Interview with David Speers – Insiders – Sunday 25 February 2024


SUBJECTS: Australian Universities Accord; School funding; Building a better and fairer education system.

DAVID SPEERS: So, Jason Clare, welcome to the program.


SPEERS: So, when you look at the list of recommendations in this report, what do you believe are the most important and what are you willing to adopt?

CLARE: I’ve made it pretty clear that my priority is helping more kids from the outer suburbs and the regions, more kids from poor families, get a crack at university. At the moment about one in two kids in their twenties and thirties have got a university degree, but not in my neck of the woods, not where I grew up, and not in the regions. You know, what this report says, Dave, is that we’ve got to boost the number of people with either a TAFE qualification or a uni degree by 80 per cent to the middle of the century.

Think back to the 1980s, look at what Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did. They boosted the number of kids finishing high school from 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent. That includes you and me, a lot of people watching the program. That’s nation changing stuff.

What this report says is that by the middle of century, we need a workforce where people haven’t just finished high school; 80 per cent of people haven’t just finished high school, but they’ve gone to TAFE or university as well. And that’s no easy task. And what the report says is that if we’re going to do this – and we’ve got to do it, otherwise you’ve got an economy with a handbrake on. If we’re going to do this, then you need to break that artificial barrier between TAFE and uni, make it easier for people to move between the two. And we’ve got to get rid of that invisible barrier that stops a lot of young people from poor families from the regions and from the outer suburbs of our big cities from getting a crack at uni in the first place.

SPEERS: Looking at some of those barriers, as you call them, the report says one is the cost of living while you’re studying. You need to increase financial supports for a lot of these kids, expand access to youth allowance, make some sort of payment available for those who have to do practical placements in schools and hospitals. Are you willing to do those sorts of things?

CLARE: We’ve already done a bit of it in the budget last year, we increased Youth Allowance and Austudy. It talks in this report about extra changes that could be made there.

It also recommends ideas like a Jobs Broker, so while you’re at university getting the chance to be paid to work part time in an area that you are studying in. I spent a fair amount of time while I was at university cooking cheese toast at Sizzler, rather than in the area that I ended up working in. An area where I was studying was a law degree. That’s an area where you can help people with the cost of living.

And you’re right; on paid prac, it makes the point if you’re a nursing student, you’re spending 800 hours working in a hospital where you’re not paid. If you’re a teaching student, about 600 hours through the course of your degree in the classroom where you’re not paid. Often, you’ve got to move to do the paid prac. Often, you’ve got to give up your part‑time job. I’ve spoken to teaching students and nursing students who have told me that they can’t afford to do that. They’ve done the theory but they can’t afford to do the prac so they drop out or they end up sleeping in a car because they can’t afford to pay the rent or to pay the bills. So, recommending there that governments invest in paid prac for teaching students and for nursing students and work with industry on providing more support for work integrated learning in other areas.

SPEERS: So, are you going to do it? You’re the minister. Are you going to give them some sort of payment?

CLARE: We’re not responding to the report today. But it strikes me as the sort of area where governments need to work together on this, because it can be the difference between whether students finish their degree or not. In teaching, for example, only about 54 per cent of teaching students who start a degree finish it. The average across universities is 70 per cent. We’ve got a teacher shortage crisis in this country. If we can increase the proportion of teaching students who finish their degree, we would go part of the way to tackling that crisis.

SPEERS: Talking about teaching courses, they did become cheaper under the Morrison government’s Job‑ready Graduates program, as long as a bunch of other courses trying to get more kids into them. But arts, humanities, law degrees became a lot more expensive. The report recommends ditching that scheme. Will you ditch it?

CLARE: If the purpose was to reduce the number of students doing arts degrees, it didn’t work. I think Raf made the point a minute ago. More people studied arts degrees after this change came into place than before it. A classic example that people pick the subjects they do at university based on what they love, what they want to do, the profession they want to go in, rather than that deferred HECS payment. Making changes here is costly and difficult. I think Raf also mentioned this tertiary education commission, which would look at how you move to a new funding model. It strikes me that’s the sort of thing that they would have to look at and how you would make that change.

SPEERS: So, that might take some time, setting up the commission first before you then change the course fees structure.

CLARE: We’ve got to make a decision if we set the commission up or not, but it strikes me as a good recommendation. It’s the sort of thing that helps to make sure that you build long sustained reform. Remember this is the blueprint not for the next couple of years, but for the next two decades. Over that time, there will be plenty of different ministers, plenty of different governments, even different vice‑chancellors. And what’s been proposed to us here is a commission that can help to drive and sustain reform in higher education over those two decades.

SPEERS: What, just on that, how would that work? Would that commission allocate funding to different universities?

CLARE: Potentially. There’s different models that have been suggested. The report also recommends that if we go down this path, we set up an implementation advisory committee to look at the detailed structure of it and make sure that we get legislation that would underpin it right.

But the report makes the point that all universities pretty much look the same at the moment. Roughly the same number of students, teaching the same sorts of subjects, and says we’d benefit from a bit more diversity. Different universities doing different things. Some bigger, some smaller, making sure that we’ve got universities where they’re needed.

When I grew up, there was no university near me. You had to head a long way to get to university and it meant for a lot of kids in my classroom, they felt university was somewhere else for someone else. I want to make sure that we make it easier for kids growing up in our outer suburbs and the regions to get a crack at university and that’s part of what this commission can do.

SPEERS: You mentioned the HECS debts or the HELP debts that particularly a lot of low-income graduates are absolutely struggling with. The report talks about this, makes a bunch of different recommendations. Can you give people any hope that they are going to get an easier go when it comes to their student debts?

CLARE: It’s got recommendations around indexation but also how you could potentially reduce HECS payments. The report says we’ve got to make HECS simpler and fairer. It says HECS is a good system. HECS blew the doors of universities open in the late ‘80s early ‘90s. When Hawke and Keating introduced HECS, with John Dawkins, there was only about 5 per cent of the Australian workforce had a uni degree. Now it’s more than 26 per cent.

But this report says we’ve got to make it fairer and simpler. And Bruce Chapman, the architect of HECS, has helped the panel with a recommendation that says that there are ways to reduce up‑front payments for people on low incomes. For example, if we were to go down this path, it says that someone on an income of $75,000 a year would pay every year about $1,000 less. So, that’s something that could provide an immediate cost-of-living benefit for people after they finish uni and they’re in the workforce with cost of living, on top of the tax cuts that we’ve introduced, and that will hopefully go through the Senate this week.

SPEERS: So, what you’re flagging there about a $1,000 benefit from someone on $75 grand, is that something we might see in the budget?

CLARE: We have to go through the whole plan over the next few months. We’ll respond to the Accord over the course of the next few months. We can’t do all of this. Don’t have to do all of this right away. This is bigger than one budget. But we do need to get started now to build the foundations for long‑term reform and we’ll respond on that recommendation and on all the others.

SPEERS: I mean, the other recommendation, you hear a lot of people complaining about this, is the timing of indexation, so they’ll make their payments, paying off their student debt all year but then they get the indexation kick in that covers the stuff they’ve already paid off all year. It’s a double hit. Can you fix that up?

CLARE: That is one of the things that we asked the Accord to look at. They’ve given us a recommendation about that. They’ve also given us a recommendation about how you index HECS, or what is now called HELP, and recommending that it be set according to the wage price index, rather than CPI. On all of those recommendations, we’ll look at those and cost those and prioritise what we do first in our response that we put out in the next few months.

SPEERS: In the next few months. So, there will be something in the budget.

CLARE: I hope so. I’ve got to go through the ERC process, not the ABC process.

SPEERS: Ok, we’ll, persist. On the cost, I mean, as you say, some of this is longer term, but do you have any idea what sort of price tag implementing this Accord would carry and how willing are you to actually stump up and make these changes?

CLARE: Mate, I’m determined to drive reform in higher education but also in school education and early education. This is all connected. We’re not going to be successful in what this report tells us we need to do in hitting that 80 per cent target if we just rely on reforms that start at the university gate.

You made the point in your intro that not enough young people are finishing high school. Over the last five or six years we’ve seen a decline in the number of people finishing high school, particularly at public schools, and particularly young people from poorer backgrounds. They’re the same kids that are more likely to fall behind at primary school. They’re the same kids that are less likely to go to early education. This is all connected and so we need reform in early education, in school education, and in higher education, if we’re going to hit these targets and build a better and a fairer education system.

SPEERS: There is one recommendation in this report for how you find some additional money to do some of these things. This is the higher education future fund where you’d have contributions from higher performing universities, creating a $10 billion fund with an income stream then to help some of those who are struggling. Look, as you would have seen, the Sydney University vice‑chancellor, Mark Scott, says it’s a tax dressed up as a fund. Are you going to go down this path?

CLARE: Mate, I’ve got an open mind. As you say, there are some universities who hate it. There are other universities who love it. What this is, is a fund where the Commonwealth would chip in money, where taxpayers chip in money, but also unis chip in money as well. To invest in things like affordable student accommodation and research facility, classrooms for universities. Where we all agree is we need more affordable student accommodation. Whether this is the way to do it or some other way, I’m keen over the next few weeks and months to talk to universities and others about whether this is the way to do it.

SPEERS: One of the other concerns on this one from the Deakin University vice‑chancellor is that you would see philanthropic donations dry up. I mean, if someone makes a bequest to a particular university, they don’t necessarily want that hived off to another university, do they?

CLARE: No, that goes to the detailed design. If you went down the path of setting up a fund like this, you’d want to protect that. If you want to encourage philanthropic donations, as you would rightly expect people want that spent on certain things.

SPEERS: So, you wouldn’t touch that?

CLARE: I don’t think so. It might be if you went down the path of setting up a fund like this, people may want to put donations into it, but that’s all for detailed design if we choose to set up a fund like this.

SPEERS: On schools funding, and you drew the link earlier between the need to really lift those high school retainment rates before we can really get more people into university and vocational education. Is part of the problem here that public schools just aren’t just funded enough?

CLARE: They’re not fully funded. They’re not fully funded under the Gonski model. No public school in the country is, except for where you are at the moment in the ACT. Non‑government schools are; government schools aren’t. At the moment, the states are legally obliged to fund up to 75 per cent of what’s needed for a public school and the Commonwealth Government is obliged to put in 20 per cent. That leaves a five per cent gap.

The negotiations we’re having now is about how we fill that gap: what the Commonwealth Government chips in and what the states chip in and, importantly, what we use that money for, what we tie that money to to make it work, make sure that we invest that money in the sorts of things that are going to help to make sure more kids do finish school. And a big part of that is going right back to the start, identifying kids that are falling behind early and intervening early with things like catch‑up tutoring. Investing in things that are going to help the kids that fall behind to catch up and keep up and finish school.

SPEERS: You have done a deal with WA for a 2.5 per cent increase. The other states that’s not enough. They want you to cover that full 5 per cent gap you just talked about there. Are you willing to go that far?

CLARE: I won’t go into the negotiations that we’re having with the states, but you’re right, we signed a statement of intent with WA. It means an investment of an extra $700‑odd million over the next five years by the Commonwealth. It will mean that in most disadvantaged schools, public schools, in WA, are fully funded from the start of next year. All public schools in WA are fully funded by 2026.

SPEERS: But you’re willing to go beyond that for the other states?

CLARE: But I want to do a deal with every state and territory to get every school in the country up to that full funding level and make sure that we tie the money to the things that we know work to tackle the sorts of problems that exist at the moment, Dave. I just make this point, because this is important, and it goes to the Uni Accord report as well. One in three kids from poor families fall behind the minimum standard that we expect in primary school at the moment and only one in five of those kids catch up by the time they’re in high school. That’s a big part of the reason why we’re now seeing a decline in the number of kids from poor families and public schools finishing high school. We’ve got to fix that if we’re going to fix these challenges in this report.

SPEERS: I understand. You mentioned tying the funding to what’s happening in the classroom. Can I ask you: there’s a concern – and Labor used to raise this concern in opposition – that under the current arrangement the states can use, I think it’s four per cent, up to four per cent, of their contributions to the public schools for things that aren’t necessarily directly related to the classroom: buses for kids to get to school, teacher accreditation courses, registration bodies, capital depreciation costs. Can you close that loophole? Labor did talk before the election about closing it.

CLARE: It’s the sort of thing, Dave, that I expect would be part of the negotiations with the states and territories, which we’ve now kicked off. I think the point I’d make to you is that – 

SPEERS: You want them to close though?

CLARE: The point I’d make is I want taxpayers’ money to glow in the dark. I want parents and teachers to know where the money is going, whether it’s in a public school or whether it’s in a non‑government school. That’s the key here. We don’t have enough information on that at the moment.

SPEERS: Final one, Minister. We mentioned the infrastructure issue for public schools, the Australian Education Union on Friday really ramping up the pressure, pointing out, you know, how the top private schools are spending so much more than the bulk of public schools; private schools spending more on lavish facilities than more than 3,000 public schools. Yes, that’s to do with the fees they charge but for your part, the commonwealth does provide $1 billion, I think it is, in capital funding for private schools over four years, but the public schools not a cent unless you extend the one-year program. Will you do that?

CLARE: We’re rolling that out now. Most non‑government schools are low fee–paying schools, David. There are a bunch where it costs a king’s ransom to go there and they look more like a place where a king would live, but most are low fee–paying schools.

I’m not trying to break the Gonski model. I want to finish it. I want to make sure that we fund our public schools properly. I’m a product of public education and damn proud of it. And I want to make sure that we close that funding gap and close the education gap.

There’s a lot at stake here. I’ve got to introduce legislation at the end of the year to increase funding for public schools. London to a brick the Liberal Party will vote against it and if they win the election next year, they’ll rip that up. And if you doubt me, look at what they did last time. So, the agreement I strike this year and the election that we fight next year will determine the future of public education in this country not just for the next few years but for decades ahead, whether we build a better and a fairer education system or not.

SPEERS: You’re expecting an election next year.

CLARE: I think so.

SPEERS: Jason Clare, Education Minister, thanks so much for joining us this morning. Appreciate it.

CLARE: Good on you, thanks mate.