, stating the reasons for the direction; and/or report to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security where the security concern precludes the Minister reporting the detail of such a direction to Parliament. 

This will ensure that any such decision has appropriate scrutiny. 

The final recommendation of the Review deals with the evaluation of the research we fund. 

Reform is also needed here and I have asked the Accord team to do some more work on this. 

I am determined to take the politics out of this. 

That’s ultimately what this is about. 

I want to thank Margaret, Mark and Susan for their report. 

Their commitment to this task, their wisdom and deep expertise has been invaluable. 

Can I also thank John Byron who helped bring it all together. 

I also want to thank ARC CEO Judi Zielke and the team at the ARC for the important work you do and the work you will do with my department to implement these recommendations. 

Finally, thank you for everything you do. 

Everything you do makes a difference. 

Not just for the individuals you teach or train, what you do is so much more powerful than that. You know that. 

The impact of what you do is intergenerational. 

Because if someone finishes school and goes on to TAFE or university, their children are more likely to finish school and go on to TAFE or university. 

They are more likely to earn more. 

And pay more tax. 

And live better lives. 

That’s the power of education. 

You know that. 

I know it. Because I have lived it. 

And it’s the privilege of my life to be in this role, working with you, to help set our higher education system up for the decades and the generations ahead. 

[ENDS]