Radio Interview with Patricia Karvelas – RN Breakfast – Wednesday 22 February 2023


SUBJECTS: Universities Accord; Education reforms; International students; Post-study work rights

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Since the 1800s, the sandstone quadrangles at institutions like the University of Sydney or the University of Melbourne haven’t really changed. But what’s happening inside those corridors is drastically different and shifting quickly. So are universities and TAFEs able to keep up with the demands to move with the times? Well, there are some major gaps that the government is looking to fix through its Universities Accord, and the Education Minister, Jason Clare, joins us this morning. Minister, welcome to Breakfast.


KARVELAS: You’re releasing a discussion paper today. You’ve already outlined and budgeted some priorities, like creating free places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and more spots in TAFE. So, what’s in the paper? What is the purpose of the paper?

CLARE: We’ve got great universities providing a great education for Australians. The evidence of how good they are is students come from all around the world to study here. We’re the centre of extraordinary research as well, world-class research. The real purpose of this is, what do we need to do to set our universities up for the future?

If we jumped in a time machine and went back 50 years, we’re a very different country, very different university system, very few universities. Only a lucky few Australians went to university. Today, almost one in two young Australians have a university degree, and we’re told that nine out of 10 jobs that will be created in the decades ahead are going to require you to either go to uni or to TAFE.

So, our university system is going to get only more important in the decades to come. This is the first big review of our higher education system since Julia Gillard asked Denise Bradley to do this work 15 years ago. At its core, it’s about what do we need to do now and in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years, to set our education system, our higher education system, up for success.

KARVELAS: You mentioned that last review 15 years ago. That called for a target of 40 per cent of the public attending university, which we’ve surpassed, and breaking down barriers of access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, too. So, what’s the next step? What sort of outcome would you like to see from this review?

CLARE: We certainly hit that target that Denise set for us, that 40 per cent of young people in their twenties and thirties have a university degree, but she also set equity targets for us about the proportion of young people from poor backgrounds that go to university, and we failed on that front. We didn’t meet those targets.

I said a moment ago that almost 50 per cent of young people have a university degree today, but only 20 per cent of Aussies from poor families, only 20 per cent of Australians from the regions, only 7 per cent of Australians from an Indigenous background. Now, I’m not naive. You can’t fix all of this at the university gate, but you can do some real things here, but it’s got to go back further into the school system, and even further back than that into our early education system.

This is one of three big pieces of work this year. The most comprehensive review of early education and care in Australia’s history that we’re kicking off next month. The changes that we need to make to school education to make sure that we’re targeting funding to help children who are falling behind. And then this review here.

I don’t want us to be a country, Patricia, where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. The awful truth is that’s where we are today and we’ve got a chance with all of this work to try and fix this.

KARVELAS: The Morrison Government made drastic changes to university course fees. Humanities degrees became much more expensive while some STEM fees were cut. The then Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek, said pushing up fees only makes it harder for students to go to uni. Now you’re in government, will you reverse the humanities degree decision?

CLARE: This review is looking at that, amongst many other things. You’re right, it pushed up the cost of some courses like arts degrees and law degrees. It cut the cost of other degrees as well. The motivating factor behind that was to try to encourage students to study things where we’ve got skill shortages. The early evidence is that hasn’t worked, that it hasn’t incentivised or encouraged students to shift from one course to another. And that’s really not surprising because you pick a subject based on what you love, what you’re passionate about, what you want to do. HECS plays a role in this as well because there’s no upfront cost here. It’s something that you pay down the track. So, what changes we need to make to this, to make this work better, is a core part of what the Accord team is looking at.

KARVELAS: And what sort of timeframe are we talking about for having a look at the cost of those humanities degrees?

CLARE: An interim report will come to us in June and then a final report in December. I guess, one other point, we’ve touched on this briefly before, Patricia, but it’s what are the sorts of things that will encourage someone to become a teacher or to become a nurse?

One of the things that’s in the Budget is funding for bonded scholarships, to encourage some of our best and brightest students to burst out of high school and want to be a teacher rather than a banker. I’m sure there’s lots of people listening today who work in our universities or are teachers who might have been the recipients of a bonded scholarship in decades past. It can help with those upfront costs at university and the quid pro quo is, we’ll help you with your education, we need you to work in our school system and help us to improve the outcomes for children that are falling behind.

KARVELAS: Let’s turn to the other big part of the education system, and that’s international students. The number of international students enrolled in universities will reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2025. Those students bring in a lot of money, but considering how under-resourced universities are, will they be able to cope with a serious funding injection from the Government? I mean, without one, how can you build this market, given it’s being – we’re being kind of outpaced, aren’t we, by other economies at the moment? We’re not, we’re not actually keeping up.

CLARE: Countries like the UK and Canada are eating our lunch. When the borders were shut and when the last government told international students to go home, there was an impact. International education was kneecapped by the pandemic and by those decisions. But at the same time as numbers here were dropping, in the UK they were going up, in Canada they were going up. You’re right, the predictions are that we won’t be back to pre-pandemic levels of international students until the end of 2025. In other countries, they’re already past that.

This is the biggest export that we don’t dig out of the ground. It doesn’t just make us money, it makes us friends. And in the world we live in, that is crucially important. So, we’ve done some good things to rebuild the sector. The processing time for visas is much, much shorter than it was when we won the election last year. Instead of 40 days to get a visa, it’s now 12.

But we’ve also got to do more to encourage students to come and study here. That’s why yesterday I announced that if you’re coming to study engineering, for example, an area where we’ve got a chronic skill shortage, where businesses are screaming out for skilled workers, then we’ll give you more time to work here in Australia once you graduate. So instead of two years after you graduate it would be four years, or if you do a PhD in an area where we desperately need your skills, you’ll be able to work here for six years rather than four. They’re the sort of practical things that can help to make us a competitive option for students who are looking around the world for where to study.

KARVELAS: So what’s the future for international students beyond the next 10 and 20 years? Is this a market that will just keep going for us?

CLARE: That’s a good question, Patricia. We’ve got to rethink this. Our competitors at the moment are places like Canada and the US and the UK, but what is it going to look like in 10 or 20 years? At the moment, seven of the top 100 universities in the world are in China. Asian universities are becoming research powerhouses. All of that means that this could be very, very different. What we offer in the future to international students could be very different. We’ve got to think about that, plan for it. We got to think about what we offer online and what we offer offshore. I’m heading to India next week with 11 vice chancellors, sort of a cricket team of vice chancellors, there to talk to the Indian Government about the opportunities for Australian universities to set up more campuses there. Talk about the challenge we’ve got in Australia of making sure that more Australians get qualifications, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of young Indians getting vocational and higher education qualifications over the next few years. They want our help, and I think it’s in the interest of Australian universities and TAFEs and vocational providers to see what we can do to help there, too.

KARVELAS: So given the timeframes here of when you’re going to get this report back, does this mean next year’s Budget is when we’re likely to see some more substantial reforms to higher education?

CLARE: I think that’s right. It’ll depend on what’s in the interim report that we see in June and what we can take action on now. The final report will give us more substantial recommendations that we need to act on next year. Next year is really going to be the start of implementation, but what I’m encouraging the Accord team to think about is the sort of questions, what do we need to do now? What do we need to do next year? Where do we need to be by 2030? What proportion of Australians, young Australians, need to have a university degree by 2030? I said that we’ve almost got half of young Australians with a uni degree now. The Poms have got much more than that. Other countries are already beating us there. And then, what does 2040 look like? These are reforms that have got to be implemented in stages. We won’t be able to do everything straight away, but I’ll say tonight, at a conference for university leaders, my six-year-old child has been playing Hamilton non-stop in the car and at home over the last few months. There’s a song at the end of it where Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. That’s what real long-term reform is about. It’s about making decisions now that are going to make a difference, not just for tomorrow, but for the day after that and the decade after that. And that’s what I want this review to deliver.

KARVELAS: I love that you listen to the Hamilton songs thinking about university reform. Minister, thank you so much.

CLARE: Yeah, I’m a bit of a nerd, sorry.

KARVELAS: Clearly. Thank you so much for joining us.

CLARE: Thanks, PK.

KARVELAS: Education Minister Jason Clare there.