Universities Australia Gala Dinner – Canberra

Thanks David.

Can I also thank Luke Sheehy, the CEO of Universities Australia.

Congratulations on the new gig. 

I know you are going to do a great job, and I am really looking forward to working with you. 

I also want to thank Catriona Jackson. This is a big job. And a hard one. And you did it with distinction.

We are all going to miss you, and I really hope we see you in another role in higher education in the not too distant future. 

I want to acknowledge Professor David Lloyd. A good man and a great leader. 

The unflappable Secretary of the Department of Education, Tony Cook. 

The extraordinary Professor Mary O’Kane AC, and I will have more to say about Mary a little later. 

The Shadow Minister for Education, Senator Sarah Henderson. 

The Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, Commissioners, CEOs and all the higher education leaders here tonight. 

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

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

That’s real. 

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, as I stand here and recognise the Traditional Owners of this land, I also recognise that there is a mountain of work to do. 

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. 

The first time I spoke at this dinner I told you a little about me and what drives me. 

I spoke about the power of education to change lives. 

How it changed the lives of the kids I went to school with.  And how it changed mine.  

I told you how I was the first person in my family to finish Year 10. 

After I finished Year 10, I got a part time job collecting shopping trollies in the car park at Fairfield Woolies. 

That car park isn’t there anymore. 

Today it’s the site of Western Sydney University’s new Fairfield Connect. A university study hub. 

It opened on the weekend. 

And that’s where I released the Universities Accord Final Report.

I still remember that 15-year-old kid in that car park. Shoving shopping trollies together and trying not to crash them into parked cars. 

In that summer of ’87, this building still hadn’t opened. The Berlin Wall still hadn’t fallen. Tik Tok was just what clocks did. 

There were still only three Star Wars movies. And one of the greatest albums of all time had just come out.  Of course, I mean Guns and Roses Appetite for Destruction.  You know it’s true. 

Back then the percentage of people in Fairfield with a uni degree was about a third of what it was across the rest of the country.

Not much has changed.

Today the percentage of people in Fairfield with a uni degree is about half the national average.

And that, at its core, is what the Accord is about.

About changing that. 

And that’s why I released it there. 

The fundamental point it makes is that while demand for university places is pretty flat at the moment, and will be for the next few years, it won’t stay that way forever. 

Over the next quarter of a century, the fact is we are going to need more teachers, more nurses, more doctors, more ICT workers, more engineers than we have today. 

The fastest growing parts of the economy will be in jobs that require a university degree. 

Think about this.

One in two jobs created today require a uni degree. 

90 per cent require a uni degree or a VET qualification.

That means if we want this country to be everything we think it can be, if we want to be stronger, and better and fairer than we are today, if we want help small business expand and new ideas take root, if we want a future made in Australia, we have to make those skills here. 

Under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating the percentage of young people finishing high school jumped from about 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent.

That is nation changing stuff.

Now think about this.

The Universities Accord says that in the world that lies ahead, we are going to need a workforce where 80 per cent have a TAFE qualification or a uni degree.

That’s no easy task. 

If we are going to do this, it says, we have to break down two big barriers.

One of those barriers is invisible. The other is artificial. Both of them are fundamental to building the skills we need. 

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

And what this report says is we are not going fix the skills shortages we have, and will have, unless they are more integrated.

Unless they work more closely together. 

Unless we fix things like recognition of prior learning and the Australian Qualifications Framework.

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

There are already things happening to break down this artificial barrier.

In the Treasurer’s Employment White Paper we kicked off work on the development and design of a National Skills Passport.

In the National Skills Agreement that Brendan O’Connor struck last year, the Commonwealth and the States are investing about $650 million to establish up to 20 Centres of Excellence, places where TAFEs and unis come together. Where you can get a certificate, a diploma or a degree. 

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

What it calls an Australian Tertiary Education Commission. 

And to help more people re-skill and upskill quickly, particularly where we have skills shortages, it recommends some major changes to how we fund, accredit and recognise microcredentials.

The second barrier, the invisible barrier, is the one that explains why 69 per cent of young people from wealthy families have a uni degree, and only 19 per cent from very poor families do. 

This is not just a barrier to university. It’s a barrier to any type of tertiary qualification. 

The Accord peels away any misconception that it’s okay if kids from poor families don’t get a crack at uni, they all go to TAFE.

87 per cent of young people from wealthy families have a TAFE or uni qualification.  

Only 59 per cent of young people from poor families do. 

In other words, more than 40 per cent of people from poor families don’t have the sort of qualifications that almost everyone is going to need in the years ahead.

In a world like that, closing this gap is more important than ever.

This brings us back to Fairfield.

A lot of those young people live in places like that.  

What the Accord says is if we are going to build the skills we need, if we are going to get at least 80 per cent of the workforce with a tertiary qualification, that change has to happen there, in places like that. 

That means the sort of reform that breaks down the barriers that stop more young people from places like Fairfield getting a chance to go to university, and succeed when they get there. 

And not just them. Kids from regional Australia too. 

Bringing university closer to them is part of that. 

I know that. A lot of people I grew up with just felt like university was somewhere else for someone else. 

That’s why study hubs like the one in Fairfield are important. 

That’s why over the next 12 to 18 months we will set up 34 university hubs in the regions and the suburbs. It’s part of breaking down that invisible barrier. 

But that’s just the start. 

The Accord recommends a new dedicated outreach program and better careers advice in and outside schools.

The expansion of fee-free university prep courses to help more people get the foundation skills they need to go to university.

A guaranteed place at university for all students who come from poor backgrounds and from the regions, who qualify for the course they want to do.

Just like we did last year for Indigenous students. 

And a new needs-based funding system, that gives students from poor backgrounds, and students who study in the regions and the bush the extra academic and support services they need when they get to university to help make sure they complete their degree.

And bonuses for universities that hit agreed completion targets. 

There are also a bunch of recommendations to help tackle some of the financial barriers that can stop students from studying. 

Things like the cost of mandatory unpaid work placements.

It recommends payments to teaching, caring and nursing students while they do their prac – tackling the burden of placement poverty, which so many students go through.

It also recommends changes to HELP to make it fairer and simpler, and moving towards a student contribution system based on potential lifetime earnings, and a new Jobs Broker to help students find part time work while they are at university in areas relevant to their field of study.

Not that there is anything wrong with collecting trollies at Woolies or cooking cheese toast at Sizzler. I can attest to that.

But none of this will work on its own. 

Before we have any chance of getting more young people from poor families and from the regions into university, we need more to finish school. 

And in the last five years that has gone backwards. 

Not everywhere. It’s dropping in our public schools.

It’s dropped from 83 per cent to 76 per cent over the last six years.

And it’s dropping amongst poor kids.

In 2017, 76 per cent of students from poor families completed high school.

Now it is 70 per cent.

If we want to turn that around, we need to do a better job of helping young people who fall behind to catch up.

Because they are the ones who aren’t finishing school. 

And at the moment, if you are a child from a poor family or from the regions you are three times more likely to be that child, who falls behind. 

Most of those children who fall behind when they are little never catch up. But they could. 

Part of fixing that is funding all of our schools properly, and tying that funding to things that work. 

That’s what the next National School Reform Agreement I am working on right now is about. 

But even before that, we need to help the children who start behind at school to get a better start. 

The children who are least likely to go to early education and the most likely to benefit from it. 

In other words, we need a better and a fairer education system. 

The Accord is just one part of it.

And over the coming months the government will work through it in detail and determine what needs to be done first. 

There is a lot in it. 

It’s a blueprint not for one budget but for the next few decades. 

As I have said a number of times, we can’t do everything at once. We have got to stage this.

This is a long-term plan, but we have got to start now.

And that means prioritising what we think is most important.

Just on that, the first speech I made at this Gala Dinner I didn’t just talk about my story.

I talked about one in six university students who have been sexually harassed and one in 20 sexually assaulted.  

I talked about how we need to make sure everyone who works or studies or lives in our universities are safe and feel safe. 

And the onus is on all of us to make that happen.

A lot has happened since then.

On Friday, I announced we would establish an independent National Student Ombudsman to investigate and resolve disputes and give students a stronger voice when the worst happens.

I will introduce legislation to make this a reality and it will start its work next year.

In that first speech I also talked about the politics and political interference that has bedevilled the Australian Research Council and promised to fix that too. 

And I am. 

Legislation to do that is in the Senate right now and will hopefully be voted on soon and become law. 

It’s a chance to get the politics and the politicians out of the ARC.

The Universities Accord zeroes in on research too.

It makes a number of recommendations to build on our world-class research capability.

And it also makes a number of recommendations to improve teaching in our universities including professional learning and teaching standards and minimum teaching qualifications.

There are not many things it doesn’t touch on.

And I want to take this opportunity in front of you, the people who will play an indispensable role in its implementation, to pay a special thanks to the incomparable Professor Mary O’Kane AC. 

Those of you who are privileged to know Mary, know she is above politics.

She is above reproach.

And above all, she is an extraordinary human being.

And if this is the blueprint for higher education for the next few decades, then Mary O’Kane is the architect.

Thank you, Mary, from the bottom of my heart.

And thank you to all the members of the Accord panel:

  • The Hon Jenny Macklin AC
  • Ms Shemara Wikramanayake
  • Professor Barney Glover AO
  • Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO
  • The Hon Fiona Nash
  • Mr Ben Rimmer

And can I thank everyone here too.

Everyone who wrote a submission, attended a meeting, wrote an op ed or even a tweet.

I asked for your ideas, and I am so grateful for them.

I have told you before, I want to be a harvester of good ideas and I hope you can see I meant it.

None of us are here forever. Not even Vice Chancellors.

But we have a chance in the next few years to start the work on something that will outlast us.

To plant seeds in a garden we don’t get to see.

The O’Kane reforms.

Remember that 80 percent target in the Accord.

A workforce where 80 percent have a tertiary qualification.

If that’s right, the percentage of young people in that workforce with a tertiary qualification will be even higher.

More likely 90 percent, or more.

They 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 30s and TAFE or uni in the 40s.

And we have to be ready for them.

The country they will inherit is counting on us.

They are counting on us.

And that, more than anything else, is what the Accord is all about.

Thank you very much.