Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) 7th Annual Conference – Reshaping Higher Education

** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY **

Thank you very much.

I start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I also want to acknowledge the Chief Commissioner of TEQSA, Professor Peter Coaldrake AO.

Peter, thank you for your wisdom and your generous advice in my first 18 months in this job. I really appreciate it. 

I also acknowledge the Acting CEO of TEQSA, Dr Mary Russell and thank you for the work that you are doing.  

We have some of the best universities in the world.

The rankings, the research and the people it produces are proof of that.

But good universities are not just about rankings, they are about students.

And they can’t be places of privilege. They have got to be places of opportunity.

And while universities are autonomous and self-governing, how they are governed, has a real impact on not just them and their staff and students, but on our whole country. 

That’s why the role TEQSA plays is so crucial.

It’s why effective regulation and quality assurance is important.

And why this conference is important, bringing all of us together to share ideas and talk about all the big issues that confront us.

I can see from yesterday’s program, and today’s, that one of those is AI.

I want to thank the team at TEQSA for the work they are doing here, particularly around how what students learn and understand is assessed in the age of generative AI.

Most of us can remember people knocking on the door trying to flog encyclopedias.

That all went the way of the dodo when the internet arrived. This is just as big a disruptive force.

Just like the pandemic forced us to rethink the way we learn, this is requiring us to rethink the way we assess what you teach.

It’s bigger than that though. This has the potential to transform the way we work. The way every profession you prepare people for will work.

And that’s what makes coming to grips with this so important.

Another thing that’s obvious from looking at the program is the focus on reform. That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

I said a moment ago good universities aren’t just about rankings, they are about students. And nothing is more important than their safety.

That’s why in the wake of the events on October 7, I wrote to every university asking what steps they were taking to help keep students safe.

And why from the very first speech I made as Minister I have talked about the scourge of sexual violence and harassment and what we have to do about it.

I know this isn’t just a problem in our universities. 

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

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

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

The Accord team called this out in their Interim Report as an area where urgent work is needed.

And since then a lot has happened.

A Working Group, led by my department and made up of representatives of every State and Territory has been set up.

It also includes Patty Kinnersley, the CEO of OurWatch and an expert in the prevention of violence against women.

They have been working with universities, with student leaders and survivor advocates like End Rape on Campus, STOP and Fair Agenda.

On Tuesday Education Ministers around the country were briefed by Ms Kinnersly and some of these advocates.

And yesterday we released the Working Group’s draft Action Plan.

It includes a proposal to establish an independent National Student Ombudsman.

The draft Action Plan sets out the sort of investigation and dispute resolution powers the Ombudsman could have.

They include:

  • The authority to consider whether the decisions and actions taken by providers are wrong, unjust, unlawful, discriminatory or unfair.
  • The ability to respond to a complaint while a provider is still considering the issue if in the Ombudsman’s view the provider is not proceeding with sufficient focus and urgency.
  • The power to recommend that the Vice-Chancellor, Chief Executive or leader of a provider takes specific administrative steps, and
  • The capacity to offer a restorative engagement process between the student and the provider.

It also suggests an Annual Report to Parliament that will report on the numbers and types of complaints and the actions of providers in response to recommendations.

The next step is broader consultation on this draft design, and that will take place over the next few weeks.

Change is coming.

I want to thank Universities Australia for the Charter on Sexual Harm they released last week.

I want to thank TEQSA who have backed the idea of an Ombudsman.

But most importantly, I want to thank the brave young women who have fought for this. For years, and years.

The truth is they are the change makers.

Next week will also see another change that is long overdue.

Next week I intend to introduce legislation to reform the Australian Research Council.

I am sure you are all too familiar with the political interference, the Ministerial vetoes and delays, that have undermined the independence of the ARC in the last decade.

This also has to change.

I want to get the politics and the politicians out of it.

That’s why I asked Professor Margaret Sheil to lead the first review of the ARC Act in 20 years.

Margaret led this work with Professor Susan Dodds and Professor Mark Hutchinson.

And they handed me their report earlier this year.

It recommends the establishment of an independent ARC Board that, instead of the Minister, will be responsible for the approval of grants within the National Competitive Grants Program.

The Minister will be responsible for setting the grant guidelines, but to make sure this power isn’t misused, these guidelines will be a disallowable legislative instrument.

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

After me I can see on the program there is a session on the Universities Accord.

I don’t want to steal Professor O’Kane’s thunder, but I just want to make a couple of important points as we all await the Final Report with bated breath.

First, thank you Mary. The drive and passion you have applied to this task has been extraordinary. I am so glad you said yes to this herculean task.

Second, I want to thank everyone who has been part of this. Everyone who has turned up to a meeting, written an oped or an article, made a speech or made a submission.

This is the biggest and broadest review of higher education in 15 years.

But not just that, it is one part of an even bigger piece of work.

And it will only work if we make the reforms we need to make in school education and before that in early education.

That’s why there are big reviews going on in those areas as well – all at the same time.

Think about them as three carriages in the one train. All interconnected. All part of getting us to the one destination.

The Productivity Commission will release its draft report on early education tomorrow and we will get their final report in the middle of next year.

The review into school education led by Dr Lisa O’Brien will be considered by Education Ministers as we work together to strike a deal next year to finish the work started more than a decade ago by David Gonski – to get all schools to their full and fair funding level. 

And at the end of this year I will also receive the Accord team’s final report.

Together they will form a blueprint for a better and a fairer education system for the next decade and beyond.

Right now we are implementing all the recommendations in the Accord Interim Report.

That includes, doubling the number of university study hubs, abolishing the despised 50 per cent pass rule and the extension of the demand driven system to all Indigenous students.

Some of the ideas floated in the Interim Report have also been picked up in the Employment White Paper the Treasurer released a few weeks ago.

That includes scoping the idea of a National Skills Passport and work to consider how paid placements could work for teaching and nursing students.

That work is happening right now.

I have also given the Accord team another job to do.

Education Ministers recently agreed that we want the Accord team to give us their advice on the issue of early university offers.

At the moment there are different rules in different parts of the country.

Some people love them. Some people hate them. Some teachers say it causes students to take their foot off the pedal. Some universities tell me they are worried about other universities poaching their best and brightest.

Education Ministers have told me they want a standard national approach. So expect to see something about that in the Final Report.

As you’ve heard me say before, we can’t do everything. We can’t fund everything.

There are always going to be more good ideas than there is money to fund them.

Inevitably, we are going to have to make some tough choices.

That’s why I have asked the Accord team to think about how reform could or should be staged or prioritised.

To develop a plan that’s not just about one budget, but that can be implemented over the course of the next decade and beyond.

Something that will take time to implement, but something that will also outlast us.

Lasting reform.

That will help set us up with the skills we need for the future.

That will help break down some of those artificial barriers that have been cemented in for decades between vocational and higher education.

That will help to make sure we’ve got a higher education system that is focussed more on students than rankings.

And most importantly, that will give more Australians a crack at university.

To take us closer to that country where your chances in life don’t depend on who your parents are, where you live or the colour of your skin.

The sort of thing that only a better and a fairer education system can make real.

That’s the opportunity I want us to grasp. That’s the long-term plan we have a chance to build together and start to implement together next year.

Thank you very much.

ENDS