Press Conference – Fairfield – Sunday 25 January 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
FAIRFIELD, SYDNEY
SUNDAY, 25 FEBRUARY 2024

SUBJECTS: Opening of Fairfield Connect university hub; Australian Universities Accord; Building a better and fairer education system.

CHRIS BOWEN, MEMBER FOR MCMAHON: Well, my friends, this is a very special day for our community. I shared the story when Jason and I and Jennifer and Barney announced just a few months ago, actually, that this would be a reality. Of the day in 1991 – now, I don’t remember everything about 1991, as I’m sure most of you don’t, but I remember a day about this time of the year where I would have caught the bus down that street, got off at Fairfield – got off the bus at Fairfield station, got on the train to Redfern and started my university life. And walked into the University of Sydney, and when we were introduced to each other I was asked where we all come from. Long story short – I was the only person who’d been to a public high school, the only person who came from Western Sydney. And when I had to explain where Fairfield was, nobody knew where Fairfield was.

And probably on that day something stirred in me to say I’m going to do something about this one day, because this isn’t good enough, because there are kids in Fairfield who have never been to university, their families have never been to university, many of whom have come and struggled to get to our country, have never been to school or had their schooling interrupted by war who should have the chance to go to university. Not everyone wants to go to university; not everyone should or could go to university, but everyone should have the chance to go to university.

Whether you are the son of a brain surgeon living on Sydney’s North Shore or the daughter of a refugee single mother living in Fairfield, you should have the same rights to grow to your full potential. And today we’re taking a step forward to make that a reality – a step forward so that kids here maybe walking past with their mum and dad going to the shops aged 10 or 12 look at that and say, “What’s that? A university. I didn’t think university was for us.” Well today we say it is for us.

And this is a very, very special day where we’re opening the study hub or, as I prefer to call it, Chancellor, Fairfield Campus Stage 1 of Western Sydney University, because this is the beginning. And there’s a bit more space in this shopping centre, you might have noticed, for stages 2, 3 and 4 for a full campus. But this is a very big – very big step forward, particularly as [indistinct] stage 2.

So, this is a very special day for our community. I want to acknowledge the State Member for Fairfield, Dr David Saliba, a very proud graduate of Western Sydney University. Of course, my friend Jason Clare – my friend and Canberra flatmate Jason Clare. It is possible that I have a harassed Jason over a wine at night after a parliamentary sitting about how we’re going with the Fairfield campus of Western Sydney, and he’s responded in kind. This is a pretty special day, to be honest, for a kid from St Johns Park High School with his mate, a kid from Canley Vale High School going to university at the same time, knocking around the Fairfield Liverpool Young Labor Association at the same time to come together for this day.

So, I want to acknowledge all the dignitaries, of course, former parliamentarians, my friend and former cabinet colleague Jenny Macklin, former Senator Fiona Nash and, of course, former New South Wales Minister for Education Verity Firth, and the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor who, I must say, have delivered in spades. When we’ve been talking about this and I’ve been saying every time the poor old chancellor would come and see me about Business Council of Australia business, I’d say, “This is all very well, Jennifer, but I don’t want to talk to you about Business Council of Australia business. I will, but I want to talk about Western Sydney University business and when we’re getting our campus in Western Sydney in Fairfield.” And in all seriousness, Jennifer and Barney have delivered in spades.

And I’m delighted, too, that Jason has taken this opportunity to, with Mary, release the Universities Accord. Because that is a framework which will see this become a template for communities right across the country where every child deserves a chance to grow to their full potential. Every child can dream a dream and live the dream and follow the dream and say, “University maybe is just for me. My Mum and Dad didn’t get the chance. My grandparents didn’t get the chance. My uncles and aunties didn’t get the chance. They were all smart, but they didn’t get the chance. I get the chance and I’m going to take it.”

It’s a very special day for all of us. Thank you for opening Stage 1 of the Fairfield Campus here today. I know that it’s a collaboration with other universities and I very much welcome UTS and the University of New South Wales’ interaction and coming on board with this, because it doesn’t matter which course you choose, which university you choose, the dream’s in here, and now we have a vessel here in Fairfield to follow that dream. It’s a delight to share this historic day for our community with you. Thank you.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Can I also start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and, in particular, to my good mate Uncle Harry. Mate, it’s so great to see you here, and thank you for everything you do for our local community over a lifetime.

Thank you, also, to my good mate Chris Bowen. We’ve grown up together. We’re getting to change things for the better for our community together, and this is a fantastic example of that.

And Dave, we’ve been great mates for a long time, too. You are such fantastic State Member for Fairfield, and I’m so glad that you are part of this as well. Jennifer Westacott and Barney Glover – the almost irreplaceable Barney Glover. I don’t know what we’re going to do without you, mate. To the irreplaceable and irrepressible Professor Mary O’Kane, can I ask people to put their hands together. Thank you, Mary. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this mountain of work.

MARY O’KANE: It’s a whole team.

CLARE: And it is a whole team, many of whom are here today, and I want to recognise Fiona Nash, Jenny Macklin, Professor Larissa Behrendt, who is with us as well. And Barney, you are part of the team as well. I also want to recognise, as Chris has, Attila and Andrew, the Vice Chancellors of the University of New South Wales and UTS, who are collaborators here on this project.

Today is a big day for Fairfield, and it’s also a really important day for the country because today we’re opening this hub in the heart of Fairfield, but we’re also releasing this, the Universities Accord. And I’m doing it here on purpose. This is where Chris and I grew up. Like Chris, I’m a kid from a public school around the corner – and damn proud of it. I’m the first person in my family to go to uni. I’m the first person in my family to finish high school. I’m the first person in my family to finish year 10. Mum didn’t get to go to high school at all – rheumatic fever saw the end to that.

And when I finished year 10, my first job was collecting shopping trolleys in the Woolies car park, which was right here. Straight out of year 10, in the hot blistering sun of 1987, I was collecting shopping trollies here on what used to be the Woolies car park. And now it’s become this – a university hub.

Back then, the percentage of people from Fairfield who’d been to uni and got a university degree was about a third of the national average. Not much has changed. Today it’s still about half. And that’s what this hub is about. It’s about changing that. 

For a lot of the kids that Chris and I went to school with, university just seemed like it was somewhere else for someone else – that it was too far away. This invisible brick wall that stopped a lot of kids from the outer suburbs of Sydney – and it’s exactly the same in Brisbane and Melbourne and other parts of the country – that invisible brick wall that stops you from even thinking about it. That’s why hubs like this are important.

As I said to Bill a minute ago, that’s why it being in Smart Street is important. Some of the hubs that exist around the country are tucked away in TAFEs, so that’s important for collaboration with TAFEs, but I’m so glad that it’s here in the middle of Fairfield because every kid who gets off the bus or gets on the train and walks past here and sees it and thinks, “Maybe I could go there, maybe I could do a course here as well.”

And the fact that the University of New South Wales and UTS are part of this I just think is perfect symmetry. The two universities that I went to as a kid are part of helping more kids from Fairfield and Cabramatta and the western suburbs of Sydney to be able to get a degree and study here closer to home. It’s the difference. It’s a big part of the difference about making sure that more kids from poor backgrounds and from the suburbs get a crack at going to university.

And I’ve got to tell you – that is what this is all about. At the moment almost half of young people in their 20s and 30s have a uni degree. But not here, not in the outer suburbs of Sydney, not in our regions. And the Accord is about changing that. And think about this: under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating the percentage of people that finished high school went from 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent. That’s a lot of us here. It’s a lot of people watching at home, I’m sure. That’s nation changing stuff. That changed the country that we are today. It created businesses that otherwise wouldn’t exist and created people for a workforce that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Now, what this report says is that in the decades ahead we need 80 per cent of our workforce not just to have finished school but to have gone to uni or to TAFE. And that if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to break down the artificial barrier that we’ve created between TAFE and uni. Make it easier for people to move between the two.

And we’ve also got to break down that invisible barrier that means that a lot of young people from our outer suburbs and our regions never get a crack at going to university or don’t succeed and finish when they get there. And that at its heart is what this report is all about. Whether it’s the fee-free university courses, that bridge that helps a lot of young people to get into university in the first place – and I want to pay credit to another university. The accolades are going around for Western Sydney and University of New South Wales and UTS – this year Newcastle University celebrates 50 years of fee-free university courses. Over that time 70,000 people have got degrees starting with those fee-free courses first. One in five people with a university degree out of the University of Newcastle started with one of those fee-free courses. It is the bridge that made that possible.

There are other recommendations there about not just helping people get in but helping to make sure they complete. Like a new needs-based funding model or a Gonski-style model to make sure that we’re providing the support that students need to succeed and bonuses to encourage universities to help students complete.

But, as I’ve said a number of times, none of this is going to work, none of this is going to succeed if we think we can just rely on fixing this at the gate of university. A lot of the young people that we want to make sure get a crack at university and get a crack at TAFE are the kids that aren’t finishing high school today, and we’ve got to change that.

Over the course of the last six or seven years we’ve seen a drop in the number of kids finishing high school. Not everywhere, but in public schools and amongst poor kids and in the bush. And they’re the same kids that are falling behind in primary school. They’re the same kids that aren’t getting the same opportunities to access early education.

And so, this is all connected. There is a common thread that runs through not just this report but the reforms that I want to drive in school education and early education to make sure that no one’s held back, and no one’s left behind. Because if we’re going to hit this target of 80 per cent of a workforce with a TAFE qualification or a university qualification – and think about that – that means that young people in that workforce, it’s more like 90 per cent.

What Mary and the team are telling us is that everybody’s got to get a crack. Everybody has got to have that opportunity, and we need a system designed to help them. 

Can I thank you, Mary, and thank all of the Accord team once again from the bottom of my heart for all the work that you’ve put in. If this a blueprint for higher education in this country for the next decade and beyond, then you are the architect. And I am so grateful for all of your work. Thanks very much.

JENNIFER WESTACOTT, CHANCELLOR OF WESTERN SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: Well, it’s great to be here on behalf of the university. And can I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on today and thank Uncle Harry for his generous welcome, which we accept with humility.

It’s great to be here to witness the launching of the Accord and also to launch our campus here, Fairfield Connect. Let’s start with the Accord. I believe this is the most important contribution to tertiary education for decades. It recognises the role that universities are going to play in driving a modern, agile economy where the skills and capabilities of our people will be the determinant of our success as a country.

It sets a platform for a more vibrant system, it lays the foundation for lifelong learning, it charts a course for greater connection between VET and TAFE and universities, it puts the student at the centre of learning, and it fundamentally tackles the equity issues that have prevented so many people getting the tertiary education they need and deserve.

It’s comprehensive. There’s so much in it. And I really encourage people not to nit-pick it but to get on with it. There’ll be things that there are different views about, but it’s absolutely crucial that we now get the momentum and start to turn the tertiary system around. And I congratulate the Minister on embarking on this. It’s a big thing to reform the school system, reform the higher education system and the tertiary system. But reform it we must because it is absolutely essential to our success as a country. So, my message today from my many roles – now and in the past – is we just have to get on with this.

Now, if I turn to here at Fairfield, this campus is the Accord in practice. Fairfield Connect is an example of the new tertiary study hubs which are proposed in the accord. And what we’ll here is at the cutting edge of new tertiary models. We will invest here around $50 million over the next five years. This is about tailoring a university offering to the community’s needs. It’s about opening up new opportunities. It’s about unleashing the potential of this vibrant and diverse community. It’s about tackling adult literacy and digital skills. It’s about supporting local businesses with access to our launchpad, our business incubator and our future industries Discovery Centre. It’s about fast-tracking access to our college. It’s about giving access to our academy for high achievers.

We have provided here as you walk around today a world-class space, and it will be filled with world-class technology, some of which you can see around you today. But fundamentally this is about fairness and it’s about access. It’s about correcting the great unfairness that has occurred in Fairfield and many other parts of the city, but Fairfield in particular. If you just look at any of the data about Fairfield, this is long overdue, and it’s a vital correction that we must make.

But fundamentally it’s about impact for communities and individuals. It’s about bringing the university to the community. Indeed, bringing universities to the community. And I acknowledge my colleagues from UTS and UNSW who are here today. But hopefully this is about pride. When a young person or an older person walks past this and they see our big sign that we said to Bill, “Make this as big a sign as you can possibly fit on the building,” they will say, “Hey, university is for me”. They will say, “Actually, you know, I’m going to go back and go back to university, because I can see that that’s my pathway to a better job. That’s my pathway to get the skills I need to stay working.”

It marks a – today is the one year exactly since I gave my Installation Speech when I became chancellor, and I made this point – and I think it’s just so symbolic that we’re here today making the same point – education is the great enabler. It is the greatest form of advancement. It’s the single biggest instrument for social justice that we have at our disposal.

Now we bring that social justice, we bring that great advancing instrument here to the people of Fairfield. A symbol of pride. A symbol of ambition. A symbol of aspiration. Thank you.

MARY O’KANE, CHAIR OF AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES ACCORD PANEL: Well, thank you, all, and thank you for the nice comments. And in speaking I, too, would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and to point out that the review puts First Nations at the centre, just as it puts students at the centre.

Twenty years ago, I left universities, left working in them, and went off and had the most amazing time doing incredible things. But all through that time I was really still excited, interested in what was happening in higher education, what was happening in research and innovation and sort of get the – I even in the middle of Covid with a couple of colleagues from overseas wrote a book on universities. I thought I was getting it out of my system.

So, it was amazing when I got the call would I chair the Accord review. Would I chair the Accord review? Could you stop me? No way. And then I heard who was to be on the panel, and I just – I was gobsmacked. It was an incredible panel. And then I heard the terms of reference, and they were about big national changes – could we deliver on those? So, it was the dream challenge. Couldn’t have been better. Incredibly exciting.

And, of course, we did it as a group. We did it as a whole higher education sector, as the whole of Australia, if you’d like. So, I’d like to thank a few people. I’d like to thank you, Minister, for giving me the opportunity – and since we have two ministers here – to say thank you to the government. It was a great opportunity and I say that on behalf of all the panel.

To thank the panel – Jenny, Fiona, Larissa – we all seem to have names ending in “a”, except a couple of us – Tony and Ben at different times, Barney, of course – talk about irrepressible; I don’t know if you’d say it about me – and Shemara who sends her apologies today.

So great panel. We had great help from around all sorts of groups – the higher education sector, of course. Thank you, Attila, thank you, Andrew. You two did a lot. Thank you, Verity. Lots of bright ideas, good lunches, and good talks at various times. But loads of ideas from all over the place and from the business community, the community at large, the regions. We had a lot of help.

Also, I should acknowledge our families who got used to us working on weekends and not having Christmas and things like that. And particularly I’d like to acknowledge Kirby Lavarch, who I think sat in on all our meetings. We practically never met – we were on video – and we often saw her there working away in the background. So, it was pretty wonderful.

Universities change lives if they’re managed well. And universities can change nations. So, we’ve tried to deliver a report – where’s that [indistinct] – we’ve tried to deliver a report – and yes, I can. I kept up my strength through this – that lays out a plan over the decades but with a lot of front ending in it, Minister. You know, we want a lot of things to happen very soon. But a plan that really is about changing lives and changing nations.

It’s got a blueprint for delivering on the skills for making Australia even more of an economic powerhouse and, in particular, a renewable energy powerhouse. Those skills are most important. It’s a blueprint for giving all Australians, as the Minister said, a chance to get to university or to get vocational training. And not just all Australians, but particularly those who are disadvantaged. It really emphasises that, that’s a really core aspect of the review. It’s also a blueprint for showing how Australia can use the incredible brilliance and capability in its research endeavours and use that to solve really big problems.

So, Minister, over to you. We’re finished. Your chance now to get it implemented. And I’m going to spend the next 20 years cheering you on and watching carefully that it’s all implemented and working really well. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Chair of the Group of Eight Universities says that it’s shortsighted to tax the revenues of the wealthiest universities to fund gaps elsewhere as opposed to the government stepping in to fund those gaps. Why should those universities pay what’s being described as a wealth tax?

CLARE: What you’re talking about there is what’s recommended in the report to establish a Higher Education Future Fund where taxpayers would chip in money, universities would chip in money, and that money would be invested and over time used to build things like affordable student accommodation as well as research facilities, classrooms, infrastructure for universities.

Some universities hate it; other universities love it. I’ve got an open mind. I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks talking to universities, talking to other stakeholders about this recommendation and others as we identify what are the reforms that we need to prioritise. What are the reforms that we need to do first?

I think wherever people stand on a recommendation like this, everybody understands we need more affordable student accommodation. The question is: how do you do it? And I’ve got an open mind about that.

JOURNALIST: And so there are some big ideas in this report. Is it just pie in the sky, or are there things that you can rule in or out at this point?

CLARE: This is a blueprint for higher education for the next 20 years. This is a big report with big ideas. Again, I want to thank you, Mary, and thank the whole team, for its ambition. And I drove you and encouraged you to be ambitious because I’m determined to drive change in higher education, in school education and in early education. Because that’s the only way that you make a difference in people’s lives, particularly in this neck of the woods where we grew up.

You can’t do everything at once. We don’t have to do everything at once. This is bigger than one budget. But we have to get started now. And so, over the course of the next few weeks we’ll work on what are the things in this report that we need to implement first in order to get us on the right path.

JOURNALIST: So can we expect some big announcements in the next few weeks on tangible things in –

CLARE: We’ll respond to the report in the next few months.

JOURNALIST: Are there any measures that you think could be done quickly and relatively easily?

CLARE: I’m not going to respond to individual recommendations today. But I’ve been pretty clear about what are my priorities. I want to make sure that more kids from the outer suburbs and the regions get a crack at university and succeed when they get there. I want to put more kids on Smart Street, and that’s what this is all about.

JOURNALIST: And the – I don’t know if this is a question for you, Minister, or Mary: the report describes the needs-based funding as demand-driven system for equity students. I don’t quite understand that. Is the idea that students from equity groups will have more access to university than other students?

CLARE: It’s probably more than a five second answer, and I’ll encourage Mary to add to my answer. But there’s two separate recommendations there as I read the report. There’s one around needs-based funding and there’s one around a demand-driven system focusing first on equity students.

Think about it like this: we want more young people to get into university from the outer suburbs and the regions and poor backgrounds, and we want them to succeed when they get there. A great example of that in the report are those fee-free university courses that help young people who have just finished school to succeed when they get to university. The demand-driven equity recommendation is about that as well. It’s about helping more people from poor backgrounds to get into university and succeed. We did that for Indigenous students last year. The recommendation here is to expand that to students from poor backgrounds and the regions and expand that over time to more students.

And then the needs-based funding recommendation is about making sure that the funding follows the student, that more funding is provided to the students who need it most. Universities I suspect will tell you that there are different demands in helping a student succeed if they’re at a university in the heart of Sydney as opposed to whether they’re in regional Australia.

Fiona, I can see you nodding. And I know that you’re a big part of bringing that recommendation to the table.

We know that the sort of kids we want to get a crack at university complete university at lower rates than other kids. And we don’t just want young people from our neck of the woods to start uni; we want them to finish it. And so that needs-based funding is about that as well – making sure that they’ve got all the support they need to succeed. And as part of that recommendation, it also includes completion bonuses for universities to encourage them to make sure that they help young people who start a degree to finish it.

Mary, did you want to add?

O’KANE: No, that’s a 10 out of 10.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the fee-free places at Newcastle University. That’s obviously one of the recommendations in the report. I’ll try again: is that something that the government might think was easier to implement than some of the other recommendations?

CLARE: Yeah, same answer.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned that it’s a 20-year plan. How do you sort of plan to keep that moving on track and also to stay intact through successive governments?

CLARE: That is a really, really good question, because a 20-year plan is going to involve a bunch of different ministers, a bunch of different governments, a bunch of different vice chancellors as well. And in order to sustain reform, to drive it over the decades, then you need more than just one individual at the front of it. That’s why one of the recommendations in here – the establishment of a Tertiary Education Commission – has a lot of merit, because it’s about making sure that we drive and sustain that reform effort over the decades.

Sometimes you get a report like this, and you kick things off and then there’s a change of government or a change of minister and the report gathers dust on the shelf. This is too important for this to happen. We can’t do all of this at once, but we’ve got to drive reform over the long term. And a Tertiary Education Commission, it strikes me, is a key part of that.

JOURNALIST: And how do you maintain funding through that period? Because you’ve already made some [indistinct]?

CLARE: Have a look at the profiles, the student numbers, in the report. It makes it pretty clear that we’re expecting student numbers to be pretty modest in growth over the course of the next 10 years. And then it takes off after that. Those kids going to university, going to Western Sydney Uni or UTS or University of New South Wales or any other university in 2035, they’re at primary school right now. They’re in the classroom with my big guy. And it’s the things that we do, the things that I want to do in school education, in making sure that kids who fall behind when they’re little catch up, keep up and finish high school, the key to making sure that the graphs in this report become a reality.

ENDS