Doorstop Interview – Fairfield – Saturday 5 August 2023


SUBJECTS: Western Sydney University Fairfield Connect announcement; Universities Accord; School funding; HECS-HELP system; University access and affordability; University Study Hubs; Scholarships for teaching students; Voice to Parliament; ACECQA review into child safety.

JENNIFER WESTACOTT, WESTERN SYDNEY UNIVERSITY CHANCELLOR: Good morning everyone. My name is Jennifer Westacott, I’m the Chancellor of Western Sydney University and it’s wonderful to be here today with Jason Clare, the Minister for Education, our Vice‑Chancellor Barney Glover, Chris Bowen the Federal Member here and David Saliba our State member.

Today the University’s announcing an important new initiative here in Fairfield called Fairfield Connect. This will be a phase one initiative that’s been designed specifically for the Fairfield community. It will be about upskilling people rapidly to access high skilled jobs. It will focus on adult literacy, flexible study options, fast‑tracking access to the University’s college. It will also provide support for small and medium enterprises, for entrepreneurs and it’s really about giving Fairfield an opportunity to access high skilled jobs by rapidly upskilling people.

This is a new and innovative model of delivering education here in Fairfield. The University’s tremendously excited to get behind this community to deliver options that are going to be groundbreaking across Australia.

With that let me hand over to Chris Bowen.

CHRIS BOWEN, MEMBER FOR MCMAHON: Thank you. Thanks very much, Chancellor. This is a great day, a great day for Fairfield, a great day for Western Sydney.

Western Sydney Uni has been a very important part of our community for a long time in Western Sydney. But there’s been a hole. There’s been a gap. And that has been a presence here in Fairfield City. Fairfield City is a home to 200,000 Australians. Many of whom have come from overseas. Many of whom are first in their family to go to university or have never had anybody in their family go to university. And Western Sydney Uni has a very important role to play in Fairfield’s future.

In Fairfield, and in my electorate of McMahon actually, we have a higher-than-average proportion of people finishing Year 12. But we have a much lower average proportion of people going to university. If we had the same university results in my electorate as is the case across Australia with university attainment, there would today be 17,000 more university graduates across our country.

That is skills that Australia is missing out on and today we take the first step to fix it. You know, you can’t be what you can’t see. And what I’m so excited about today is that this new learning centre will be so prominent and high profile in Fairfield. It’s not just about the uni students who will go there and study and learn and have lectures and engage in Western Sydney Uni, and I’m sure other uni students will be welcome there as well. It’s about the four and five‑year‑old walking past, the ten and twelve-year-old walking past who sees in many instances, for the first time in their life, a university presence.

University is not something that you have to get on the train and go to for hours away. It is here in our community. That five or six‑year‑old or 10 or 11‑year‑old will start thinking, “Maybe that’s an option for me. Maybe that’s something I can do. I know my Mum and Dad didn’t go to uni. I know nobody else in my family’s been to uni, but maybe with this here, this is for me.”

So this is an exciting day. I want to thank the Chancellor and Vice‑Chancellor for their engagement. It is possible that I have made a complete pain of myself to them over the last period arguing for Fairfield to be the centre of a University of Western Sydney campus. Arguing that Fairfield has been missing out. But they have listened, and they have responded.

I also want to thank Dave Saliba who is a University of Western Sydney graduate himself who is a passionate advocate for our area and has supported this campaign. And I want to thank my mate and Canberra flatmate, the Minister for Education, who has made fairer university access the talisman of his tenure as Federal Education Minister. Who has made his number one, two and three priority opening up all the avenues of opportunity in our great country for everyone, regardless of your income, regardless of your postcode, regardless of your ethnicity, to say every single Australian, whether you are the son of a brain surgeon on Sydney’s North Shore or the daughter of an Indigenous single parent, you have the same right to grow to your full potential, to be invested in by your country. That is what this Education Minister is doing, one, two and three as his priorities.

So this is stage one. This is a great start, a fantastic start, and I know it’s going to grow and build and be better with the support of me, David, Jason. It is going to be a very important part of Fairfield’s future. I’m delighted to join Jason and the Chancellor and the Vice‑Chancellor to announce this today, and I’m very much looking forward to 2024 being the year of delivery.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, everyone. I said to Chris when I got here that my first job when I finished Year 10 was collecting shopping trolleys at Woolies here in Fairfield on the same location where I’m back here as Education Minister in this job, to be part of the announcement opening up this university study hub.

To see that change that’s happening in Fairfield now is not just amazing, it’s fantastic. And it will change the lives of kids growing up in Fairfield, just like Chris and I did many, many, too many years ago.

When I was a little kid, when Chris and I were little kids here in Fairfield not many people went to uni. Not many people had university degrees, less than 10 per cent of the population in the 70s had a university degree. Not everyone finished school. I remember when I finished Year 10 and went off to work at Woolies, when I came back to school half the class wasn’t there, they hadn’t come back to finish Year 12. That’s now changing. Chris talked about that, how more and more people are finishing high school. But not everyone’s going off to university.

About one in two young Australians in their 20s and their 30s today has a university degree but not here, not in Fairfield. It’s less than one in four. We’ve got to change that.

The Universities Accord Interim Report that I released the other day and that Professor Glover is a part of, and I thank you Barney for being such an essential part of that work, says that in the years ahead more jobs will require a university degree. At the moment, about 36 per cent of the workforce has a uni degree. By the middle of this century, in our lifetimes, that’ll jump to more than 50 per cent, around about 55 per cent.

What the report says is the only way to get there is to make sure that more people from our suburbs and from our regions get a university degree, and we’ve got to do things to help make sure that becomes a reality. Part of that is bringing university closer to where people live. Bringing the buildings to where the brains are. That’s what this is about.

The first recommendation in the interim report is to build more hubs like this. 34 of them. 20 more for the regions and 14 for the first time in our outer suburbs. And this is in addition to that.

It’s important because sometimes postcode can be a brick wall that stops people from getting to university. As Chris said, growing up, university for a lot of our mates just seemed like somewhere else, for someone else. So they lost that opportunity. Our country can’t afford to miss that opportunity in the years ahead. It’s not just the right thing to do for kids from Fairfield and Cabramatta and from our local community to get to uni, it’s what we have to do. It’s what we have to do as a country if we’re going to have the skills and the workforce that we need in the years ahead.

I want to thank Barney and Jennifer at the University. You have been doing this now for a long, long time. This University emerged when we were young and is continuing to grow and continuing to provide this sort of opportunity for people in Western Sydney. I’m very, very, very grateful for everything that this University does for our community.

And I want to thank Chris. I think the proper term is pain in the arse. But that’s our job, isn’t it? Is to fight for our community. And Chris has been fighting for his community here since he was the mayor at about the age of thirteen. It wasn’t thirteen but it was pretty close. There don’t come champions for Western Sydney like Chris Bowen. He has been fighting for this area all his life and this is just one of the examples about how a local bloke fighting for his community can make change happen for everybody who lives here.

It’s a privilege to be here. It just seems so perfect that on a place where I used to collect shopping trollies on a hot summer’s afternoon, now we’re building a university study hub which is going to change the lives of thousands of people here in Fairfield.

BARNEY GLOVER, WESTERN SYDNEY UNIVERSITY VICE-CHANCELLOR: Thanks Minister and I echo all of the comments that have been made. I did want to acknowledge though, the advocacy of Chris Bowen for many years. This is not something that emerged recently, it is a feature of the interim report of the Universities Accord that the Minister referred to a moment ago, that we want to establish around Australia more of these metro hubs in locations where access and opportunity are critically undervalued and underrepresented amongst our communities. We need more of this and as the Ministers have said, “If you see it you can be it,” and that’s going to be so true here.

But I want to emphasise a couple of things that are important about today. It’s a big announcement for Western Sydney University without a doubt. It’s our first foray into this style of study hub in a region like Fairfield.

It will be as high tech and as advanced as the facilities that we’ve put in very recently to Bankstown, where we have an enormous new campus in the heart of Bankstown. And if you go into that campus you see the quality of the facilities, the technology that we bring to our facilities, the collaborative learning spaces that we create, the way we support our students, the way we concierge those who come into our facilities from the community. That will be replicated here in this first stage.

So first of all, high tech, state of the art, as good a learning experience as you’ll find anywhere in Australia, if not the world.

Secondly, it is phase one. We have ambitions to grow this facility here. This was an opportunity for us to move quickly. I think we’ve got a great location. There is no way, as you’ll see from the images we’re going to produce to you, there’s no way you’ll miss Western Sydney University in Fairfield. Fairfield Connect is going to be well-badged, and that is important. Minister Clare has made this clear with Bankstown, if you see it you can be it, and you need to see it. It needs to be writ large. It needs to be quality space.

But we’re looking forward to expanding that in the years to come. And as the Chancellor mentioned, this is exciting not just because we want to create new pathways for students into higher education around adult literacy and academic literacy, through our enabling programs, through our college programs, to enable students to fast‑track into higher education. It’s all of those things, but it’s also reaching out to local industry. And we want to be able to provide our entrepreneurial programs, our innovation programs, our launch pad programs here to help boost local industry, to help to upskill. This is a community facility alongside a teaching and learning facility.

So yes, it’s going to have very high-tech spaces, but it’s going to be a space for the community. And much more beyond that we want to reach out to the schools, the high schools in particular of Fairfield, to reach out to the schools and to find ways to develop programs here in Fairfield and Fairfield Connect to bring young people here. And we’ve got a great team here from our widening participation program. They reach out into hundreds of schools across Western Sydney every year. Thousands and thousands of students get a chance to visit our campuses who are now looking forward to the local schools here having access to these facilities on a regular basis. So more young people get a taste of higher education early.

Because one of the things this Government has to do next year, and I know both of these Ministers will support it, Minister Clare has three very important reviews under way: into early childhood, the Brennan Review; into school reform, the O’Brien Review; and the Accord Review into higher education. Next year these three reviews come together, the Minister’s committed to bringing them together because this is a generational chance to change the nature of education in Australia for the better. And places like this are going to be crucial to delivering what the Minister will support next year as those three very critical reviews come together and the Government responds in the Budget 2024.

We are going to get on with refurbishment very quickly. It will be open for business early next year. There’s another chance for us to cut a ribbon with multiple Ministers at that point, so we can bring people together and showcase the quality of the facility, invite the community in, get it used, get it activated right through the day and into the evening. And then we’ll be planning phase 2 very, very quickly.

So I’m very excited to be here and Western Sydney University sees this as very much an example of what the future of the delivery of higher education is going to be like, not just in Western Sydney but right around Australia.

Thank you. Any questions?

BOWEN: I imagine there are some questions.

JOURNALIST: Yes, for Minister Clare. On the education survey released today, the Australian Education Union has said it reinforces the need for public schools to receive their fair share of funding, saying it shows 98 per cent of public schools are funded below the schooling resource standard. Can you provide a guarantee that under Labor they will get a fair share?

CLARE: What we’ve said before the election and after it is we want to work with the States and the Territories to put every school on a pathway to their full and fair funding level. But not just that. We want to make sure that this funding is invested in the things that are going to make a difference. Things that we know work. Things that are going to help to make sure that kids who fall behind catch up and finish school.

One of the things that concerns me more than anything else is in the last six years we’ve seen a drop in the number of young people finishing high school. I talked a moment ago about how few young people finished high school when we were kids. It’s gone up. We’re now seeing it start to drop. In the last six years it’s dropped, particularly in public schools, particularly amongst kids from poor families.

In 2016, 83 per cent of young people finished high school. Last year it was 76 per cent. This is happening at a time, as I said, where more and more jobs are going to require you to finish school and then go to TAFE or to university. The work that the O’Brien Review is doing, which Barney you touched on a moment ago, is about making sure that we tie future funding to the things that we know will work, that will help children who fall behind at primary school to catch up and to keep up and then to finish high school and go on to TAFE or to university. That’s critical.

The O’Brien panel report to me and other Education Ministers at the end of October, and then those negotiations with States around funding will happen next year.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask about the HECS system. This year’s indexation rate has seen some people’s debts balloon. What kind of message do you think that sends to future students who might be thinking about coming to Western Sydney University, or any university, and taking on potentially huge debts and even, you know, might impact their chances of entering the [indistinct]?

CLARE: I want every young person, wherever they grow up, to know the value of a university education and how important it is. You go to uni, and I suspect most of the people behind the cameras here have been to uni, you’ll know how valuable it is and has been in your life.

The average university graduate earns about $100,000 a year. The average Australian whose last year of education was high school earns about $70,000 a year. That’s a $30,000 difference right through your lifetime.

The average HECS debt at the moment is about $24,000, so that puts it in perspective. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t reforms that are needed to HECS, there are. They’re outlined in the interim report and there’s more work that’ll be done between now and the end of the year when the final report comes out.

The architect of HECS, Professor Chapman, who put it together so many decades ago, is working with Barney and Professor O’Kane and the team on what those reforms should be. Part of that is looking at indexation but not just that. The whole structure of the way HECS works to make sure that we set it up for the decades ahead.

Whenever I get an opportunity, I use it to talk about the importance of higher education, the power of education generally. My oldest is six. When I got this job as Education Minister last year, he just started kindergarten and he said to me, “Dad, are you in charge of schools now?” I said, “Well sort of.” He said, “Can you ring my teacher and tell her I’m not coming back.” I said, “You are going back and I’m not ringing the teacher.” At that stage – now he’s obsessed with Lionel Messi. Last year he was obsessed with Spiderman. I said, “Education’s a superpower. What you learn at school, whether it’s at kindergarten or whether it’s at university, is what will give you the powers you need to become whatever you want to be in life.” And I want all Australians to know that and to get that superpower. That’s why what we’re talking about today in Fairfield is so important.

JOURNALIST: But, Minister, just following on, so you do believe that even though we have seen that indexation this year that caused a lot of bill shock, for want of a better word, for people who were getting their ATO return and we’ve also seen as a general rule university fees for a number of courses rising, do you think the geographical location of universities is going to do more to bring people from this region to tertiary education?

CLARE: I said it in the Parliament recently, the cost of degrees is important and that’s one of the things the Accord team is looking at. The cost of living is important as well. Ask a lot of university students and they’ll tell you it’s not the cost of the degree that’s on their mind as much as the bills they have to pay right now, the rent and food.

One of the ideas in the interim report is around paid placements for students, like student teachers and student nurses, who can’t work at the local cafe or the restaurant or pushing trollies at Woolies because they’re doing placements in our schools or our hospitals. But there’s also the cost of these kids missing out altogether in our suburbs. So the review is a big and broad review of higher education that’s looking at all of that.

JOURNALIST: And, Minister, just on those suburban study hubs, how many of those do you expect to be in Western Sydney?

CLARE: I cannot put a number on it now because it will be an independent process developed by my Department. They’re developing a consultation paper at the moment and will talk to universities and other stakeholders about how they roll out. But it will be an independent process at arm’s length from Government.

JOURNALIST: Minister, looking back at schools we know that teacher shortages are a big issue. Labor committed to funding 5,000 scholarships for high achievers to become teachers. Can you give us an update on what the uptake has been like of that?

CLARE: They haven’t started yet. They’ll roll out later this year. But they’re important. I mentioned in an answer to the last question about the cost of living, if you can provide somebody with a scholarship worth up to $10,000 a year, every year over a four-year degree, then it helps to pay the bills and hopefully will act as an incentive for young people who are about to hit the HSC to think about becoming a teacher in the years ahead, rather than a lawyer or a banker.

I want more young people to leap out of our high schools and go into teaching rather than becoming a lawyer or a banker. Aim higher, become a teacher. We have a teacher shortage crisis in this country at the moment. There are lots of reasons for that. One of them is not enough young people wanting to be teachers, and these scholarships hopefully will make a difference there, and applications for those scholarships will open in the next few months.

JOURNALIST: And how do you see The Voice, if it were established, improving education outcomes for First Nations students?

CLARE: Think about this. If you’re a young Indigenous person today you’re less likely to go to preschool than everyone else. You’re more likely to fall behind at primary school than everyone else. You’re more likely to drop out of high school. If you’re a young Indigenous man today you’re more likely to go to jail than to university.

What the Voice is about is, number one, recognition. Recognising the fact that Australia didn’t start when Captain Cook arrived. Secondly, it’s about listening. This is an idea of Indigenous Australians saying, “Please listen to us.” And if you listen, you’ll get better results and a better use of taxpayers’ money.

Now think about this. It costs the Australian taxpayer $11,000 a year on average to send someone to university. That’s the cost of that Commonwealth supported place. It costs Australian taxpayers $148,000 a year to send them to jail. So, $11,000 a year for something that will set you up for life. $148,000 a year to lock you up for life. If you’re a young person in juvenile justice well that costs taxpayers about $1 million a year.

Now what if we got better results by listening to people who know what they’re talking about, and so just a few more Aussies went to uni than to jail. Wouldn’t that build a better country? Isn’t that what we all want? A country where, as the boss says, no one’s held back, and no one’s left behind? That’s what The Voice is about.

JOURNALIST: And on The Voice, Minister, what are you and yourself, Minister Bowen, hearing from constituents here in Western Sydney about their views on that? Do you have concerns that arguments from the No campaign are taking hold in Western Sydney?

CLARE: Do you want to hop into this as well?

BOWEN: Yeah, I do.

CLARE: We’re on the ground here at railway stations talking to constituents on the phone about it, getting a lot of positive feedback I’ve got to say. When we talk to voters here about the Voice, strong support. This is a part of Australia where a lot of people have come from other parts of the world, who are used to living pretty tough lives and experiencing disadvantage themselves. They know that their Indigenous brothers and sisters suffer some serious disadvantage in this country as well.

One of the things about this country is we look after each other. Mateship is not some made-up urban myth. It’s real. Think about what we do when there’s a bushfire, when there’s floods. Our community does this better than most. We chip in, we help out, we raise money, we look after each other. We don’t leave our mates behind.

But there are a group of Aussies that are left behind at the moment, and this is a chance to do something about it. I think our community gets that.

BOWEN: Well we have a fight on our hands and we’re asking for every vote and asking to earn every vote for the Yes campaign. And here in our community, as Jason said, people are engaged and people do understand fairness. We launched our “McMahon Says Yes” campaign a few weeks ago in a local park, several hundred people turned up. Support from the local Laotian and Cambodian monks who came with a banner which said, “We support yes.”

As Jason said, people understand fairness. They understand the simple proposition that a voice to their Parliament for First Nations people is well overdue.

New Zealand reached a constitutional settlement with their First Peoples in 1840 and guaranteed a Maori voice to Parliament in 1867. Canada recognised their First Peoples in their constitution in 1982. 2023 is Australia’s year.

JOURNALIST: And Minister Bowen, just one final question, there’s been a bit of a confusion in the past week regarding Labor’s stance on a treaty as part of the Uluru Statement. Is that still Labor’s position in terms of supporting that statement in full?

BOWEN: Absolutely. Absolutely we support the Uluru Statement in full. Our Prime Minister has said that from the day he became Labor leader, including election night. But the proposition before the Australian people is very simple: Recognition and a voice. Nothing more, nothing less. Very important but not more than what’s on the tin. Recognition and a voice. There are separate conversations. States in a bipartisan fashion are engaged in treaty conversations in their own States. But what we are putting to the Australian people is recognition and a voice, full stop.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, I just have one for Ms Westacott and then Minister Clare if that’s all right. Ms Westacott, why does Western Sydney University not have a position on The Voice?

WESTACOTT: We’re in the process of developing that. We had a Board meeting the other day so you’ll see the University speak on that shortly and certainly, I can say from my business council hat on, this week the business council affirmed its very strong support for The Voice and reminded everyone of the role the business is playing in the community, creating jobs, creating economic advancement. And to the Minister’s point, we simply can’t do better if we’re not listening. We keep making mistakes. We keep getting things wrong. People are not getting ahead. You look at the Closing the Gap statement, people are woefully behind.

We have to do something different. We have to recognise, we have to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people a voice in this country. To have a say in how their affairs are managed so that we do better, we get better results by listening. The business community has been a very strong advocate for this. But this University, and the Vice‑Chancellor might want to say a bit more, has been a leader on Indigenous engagement. We’ve been a leader on Indigenous programs and teaching and learning. We will have a statement out and we have been a very strong supporter of equity, of fairness, of the principles of social justice.

Do you want to say anything further?

GLOVER: Well only to say I absolutely support the comments of the Chancellor. The University will be releasing a statement of support from our Board of Trustees next week. We had our Board meeting this week, it was a very constructive discussion and a huge amount of support for The Voice.

The Chancellor and I are both on the record publicly as strong supporters of the Yes campaign. We’ve had extraordinary leadership from our Deputy Vice‑Chancellor Indigenous Leadership Michelle Trudgett, and I know a lot of the work we’ve been doing inside the University and inside our community is being used by others as exemplars of how you can have a sensible, engaged discussion around The Voice, to pick up all of the things the two Ministers have said.

If we pick up just one element of that, we need a voice around education. We need to listen to that voice about education into the future. That’s just one element that we can learn from and will make a huge amount of difference. So the University is very strongly engaged, and our statement will come out next week.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just one more for Minister Clare if I can. Just going to the other end of the educational spectrum, just a question about childcare and early education. The AFP and ACECQA review of child safety that was announced publicly this week, is that going to look at technology used by workers in childcare?

CLARE: I point you to the Terms of Reference that are available on the ACECQA website. That inquiry is now on foot. I was briefed by the Federal Police in late October last year after the initial arrest of this individual. I sought advice from my Department and based on that advice, commissioned that review, which is a broad review. It looks at everything from Working with Children Checks through to mandatory reporting, through to teacher registration.

The allegations I think have shocked the nation this week. I am determined as Minister to do everything I can here to make sure that we keep our children safe. I see it as a parent of a child in early education, and I have a responsibility here as a Minister for Education to make sure that we get this right.

I met with ACECQA yesterday and asked them to speak to Education Ministers when we meet again in early October, and I’m hoping the Federal Police will join us in that briefing. ACECQA will give us their interim report in late October and then a final report in December.