CEDA State of the Nation Conference

CEDA STATE OF THE NATION CONFERENCE
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
27 JUNE 2024

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Acknowledgements omitted.

Manning Clark, that great Australian historian, described us as “a country always in the making”.

I guess that’s true for all countries.

All countries change.

But it’s particularly true of us.

Just think about the change that has happened in our lifetime.

I was born in 1972.

At that time the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy were still with us. 

In 1972 only around 1 per cent of Australians could trace their ancestry back to a place other than Europe.

Today our fastest growing religion is Hinduism.

And more than 4 million Australians were born in Asia or their parents were born in Asia.

Now think about education.

In 1972 only 18 percent of Australians finished school and 2 percent had a uni degree.

Today about 80 percent finish school and almost 1 in 2 go on and get a university degree.

That’s nation changing stuff.

The businesses it creates, the jobs it sustains, the economy we live in today, are all different because of it.

Education doesn’t just change lives. It changes nations.

And that change isn’t finished yet.

In the years ahead we are going to need more teachers, more nurses, more doctors, more ICT workers, more engineers than we have today. 

The Universities Accord makes the argument that by 2050 we are going to need a workforce where not just 80 percent have finished school, but also have a TAFE or university qualification.

And that if we don’t, it will be like driving with the handbrake on.

We will be slower, poorer and less productive than we otherwise would be.

The converse is also true.

If we hit that 80 per cent target the economic dividend is real.

For individuals it means they earn more.

The evidence is if you go to university, then you earn more.

If we meet the Accord’s targets, my Department estimates the economy will be better off to the tune of about $240 billion in additional income up to the year 2050, in today’s dollars.

So how do we hit this target? How do we build a workforce where 80 percent have a tertiary qualification?

The short answer is we can’t unless we build a better and a fairer education system.

The Accord makes it pretty clear that we need to break down two big barriers. One of those barriers is artificial. The other one is invisible.

The artificial barrier is the one we have built ourselves between vocational education and higher education.

What the Accord says is we are not going fix the skills shortages we have, and will have, unless they are more integrated.

Unless they are more joined up.  

Unless we fix things like recognition of prior learning.

Make it easier for what you have learnt in TAFE to be counted towards a degree at university, so you can get the degree quicker and cheaper. 

We are already doing things here.

One: we are working on the business case now for a National Skills Passport.

An app where you can upload all of your skills, qualifications and work experience to make it easier for employers to find the people they need.

Two: we are investing about $650 million with the states to establish up to 20 Centres of Excellence. These are places where TAFEs and unis come together. Where you can get a certificate, a diploma or a degree.

But what the Accord says is to get the two sectors working more closely together, we need one body that can help better integrate the two and what they do.

They recommended an Australian Tertiary Education Commission to do this job.

And that’s what we are doing.

Last week I released a consultation paper on the new ATEC – to help make sure we get the detailed design of it right.

The second barrier we have to break down if we are going to hit this 80 per cent target is the invisible barrier that stops a lot of people from poor families, from the outer suburbs of our big cities and from the regions going to uni in the first place, and succeeding when they get there.

Think about this, 69 per cent of young people from wealthy families have a uni degree. Only 19 per cent from very poor families do.

If we are going to hit that target this is where the hard work has to happen.

In the Budget there was a lot of attention on what we are going to do on HECS. Wiping $3 billion of student debt. And paid prac. The first time the Australian Government has ever done this.

But the Budget also builds the foundations to breakdown this invisible barrier.

There are three things I want to highlight today.

First, we are going to massively expand Fee-Free Uni Ready Courses.

These are the courses that act as a bridge between school and uni, helping to ensure more Australians get a crack at uni and succeed when they get there.

Second, we are going to change the way we fund universities.

And part of that is uncapping the number of places at university for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who get the marks for the course they want to do.

And third, we are going to introduce a new needs-based funding system, so these same students get the extra academic and wraparound support that they need to succeed when they get there.

It’s based on the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to complete their degrees than other students and this can help fix that.

But all that is just the start. We are not going to hit that target if reform starts at the university gate.

We have got to reform every part of the education system.

Think about this.

Right now, the number of kids finishing high school is going backwards. In the last seven years it’s dropped from 85 per cent to 79 per cent.

In public schools the drop is even bigger, from 83 per cent to 73.6 per cent.

Hitting that target means fixing this.

And that’s what the next National School Reform Agreement I am working on with the states at the moment is about. Turning this around.

That means fixing funding for public schools and tying it to practical reforms.

All up, I have put $16 billion of additional investment for public schools on the table.

To put that into context – this would be the biggest increase in Commonwealth funding to public schools ever delivered.

Tied to things like evidenced-based teaching, early identification of children falling behind and additional support for children who fall behind to catch up.

But reform also doesn’t start there.

If we are serious about this we have to go back even earlier.

The child care debate is over. It’s not babysitting. It’s early education.

The first five years of a child’s life are everything. Everything they see, everything they hear, everything they eat, every book they open, every lesson they learn shapes the person that they become.

President Biden 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.

And we now have a draft report from the Productivity Commission that tells us it’s kids from poor families who are the least likely to go to early childhood education and care, and the most likely to benefit from it.

Can you see the common thread?

Next month we will get their final report and it will help guide real reform here too.

There’s only one side of politics telling this story. Doing this work. I started by talking about Manning Clark. Clark used to say Australia is a country of straighteners and enlargers.

We are the enlargers.

If we are going to become the country that lives in our imagination that’s what we need to be.

That workforce I have talked about today that exists in 2050, are the kids in primary school today.

Kids like my little guy in 2nd class.

Or his little brother still in nappies.

They are the babies who will be born tomorrow and the day after that.

Into poverty and into wealth, and everything in between.

They will grow up in big cities and outer suburbs, in the regions and the bush.

They will go to school in the 2030s and TAFE or uni in the 2040s.

And we have to be ready for them.

Thanks very much.

ENDS