Interview with Michelle Grattan – The Conversation Podcast – Wednesday 6 July 2022


MICHELLE GRATTAN: Education Minister, you’ve been on a listening tour around the country. What are the several main things that you’ve learned so far?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, Michelle. It’s great to be here. You’re right, I’ve been travelling all four corners of the country, meeting with vice‑chancellors at more than a dozen universities so far and more later in the week and more in the weeks ahead. Not just that, meeting with education ministers as well, getting into classrooms and child care centres. I think that’s the best way to get across this big vast portfolio that stretches from the education of our youngest children right through to the incredible work our post‑graduate, brilliant post‑graduate, people are doing in our universities.

What am I hearing? I get the impression that a lot of people are desperate for re‑engagement with the Government. There’s a real sense of relief in the wake of the election and a real desire to make contact with the Government and to work with the Government. What I’m talking about in this speech is a desire by me and the Albanese Government to work with our universities, not just our Vice‑Chancellors but everybody who works in our universities, and harness all of the skills and expertise that sit within our universities.

I don’t think we do enough of that at the moment. The pandemic should teach us something about all of the brilliance that sits within our universities. I don’t know if the former government truly knew or appreciated all of the work that was happening inside our universities, whether it was the deep science or whether it was trainee doctors and pharmacists vaccinating tens of thousands of Australians.

But I know it. I saw it. I saw university staff handing out food hampers for people in the peak of the pandemic as well. And if we can do it there, I know we can do it with all of the other big challenges that we confront, whether it’s climate, whether it’s nuclear submarines, whether it’s what we do to make sure that we educate our youngest Australians in the best possible way, set them up for success, what we do to look after our eldest Australians. How we tackle the big changes associated with the future of work, what our cities what look like ‑ all of those things. Our universities can help us answer those critical questions.

So that’s one of the things I’ve got out of that conversation. But it’s the big one: it’s that re‑engagement. We can achieve so much more in this country if we work together and one of those areas is universities and government working together.

GRATTAN: Well, following on from that, Labor’s promised an accord between universities and staff, unions, business and you said in your address to the Universities Australia Conference that you would be announcing in the next few months a small group of eminent Australians to lead that process. You’ve said that the process will look at funding and access, affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions, and also how universities and TAFEs and other vocational providers work together. Now, will this be a one-off inquiry or will it be a more permanent body and process?

CLARE: Think back to the work that Denise Bradley did over a decade ago, when Julia Gillard was in this chair as Education Minister and set Denise and a small team the task of putting together a blueprint for higher education for the decade. And Denise’s report is still a template for us to work on but it’s a decade old and I think with fresh eyes and fresh ideas we can ‑ we can identify the things we need to change and improve.

So, in essence, that’s what I see here. Denise and Julia set us a target. They said that “By 2020 we want 40 per cent of young Australians to have a university degree.” And we hit that target, it’s now more than 43 per cent. But there was another target in that report as well. She said that we should aim at 20 per cent of the students on our campuses by 2020 should come from a low socio‑economic background. At the time that was 15 per cent. It’s still there. We have failed to shift the dial there at all.

And so, one of the things I want this group of people to look at, and it’s in amongst that shopping list of issues that you just read out Michelle, is what do we need to do to shift the dial there? Because if, as the Vice‑Chancellor of La Trobe said today, that most of the jobs that are going to be created in the next five years are going to require a high school qualification plus more, a qualification from TAFE or university – I think it’s nine out of ten of the jobs created in the next five years, and most of those are university degrees, you are going to need a university degree to do it – then we need many, many more Australians to get those qualifications. If we don’t, then it’s kids like the child I was that are going to miss out. It’s communities like the one I represent in western Sydney that will be disadvantaged. It’s in our collective interest as a country to make sure that more people, wherever they live, whether their skin is black or white, whether their parents are rich or poor, get access to university and, when they get there, that they stay there and get a qualification. Now, we’re not doing everything that we can, or we need to, to hit that mark at the moment.

GRATTAN: So what do you see as the main barriers that we haven’t got as fast as it was hoped?

CLARE: Denise’s report had many good ideas about what we needed to do there, and I wonder why it hasn’t moved. I don’t have an immediate answer for it now. What I’m saying is I want it to move. I want this group, this eminent panel that makes up this accord, to help us answer that question because we can’t accept the status quo. If we continue to live in an economy where most of the jobs being created require a university education or a TAFE qualification, and more and more people, as a proportion of the population, don’t have them ‑ in some of those disadvantaged parts of Australia, then those communities are going to become more disadvantaged, you know entrenched disadvantage there.

I don’t think anybody wants to see that. So, there’s more work we need to do in helping young people get access to university. I’m conscious, Michelle, when I answer this question that all the answers don’t lie at the front door of the university; that it’s the work that we do long before someone’s old enough to go to university that’s critical here. But universities can help answer this question too.

What are the things we do from the age a child is born – and before – until they’re five that set them up for success. Because if we narrow the gap in opportunity there, the impact will be enormous, come university. But at the same time, if the data’s telling us that something like 70 per cent of people who walk in the door of a university come out with a degree and that percentage is lower if you’re from a poor background, if you’re from the regions or if you’re Indigenous, then that tells me that there’s more work that universities can and should do on their own campuses, in their own universities, to help to make sure that when a young person gets there, that they get through.

GRATTAN: Now, there’s been much criticism of the unfairness of Humanities students paying much more for their degrees than some other students, and this was the former government’s policy and there’s little evidence that that government’s policy, the so‑called Job‑ready Graduate policy, has, in fact, or is redirecting students into the fields of study that was intended. Are you prepared to reduce this disparity to do anything to give relief to these Humanities students?

CLARE: Well, this is one of the things I want the accord process to look at. When the former government put this in place they said that they would review it within 18 months. Well, it’s now 18 months.

GRATTAN: And there is a review underway, is there not, or is it just proposed to be?

CLARE: I’ve told the department I want the review to happen. It makes sense to me that this become part of this overarching accord process. This eminent group of individuals that I’ll put together over the next few months, I want them to look at this as well as the other questions we’re talking about here today.

I get it. I’m an arts/law graduate. And I understand that when somebody makes a decision, often in year 10, year 11 or year 12 about what they want to study when they get to university, they’re thinking about what excites them, what they’re passionate about, where they want to be in five or ten years’ time, not necessarily what the HECS debt is that they’re going to incur. So I want this group to look at all of these issues to make sure that we get the right answers.

The way this accord process works, and can work, is that we don’t need to necessarily wait for 12 or 18 months for one big report. It can report on an interim basis and provide us with interim advice, now. And that may very well be the case here.

GRATTAN: Now, Labor promised in the election campaign additional funding for student places, but the Chair of Universities Australia, John Dewar, has said today that the system still will be a minimum of some 19,000 places short in 2027, and that’s not taking into account future growth in the demand for highly skilled jobs. How will your government deal with that sort of shortfall and plan for it?

CLARE: Well, those 20,000 places are important to tackle the skill shortages that we are experiencing right across the economy right now.

GRATTAN: That’s the Labor places that are promised?

CLARE: That’s exactly right.


CLARE: Whether it’s teachers, nurses, engineers. Right across the economy, you can see the impact of borders being shut for two years, and employers desperate to find skilled workers to fill those gaps. And the investment now over the course of the next two calendar years in those 20,000 places ‑ 10 next year, 10 the year after ‑ is deliberately designed to help tackle that. But as you make the point, Michelle, and I know John did today, we have, just as the baby boomers are retiring, Peter Costello’s baby boom are hitting university, we’ve got to make sure that our university system is fit for purpose and designed for that.

Again, this is why the accord process is important. John’s identified issues that are going to hit us in five years’ time. Putting in place a group of eminent people to help advise us to set us up for the next decade is exactly what we need right now.

GRATTAN: He also made the point in passing that universities had, in fact, or some had been not paying their casuals properly. More generally, have universities in fact been bad employers in recent years? Have they relied too much on casual staff, and of course not paid them all what they should have?

CLARE: Look, I’m not in the business of bad-mouthing universities, but by the same token, we have seen examples of wage theft. We’re going to criminalise wage theft. There’s no excuse for that, whether it’s on campus or in a CBD amongst big Australian corporations. The industrial settings here are important and that’s why, in that shopping list that you read out before of what the accord will look at, in and amongst that is industrial relations, the way in which universities work with their staff amongst the many other important issues we need to look at.

GRATTAN: But there is this general point, if you have a university staff that’s too low level and too many casuals, you’re also affecting what your students get, aren’t you?

CLARE: And this is a challenge not just for universities but right across the economy. Casualisation or insecure work creates a multitude of challenges for Australians who are employed on that basis; be it the ability to get a mortgage or the ability to pay the rent. And getting that balance right, providing additional job security for Australians will be a key tenet of this Albanese Labor Government.

GRATTAN: Let’s talk about foreign students. Can you just give us a bit of a picture of the situation at the moment, compared to the pre-pandemic levels. What are the numbers at the moment and what’s the break‑up of nationalities compared to a few years ago. And following on from that, how will the government help to get foreign students back?

CLARE: That’s a big question, Michelle. The short answer is that international education was crushed by the pandemic. When the borders shut, that shut out students. There were also, unfortunately, some messages delivered by the former government telling people to go home. I saw it with my own eyes. Food charities, those charities, I talked about before, I talked about university employees handing out food hampers, guess who they were handing out food hampers to – international students.

This is an incredible national asset, extraordinarily important for the Australian economy. Before the pandemic worth something like $40 billion, now about half that. We’ve got to rebuild it. It’s important not just because of the money it makes us, but because of the goodwill that it provides for us. You know, if you study here and you love living here, that affection that you feel for the country you take home with you. And in the sort of environment that we live in in the world today, that counts for a lot. That soft power that international education offers Australia is a significant part of why this is so important.

This is the biggest export that we don’t dig out of the ground. So what does rebuilding look like? Look, you asked me about statistics. In ballpark terms, Chinese students represent about 28 per cent of international students.

GRATTAN: That’s now?

CLARE: That’s  now. This is current as at two months ago. Indian students 16 per cent; Nepalese students 9 per cent; Vietnamese students 4; Indonesian 3. So they’re the top five: China, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia. We’ve seen a market drop‑off in the number of Chinese students in the first quarter of this year, by and large, because of the Chinese Government’s attempt to get to COVID zero; lockdowns in different parts of China making it difficult for students to fly here; fewer international trips, international flights from China to Australia.

GRATTAN: You don’t think the Chinese Government is actively discouraging them?

CLARE: No. There’s no evidence of that. You see a similar trend in other countries. There are a significant number of Chinese students that are continuing their education with Australian universities online at the moment. That trend is different with India. We do have a challenge, Michelle, with a backlog of visa applications: international students hungry to get back to study here in Australia, particularly ahead of semester 2, and there’s work that we need to do there to assist in that processing task. I’ve asked my department secretary to work with the Department of Home Affairs to see what we can do to accelerate that.

GRATTAN: Are you getting more staff in to do that?

CLARE: There is already 100 extra staff that have been put on by the Department of Home Affairs in the last few weeks to tackle this task. It’s bigger than just higher education, but that’s an important part of it. The Indian Education Minister will hopefully be here next month. That’s a great opportunity to build a strong relationship with him, build on the foundations of what is already a strong relationship between our two countries in the area of international education. But there are opportunities to build that with other countries too, like Vietnam and Malaysia and Indonesia.

GRATTAN: So there is, however, another side to this coin, isn’t there, because before the pandemic many people worried that the universities had become too dependent on foreign students, and that fear was, in a way, vindicated when suddenly there weren’t the foreign students. Do you think they should be more cautious in the future in building up the proportion of foreign students they have?

CLARE: They’ve certainly got to get the balance right. And there is no homogenous answer to this because different universities have a different proportion of international students. Some universities have more from certain countries than others. And so if you look at our big capital cities, you will see universities that have a greater proportion of students from China. If you go to Charles Darwin University or James Cook, you see a totally different story. Charles Darwin, I met with a lot of Indian students who were there. At James Cook they’ve got a lot of students from Europe and from the US because if you want to be a marine biologist, where else would you go? I was at Central Queensland University in Gladstone a couple of weeks ago. They had students there from Bangladesh. So, each university is different.

I think the point I would make here is, as universities contemplate their own strategy for international education, they need to think about it not just in terms of what they offer to students who make the decision to travel to Australia, but what do you offer to that student who will never travel here but still wants an education from an Australian university, one that perhaps doesn’t have the money for the flight or the accommodation or the degree.

If we’re serious about diversification, we need to diversify what we offer. That means what we offer online. We’ve done a bit of that through COVID. What we offer offshore, and there are Australian universities who have campuses in key parts of the world right now.

GRATTAN: And you want to see more of those?

CLARE: I think so. This is the big mega trend here. Lots of people around the world keen for a high-quality university education who will never get to study here in Australia but would love a degree from an Australian university. We need to think afresh here about how we can, as a country, not just as a sector, capitalise on that opportunity.

GRATTAN: And you also want more foreign students to stay on and become part of the workforce later, and you’ve mentioned the role of the job summit in encouraging ideas about how this can be done. What are you thinking specifically here?

CLARE: I just think this is commonsense. If you’ve got incredibly bright human beings coming to study here in Australia, we teach them, we train them. They come and they get a degree from one of our universities. Wouldn’t it be good if they stayed a bit longer and helped us fill some of those chronic skill gaps in our economy? Now, maybe this conversation was different a couple of years ago when we didn’t have these gaps in our economy to the extent that we do now, but I do think a big part of the conversation of the job summit is going to be about skill shortages

You can’t have a conversation with a leader in Australian business or a journalist in the press gallery without talking about skill shortages and how we fix them. Now, one way is you train up Australians and, boy, do we need to do more of that. That’s what the free TAFE places in skills shortages area are for. That’s what those 20,000 extra places in our universities in the next two years are for.

A conversation also needs to take place about skilled migration. But here you have a group of thousands and thousands of highly qualified, highly skilled young people, predominantly young people, who’ve been living here for a couple of years, trained up, educated in Australia, who might be able to help us fill those gaps. So, I’m open to all of the ideas that people have to offer here. I won’t flag them in this podcast but I’m picking the brains of vice-chancellors about it now, Michelle, who’ve already given me a lot of food for thought and I want to put that on the table at the job summit and see what people think.

GRATTAN: But sometimes you get these students in and they get a degree but they end up in not the sort of skilled jobs you’re talking about. They end up as taxi drivers or in hospitality or whatever.

CLARE: And that is very true. You’ve got  international students here while they’re studying working in retail and hospitality. 

GRATTAN: Yes, but even afterwards.

CLARE: I’m talking about the sort of jobs where we’ve got chronic skills shortages. We talked before about teachers and nurses and engineers, the areas where people would be applying offshore for a skilled visa, where you’ve got those skilled workers here but they’re leaving after they finish studying. Now, if the evidence tells us that only 16 per cent of international students stay on long‑term after they’ve finished studying and that that number is considerably higher in some of the other countries that we normally compete with for international students, that should tell us that we need to have a close look at what we’re offering, what other countries are offering, and whether we can change some of the settings to take advantage of those skills for our economy.

GRATTAN: Well, one skill we’re obviously struggling with is the question of school teachers, and this has reached crisis proportion. But apart from trying to get more people into teaching, what should be done to retain those already there, and has the teaching environment really become very much a disincentive for many people because classes are very undisciplined, and people really have a very rough time during the school day if they’re trying to teach.

CLARE: Yeah, that’s a really good question, Michelle, because you made the point it’s not just about encouraging more young people to become teachers, it’s about what we do to encourage people to stay being teachers. In all the conversations I’ve had with educators that made this point to me time and time again: that people are feeling burnt out mid‑career and that they’re hanging up the boots and leaving teaching.

We’re expecting the shortage of teachers to get worse and worse in the years ahead, something like 4,000 teachers short of what we need by 2025. The biggest gaps are in maths and science at high school. I want this to be the feature of the next meeting that I have with state and territory education ministers when we meet in the next couple of weeks: to look at what different states are doing now, what’s working and what’s not, what else we need to do. We committed at the last election to an investment in bursaries, or scholarships, to encourage the best and brightest to become a teacher.

We can all think about that one teacher at school that changed our life. I’m sure people listening to this podcast are thinking in their mind about that man or woman right now; the one thing they said that made a difference in their life. I’m thinking about that person right now in my time at high school. There aren’t many jobs, there aren’t many careers more important than being a teacher, and it worries me deeply that people are feeling like, whether it’s the work they have to do outside the classroom to prepare for class or any of the other things that cause people to feel like they’re going to throw in the towel, that we’re losing this talent too early.

Now, there’s been some good work that’s been done by Lisa Paul. The former government commissioned Lisa to come up with a set of recommendations principally around Initial Teacher Education. I think there’s more work that needs to be done out of some of her recommendations, but more particularly, to answer to your question about retention. So, without giving away the answers to that today, because I think they’re complex, I want to work with state and territory ministers around the country when we meet next to see what we can do in a very practical way to help here.

GRATTAN: Should they be paid a lot more?

CLARE: Well, again, I’m not going to give away too much, Michelle. I know you’re leading me down that path.

GRATTAN: I’m sure a lot of them would be very interested in the answer.

CLARE: This is what a friend said to me. He said, “It’s not all about the money.” Now that, Michelle, that doesn’t mean money’s not important. It is. But he said, “Jason, you need to look at this in the full context of the work that I do; the work I do in the classroom and the work I do outside the classroom before and after the paperwork that I have to fill in, the way in which my profession is treated and respected in the broader community.”  

GRATTAN: Now, before the election in 2019, the Federal Government review of needs‑based funding made it clear that state school funding needs were not being met and the system lacked transparency. Is Labor still committed to achieving funding for all schools up to the Gonski‑based schooling resource standard because I don’t think you actually were firm about that before this election.

CLARE: What we said before the election, and the Prime Minister talked about this at the Press Club and Tanya Plibersek made this point on Insiders before the election, is that we want to put all Australian schools on a pathway to full and fair funding. Now, the mechanism to do that resides with the conversation I need to now have with state and territory ministers. And so, it’s been a part of the conversations I’ve had as I’ve tiptoed across the country meeting with education ministers in all corners of the country now. The existing agreement wraps up at the end of next year. So before then we need to work together on how we get there, how we make sure that we get all Australian schools to that, that original standard that was set by David Gonski.

GRATTAN: So you are committed to doing that?

CLARE: We need to do it, we need to set ourselves up on a path to get there. It’s how we do that.

GRATTAN: And when?

CLARE: And when. What it involves that I think is the big challenge here ‑‑

GRATTAN: Is there any …

CLARE: And those conversations have just begun.

GRATTAN: Is there any commitment on the when?

CLARE: Well, again, Michelle, you’re asking me to commentate on conversations I’m having with individual ministers and that we’ll have as a team. We’ll work that out in the context of all those conversations that will take place over the next 12 months or so.

GRATTAN: Now just finally on the research front, you’ve announced an independent review of the Australian Research Council to improve the whole grants process. What problems need to be addressed here?

CLARE: There was a Senate inquiry that had a look at this and one of the recommendations that came out of it was an independent review of the governance and the processes that underpin the ARC. Two big complaints that, if you do a quick Google here, you’ll see come up. Whether they’re from academics or they’re from commentators, and that is that there’s nothing more frustrating than when a grant that is supposed to be determined by a set date isn’t. 

We’re trying ‑ and this is not a partisan point because I think this view is the same on both sides of the Parliament ‑ we want universities, we want researchers to collaborate with business, with industry. What does business want? Certainty. They want us to stick to timetables because time means money. And on too many occasions when grant decisions are supposed to have been made, they’ve been late. And if you’re a university ‑ a university Vice‑Chancellor said to me the other day, “It means that some of our staff move on to another job.” So, if you’re concerned about the retention of your staff and their ability to pay the bills, timeliness is important.

The other is political interference and we’ve had examples of that where we’ve had ministers interfering in the decision making process.

GRATTAN: Do you commit not to overdo that? 

CLARE: What we’ve said, and there was a conversation in the context of that inquiry around the veto, Labor governments have never interfered to veto grants. The only exception I could ever imagine to that would be on the grounds of national security. What you don’t want from the minister is that sort of reckless political interference. What a minister is supposed to do is make sure the ARC is set up to succeed; that we appoint the right people; that its governance framework is strong; that we get more transparency and improve the processes of the ARC to make it easier for people to apply, and make sure that when you do apply and you are successful, you get those results in the timeframe that you expect them to be delivered, not have to wait some months afterwards. 

GRATTAN: You mentioned national security and let me, therefore, ask you a postscript question. The former government was very worried about Chinese influence in universities and through research collaboration, et cetera, and put in place processes to deal with that. Do you think it has now been adequately dealt with and there’s not a problem, or are you still alert and alarmed about that? 

CLARE: There’s always more work to do here. Anybody that says that everything is set and forget, is not giving you a full and proper answer. There’s good work that’s been done by the PJCIS, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security. They put together a report on this only recently at the end of the last Parliament. And my department as well as DFAT and other elements of government have been collaborating with the university sector on those recommendations that came out of that report. Some good recommendations that we’re working together with the sector on, and we’ll respond to that important report in the near future.

GRATTAN: Jason Clare, thank you very much for talking with us today and outlining your ideas. It will be very interesting to watch over the next few months how it all works out. That’s the end of today’s podcast. Thank you to my producer, Ellen Duffy. We’ll be back with another interview soon but goodbye for now.