Press Conference – Goulburn – Thursday 28 September 2023





SUBJECTS: Regional University Study Hubs; Australian university rankings; Sexual assault and safety on university campuses

CHRIS RONAN, CEO OF COUNTRY UNIVERSITY CENTRE: Welcome, everybody. My name is Chris Ronan, I’m the CEO of the Country University Centre and thank you for being here in Goulburn on this beautiful spring day. And it’s nice that we can be outside just for a moment. I want you to imagine standing in Circular Quay in Sydney. And if you look around, every second person that you see has been to university. And if you jump in the car, we start to head down towards Goulburn, the proportion of people who’ve been to university starts to drop and by the time you get here to Goulburn, it’s one in ten.

And that’s not because people in regional areas don’t have aspirations for higher education. It’s not because they don’t want to go to university, it’s because higher education for a long time has excluded so many people, marginalised people within communities in regional Australia. And this community-owned centre here in Goulburn is one of the driving solutions for parity of participation in this country. Because the students who we see here, who we’ve met today, these are people who live in the community, who work in the community, who strive to make this place, your place, something that’s very special.

And I think the CUC as part of the network, from Cape York in far North Queensland, out to Mount Isa, down through Broken Hill, here in Goulburn, and all the way down to Wonthaggi on the beautiful Bass Coast, is a network of community run centres. And this is the key to the success. It’s key to the stories that we hear from the students that it’s not university run, it’s community at its core. So, thank you for being here and I might throw it to Deb from here on in.

SENATOR DEBORAH O’NEILL: Thank you. Thank you, Chris. Thank you for your welcome here to Goulburn this morning. I’m delighted to be here. Senator Deborah O’Neill as the duty Senator for the Seat of Hume, a mighty part of the country and a place where there has been for far too long talent that couldn’t find its way to a university. And that’s why this nondescript pretty, friendly looking building has become such an important part of the journey for people into the future that they deserve. A future that takes them to university but doesn’t take them out of their community.

This is a critical part of what’s happening here. I’m so delighted to be here and hear the stories of champions. Champions because people are taking on the journey of study. Champions because of the people who are wrapping their care around them to make it happen. And champions in the community who are leading the growth right here in Goulburn. This has been such a successful project and continues to succeed. It’s exceeding what was planned for it and now looking for a new home down in the town. I’m sure they have fantastic impact for the local business community, so there’s win wins for everybody here. That’s why I’m delighted today to welcome the Minister for Education, my good friend Jason Clare, the member for Blaxland, who, like me, is first in family to go to university. And it’s a tricky journey. It can be very difficult to think that you belong, and it can be even more difficult when you actually achieve. Then you look back and you think, well, it can’t be that hard because I did it. And we were talking inside about diminishing the achievement. There is nothing diminishing about what’s going on here. It’s all enabling, it’s all growing. And I’m very, very excited to see what the Minister’s announcement will be. So, welcome. Minister Clare.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks very much, Deb, and thanks Chris and the whole team for welcoming us here today. In the years ahead, more and more jobs will require more skills. More jobs will require you to finish high school and then go on to TAFE or to university. And that’s why centres like this one in Goulburn are so important and why we need more of them.

There are 34 regional university study hubs right across the country at the moment. If the cameras can pan over there, you can see where they are at the moment, and where they are they make a massive difference. They help more and more young Australians to get a crack at university. Chris, you made the point that in the big cities, the overwhelming number of young people have a university degree. I think right across the country, about 45 per cent of young people in their twenties and thirties have a university degree today. And in the big cities it’s even higher than that, but in regional Australia it’s only 25 per cent.

I want to change that. I want to make sure that more young Australians get a crack at university, that we open the door of opportunity wider, not just for them, but for our whole country.  Because more and more jobs require you to go to TAFE or uni, we’ve got to help more and more Australians to go to TAFE and to university, and that’s what these centres do.

The evidence shows that where these centres exist, more people in the local community go to university and more people finish. This isn’t just bricks and mortar, it’s not just a desk and a computer, this is a wrap-a-round service. And I’ve had the privilege to talk to some of the staff here today to tell me about the work that they do, from helping people, encouraging them to enrol, to providing academic support, well-being support, making sure that you never feel alone. And sometimes that’s the hardest part of studying when you’re doing it all online at home. If you’ve got the opportunity to study with others and to get that academic and wellbeing support, it can make all the difference between whether you complete that degree that you start or not.

Now, the Universities Accord Interim Report that came out in July had a suite of recommendations that we were told should be implemented straight away. And number one was the expansion of these regional university study hubs. Well, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to double the number of study hubs nationwide, from 34 to 68. 20 more in regional Australia and 14 for the first time in the outer suburbs of our big cities. In places where the percentage of people with a uni degree is low and where it’s a long distance to get to a university campus. In places where it can make a difference for more young people, like the people I’ve had the privilege to meet today.

Applications for the first ten of those hubs open right now and applications will be open until the 15th of December and I want to see those first ten additional hubs open and operating by this time next year and then we’ll open applications for the next ten in regional Australia.

As I said before, this is about opening the door of opportunity wider for more Australians in the world that lies ahead. More and more young people are going to need to go to TAFE and uni and I want to make sure that it’s not just young people who live within ten kilometres of the CBD who get a crack at that education, that it’s young people right across the country and this is a key part of that.

Naomi, I think you were going to tell us a little bit about your experience working here. And is it Taylor, Tara. Tara, if you could tell us about your experience as well.

NAOMI CROKER: Hi, I’m Naomi Croker. I’ve grown up in Crookwell and Goulburn and been in the local area. My experience with the CUC and university is I study by distance online and I’m able to do that because the course I’ve chosen is equine science. It’s actually only run in certain universities, so I study through Charles Sturt University in Wagga and I’m able to do a lot of my online study thanks to the country university centre. It was actually an influential factor of going back to university as a mature age student and the help that I’ve received in enrolling upskilling in academic writing has been really beneficial.

Yeah, it’s also given myself and my husband the opportunity to stay local. We are farmers, I have an equine bodywork business and my husband also is a contract fencer, so we have calving at the moment, so there’s a lot that we actually have to prioritise and I’m able to do that and have a local study hub which is close to home with great internet and great support.

Studying by distance can be very isolating, but the network that we have here is fantastic. And Senator O’Neill mentioned that sometimes we don’t get to celebrate our achievements and I think studying online, we tend to, we do, we tend to diminish our achievements because we then move the goalposts and having this kind of support outside of the university helps other people, help you recognise your achievements. So, yeah, it’s been really beneficial.

O’NEILL: Naomi, tell them about your calving and your all-nighter – it’s a classic – it’s a great story.

CROKER: One example. Last week I had a 3000-word assessment due on Friday and got a call and had an issue with a heifer. it was an emergency C section, had the vet out waiting for the vet. Obviously vets have a lot of emergencies during the day. So, it was 6 hours I was out in the paddock with this heifer, making sure she was okay, assisting with the C section and then had to come back and try and finish and edit my assessment which I had to pull an all nighter to get that done. So, that’s just one of the examples. Thank you I’ll hand over to Tara.

TARA DUNBAR: Hi, I’m Tara Dunbar. I have been studying a Bachelor of Psychological Science for the last five years and I have been involved with the CUC Centre for those last five years. It’s really helped support me in being able to actually sit down and complete my assessments. The staff are really supportive. The network that we formed as students is really supportive. Being able to come in of an evening and being able to study away from home or during the day, away from home. So, I’m also a parent, I have three children, so being able to find that space where I’m not looking at washing, I’m not looking at getting the house clean, but I can step away and have that space where I can focus on what I need to.

Like today, I have an exam this afternoon or this evening. So, I’ve got my study today and it being school holidays, the kids are at home, so being able to move away from that space today is really important. I found that the CUC staff are really great. It’s imperative the support that they give, being able to work towards your degree as well. So, things we know, as life does, things get thrown at you all the time. So, it’s good to be able to have that support come in and go, well, let’s sit down, let’s work out a plan forward. How can we support you to complete your degree, which I have relied on several times over the last few years. But it’s a wonderful space and yeah, I’m glad that it’s here for us to use.

CLARE: Any questions? We’ll start off with hubs and then we can move on to anything else. And Chris once we move off hubs do you want to exit stage left [Indistinct] All the hard ones Chris gets.

JOURNALIST: Can you just tell us a little bit about the study hubs? And you’ve mentioned that there’s a lot of research that allows students to come and engage in those. Could you tell us a little bit about how much success these study hubs, such as the Goulburn ones has seen in terms of student engagement?

CLARE: Yeah. And Chris, add to this if you like, because I’m sure that you’ve got local experience right across the network, but in the development of the Accord Paper, the department did some analysis of where hubs are. What difference do they make? And the analysis was they make a big difference. They mean more young people in the community are starting a university degree and more people are finishing that degree. Think about the invisible brick wall that exists for so many young people in regional towns across the country where they feel like, I can’t get to university because it’s too far away.

This is about bringing university closer to home, making that dream possible and a reality. And the first couple of years of a degree are often the hardest. That’s where you’re most likely to drop out. And so the wrap-a-round support that you see in a centre like, this is as important as super-fast broadband because it’s that support, somebody to put their arm around you when you think, look, I just don’t know what this question means or I don’t know whether I can complete this task on time because I’ve got to do a C section for a cow.

All of those things count. I was telling some of the students here, I haven’t been to university for 25 years, but I’ve got this reoccurring nightmare that I haven’t finished my degree and then I wake up in a panic sweat and remember, yes, I have. It’s hard, and so all of that support really makes a difference. And so that’s why I’m keen to make sure that we provide this opportunity to more young people right across the country.

RONAN: I was going to add in terms of what it means for Goulburn here. So, if we look at the number of students who are studying currently, so we look at census data, it’s five times the number compared to other communities without a CUC in NSW here. So, that’s significant in terms of not only providing support for people who would study anyway, but for widening participation and for people who had always imagined, had hopes and dreams of going to university, but because of their circumstances or because of their connection to the community, that was never an option. So, for me, as a CEO, that’s incredibly inspiring to hear about those stories and also to see it in that data about the impact that it’s making.

CLARE: Maybe just reflecting on Naomi, one of the things you said, about staying local. One of the challenges that regional communities often have is that young people finish high school and then they go off to the big cities and don’t come home. And a centre like this provides the opportunity to study local and stay local, and that’s a great thing.

JOURNALIST: So, with the new study hubs, can we expect sort of linked job opportunities within those communities as well?

CLARE: Well, that’s part of it as well. Interestingly, there’s some medical students here. I don’t know whether they’ve gone they’ve gone –

SPEAKER: They’ve gone back to the hospital.

CLARE: I learned something today that I didn’t expect. We saw some medical students from ANU that are doing their practical experience at the hospital here and they’re doing their lectures virtually here at the study hub. So, that’s a really good example of how you link employment to what happens here in the study hub.

JOURNALIST: And you said that ten study hubs will open at a later date. Do you know when about that will be?

CLARE: Well, we’ll open applications for the first ten today. I want to get those applications back before Christmas and have them open by this time next year. And then we’ll open applications for the next ten about this time next year as well. And that’s important. We’ve broken it into two blocks for regional Australia because some communities will be more ready than others.

The idea that – the way it works is they might be hosted by a TAFE, or by a local government or another non-government organisation in town, and there’ll be some parts of the country who are ready to go and they’ll have their application written very quickly. And then there’ll be other people that hopefully might see this for the first time today and think, jeez, we could do with one of those. And so they’ll either have a crack this time around or they might want to put their application in again next year.

JOURNALIST: Are there any states or territories that you would like to see those applications come from specifically as well?

CLARE: All of them. All of them. Yeah. And you can see, have a look at the map, you can see quite a few in this neck of the woods, but as you can see, not so much in Queensland. So, the way this works is I want centres like this to be in the places where they’re really needed.

I want them to go to places where there’s a low percentage of people with a Uni degree at the moment, so we can help that community to get more people getting a crack at Uni. And it makes sense for them to go to a place where if it wasn’t for that centre, it’d be really, really hard to go to uni because the next campus is a couple of hundred kilometres away.

JOURNALIST: Minister, would you mind just on the uni rankings today, because a number of Australian universities seem to have dropped today. What do you make of that?

CLARE: We’ve got great universities. The fact that we’ve got six universities in the top 100 is evidence of that. We punch above our weight. Those rankings today show the link between rankings and international student numbers. That doesn’t surprise me because international student numbers plummeted during the pandemic. Students were basically told to go home and now students are back. We’ve got now, as of today, roughly the same number of international students at our unis that we had back in 2019.

But a great university is more than just about rankings. Fundamentally, it’s about students and supporting students and a great university shouldn’t be a place of privilege, it should be a place of opportunity. And it’s not just a place of sandstone, it’s places of bricks and mortar and bit of wood and timber and fibro. That’s what a university is for me. And I want to make sure that more Australians, wherever they live, get a crack at going to university, whether it’s in regional Australia or whether it’s in places like where I grew up, in the outer suburbs of our big cities. And that’s what the Accord is about. And we’ll see evidence of that when the final report comes down at the end of the year.

JOURNALIST: And just on the Accord, because I know you’ve set up the advisory panel on Violence on Campus that will advise the working groups, it’ll then advise you. I’m just interested, how is the conflict of interest, given that VC from Victoria University, Adam Shoemaker, is on that panel? The panel was run by Patty Kinnersly from Our Watch. They have an ongoing partnership at the moment. How is that conflict of interest managed in terms of how those discussions take place, but also any recommendations that come out of it?

CLARE: For a long time, students haven’t been heard. They’re being heard now. And I’ve made it clear that universities haven’t done a good enough job in this area. And I’ve made it clear that’s now going to change and that we’re going to take serious action here. That’s what the working group is about. To your specific point about conflicts of interest, I’ve asked the Department to provide me with advice on that, to make sure I can satisfy myself of that.

Next week, education ministers will meet in Hobart. So, next Thursday, a week from today, education ministers and higher education ministers will meet to be briefed by the working group on the work that they’ve done to date, so that we can assess the direction that they’re heading, and the type of actions that they’re going to recommend for us. Whether the role of TEQSA should change. Whether a separate stand-alone body should be established or not. I know, and we’ve had discussions about this Claudia before, the recommendation about a task force or some other model here. The principle I’ve adopted here is, it’s time to act. And I want to make sure that the action that we take is the right one.

JOURNALIST: Just on the conflict of interest stuff, because I heard what you said about you’ve asked the department to advise you. Did nobody bring this up when these people were being [Indistinct]

CLARE: All of that’s at arm’s length to me, as Minister, as you’d expect, as Minister, I’ve said, establish a working group, have representatives from every state and territory, as well as Patty Kinnersly. So, we’ve got an expert in sexual assault and harassment, and you’ve heard me say this before – speak to students, speak to organisations like End Rape on Campus, like Fair Agenda, like Stop, to make sure that student experience is at the core of the decisions brought to Ministers. Now, the stakeholder group was established by the Department. Your question is a legitimate one and I’m not shoving it off, but I’ve asked the department for advice on that.

JOURNALIST: And I take it then, that might be your answer to this next question. Because Universities Australia, as you know, was heavily criticised by the Senate Inquiry into consent laws. They’ve got a representative, as they rightfully should, on this panel in Catriona Jackson, but their PR, their Head of PR and Communications, is also attending these meetings. Do you think that’s appropriate?

CLARE: Yeah, I guess it is the same answer in the sense the Department appointed them. I’m interested in picking the brains of anyone that’s going to add value.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the representatives adds much value, though?

CLARE: Well, let’s see what comes of this. Ultimately the important thing here, Claudia, is not who’s on a panel, but what action does this panel recommend, what action do we take? And if the evidence shows, as it does, that too often universities and accommodation on universities aren’t safe places for young women, then action needs to be taken. This is not about talking anymore, this is about action. And we’ll see the first evidence of that when ministers are brief next Thursday.

JOURNALIST: The inquiry into consent laws agrees with you. They’ve said quite strongly that it’s very much time to take action. They’ve said the time for working groups has passed, but they still have a place. They’ve called for a task force. They’ve said that the need for this is urgent, given that this group will be advising you soon, but that ultimately this kind of doesn’t happen until later in the year. Is there anything happening between now and then that is concrete in this area that will lead to change?

CLARE: I’m not going to preempt what ministers might decide next Thursday, but this is coming quickly.

JOURNALIST: And just on the tertiary education regulator, because they’ve had 39 complaints related to mishandling of sexual violence issues since 2017. None of those triggered an investigation. Do you think that that is in line with community expectations? And do you think that TEQSA should actually be more clear about what will trigger an investigation?

CLARE: I think what it speaks to is clarification of what the role of TEQSA should be, whether it’s about regulating the system and universities, or whether it should be investigating individual student complaints, or whether that should be the responsibility of a separate entity or not.

That’s one of the things the working group’s looking at. The role of TEQSA going forward is also something that Professor O’Kane and the Accord team are looking at.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, I probably should have been more clear. These students complained about how universities handled their allegations and made complaints to TEQSA about that. And I actually spoke to a student earlier this week who said when she found out, when they found out, rather, that there had been no investigation into their complaint. They said that was devastating and shocking. And I just wonder, should the TEQSA Act be changed to be clearer around this so that students aren’t devastated and confused when they find out there actually hasn’t been an investigation?

CLARE: And I would be devastated and confused if I had made a complaint and nothing came of it. But just have a think about the answer I gave you to your previous question. Part of this is, what should the role of TEQSA be. Should TEQSA be about the investigation and responding to individual student complaints, or should it be about the regulation of universities? At the moment, it’s got both. But should that be the responsibility of a separate entity? That’s one of the things the working group is seeking to answer, and it’s one of the things ministers will look at next Thursday.

JOURNALIST: Are you open to changing the TEQSA Act to make it more clear?

CLARE: I’m open to doing what’s going to make a difference for young women in our universities. Okay. Thanks very much, everybody. Thank you.

ENDSMedia Contact: Nick Trainor