Educating a Better World: A First Nations Perspective – Charles Darwin University

Last year Australia voted no to constitutional change, but we didn’t vote no to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

It remains a fact that Indigenous Australians are more likely to die young or to get a chronic disease, and to miss out on an education than rest of us.

That’s a fact.

And there is no more shocking example of that than the fact that an Indigenous boy today is more likely to end up in jail than one of our universities.

None of us want that to be true, but it is.

And so, I start by recognising the Traditional Owners of this land, I also recognise that there is a mountain of work to do to close the gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. 

That education can be and should be the great equaliser in an unequal world. 

The most powerful cause for good.

That we all acknowledge the failures of the past and the gaps that still exist. 

And that in our collective hands is the power to change that. 

In education, perhaps, more than anywhere else. 

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.

I want to acknowledge Professor Bruce Chapman and everyone involved in this important conference. 

And thank you Charles Darwin University for hosting.  

Earlier this year, I released the Universities Accord report which is a blueprint for how we reform and improve our higher education system over the next decade and beyond.

And a few weeks ago, I released the first stage of our response to the Accord.

It sets us a target that by 2050, 80 per cent of our workforce has a TAFE qualification or a university degree. 

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating oversaw an increase in the number of kids finishing high school from 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent.

That was nation-changing stuff.

This is the next step. 

A country where not just 80 per cent have finished school, but have gone on to TAFE or university as well. 

To hit that target we need to break down that invisible barrier that stops a lot of Indigenous Australians, a lot of people in regional Australia and a lot of people from poor families from getting a crack at university in the first place, and succeeding when they get there.

We took the first step to do that last year by introducing legislation that establishes a demand driven system for all Indigenous students – wherever they live. 

What this means is if you are an Indigenous kid in Darwin or Mount Druitt, in Alice Springs or in Adelaide, and you get the marks to get into the course you want to do, there will be a Commonwealth Supported Place for you. 

You will still pay HECS, but there will be that place for you. 

According to my Department this could double the number of Indigenous students at university in a decade.

And this year’s Budget builds on that. 

In the Budget, we have committed to building a new funding system for universities.

And part of that is a demand driven system for all equity students. 

In other words, what we have done for Indigenous students we are going to do for all students from poor families. 

If they qualify for the course, we will provide the funding for it.

And not just that. A new needs-based funding system so students from poor families, students with a disability, Indigenous Australians and students who study in regional Australia 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. 

Another Accord recommendation designed to boost the number of people from disadvantaged background at university is the expansion of FEE-Free University Ready courses. 

These are free courses that act as a bridge between school and uni to help you get the skills you need to succeed when you get there.

The Budget uncaps the funding for these free courses and fixes the way they’re funded.

Again, my department estimates that this will double the number of people doing these free uni ready courses by the end of the next decade. 

I am also doubling the number of University Study Hubs across the country.

These are places where you can do almost any degree from almost any university.

They bring university closer to where people live. They can be the difference between whether a lot of people go to university or not. 

There are 34 at the moment. We are expanding it to 68. 20 more in the regions, including one I just announced in East Arnhem Land, and for the first time 14 in the outer suburbs of our big cities. 

But we are not going to hit that 80 per cent target if we just reform higher education.

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. 

And remember this is happening at a time when we need more people to finish school. 

A big part of that decline is kids falling behind they are little. 

NAPLAN results tell us that one in 10 young people at the moment are below the minimum standard we have set. 

But it’s not one in 10 poor kids who fall behind the minimum standard; it’s one in three and it’s also one in three Indigenous kids. 

NAPLAN data also tells us that most of the kids who are behind when they are little are still behind in the middle of high school.

Only one in five kids who are behind when they’re eight have caught up by the time they’re 15.

For Indigenous kids, the figure is even more despairing. It’s one in 17.

Only one in 17 Indigenous kids who fall behind at primary school catch up by year 9. 

The school reform agreement I am currently working on with the States and Territories is about doing something about this. 

Fixing funding for public schools and tying it to practical reforms.

Part of that is an evidence-based approach to teaching. It’s also about identifying kids early who are falling behind and intervening to provide the additional support they need.

Gillen Public School in Alice Springs is a good example of where you can see that working.

Children who need extra help come out of their regular class every day and get the extra help they need in a small group. Sometimes called catch-up tutoring.

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

There aren’t many parts of the country where there is more disadvantage than Central Australia. 

And this year for the first time ever, all 44 schools in Central Australia are fully funded, based on David Gonski’s Schooling Resource Standard. 

They are the first public schools in the country, outside the ACT, where we have done this.

And the early signs are positive.

The next step is fully funding all Northern Territory public schools and I have reached an agreement with the NT Government to do this. 

It means the worst funded public schools in the country will become the best funded.

It means doubling the investment the Commonwealth makes in Northern Territory public schools.

And it means bringing forward the day Northern Territory public schools are fully funded by more than 20 years. 

I have also done a deal with Western Australia to fully fund their public schools. 

I want to do the same right across the country. 

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 ever increase in Commonwealth funding to public schools.

Reform also doesn’t start in kindergarten or prep. It starts before that.

The draft report from the Productivity Commission into early education, last year, made the point that its kids from poor families who are the least likely to go to early childhood education and care and are the most likely to benefit from it.

One of the first things I did as the Minister for Education was boost the number of subsidised hours of early childhood education and care to families with Indigenous children to a minimum of 36 hours each week.

But again, that’s just the start. 

We will soon receive the Productivity Commission’s Final Report on early childhood education and care, which will help us build a better and fairer early education system. A universal early education system.

I’ve said many times that I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your mum and dad are or where you live or the colour of your skin.

But we are at the moment. 

Education has the potential to change that. 

That’s what drives me. 

That’s what drives everything I am doing, from early education to higher education. 

The Prime Minister talks about opening the doors of opportunity.

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

It makes us a fairer country, and a better one. 

It helps to turn the country that lives in our imagination, into something real. 

And you are a key part of that.

Thank you for everything you do and I hope you have a great conference.