Press Conference – Sydney – Sunday 5 May 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
SYDNEY
SUNDAY, 5 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Making HECS-HELP fairer; Universities Accord; university protests; Willetton incident; social cohesion; gender-based violence education.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: The big hike in HECS debt last year hit a lot of Australians hard, in particular a lot of young Australians. And they’ve made their voice heard. And I’ve heard it, the Government’s heard it, and we’re acting. We’re fixing that and making sure that it never happens again.

Today I’m announcing that we are wiping about $3 billion of HECS debt for more than three million Australians. Last year I asked the Universities Accord team to look at this issue, and they have recommended that we set indexation for HECS at either inflation or wages, whatever is the lowest. And today we’re announcing that we’re doing that, and we’re going further than that. We’re going to backdate this to last year. In other words, we’re going to wipeout what happened last year and make sure that it never happens again.

For someone with an average HECS debt of about 26 grand, this means that their HECS debt will be cut by about by about $1,200. For someone with an HECS debt of, say, $40,000, it will mean that their HECS debt is cut by about $1,800.

This is making HECS fairer. This is a really big and important reform that will make HECS fairer. And it’s one part of the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord report that we will set out on budget night.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: How can you guarantee it will never happen again? What happens if wages and inflation both happen to be high in the future?

CLARE: We will put this in legislation. It requires legislation to do this. The Universities Accord team said that we should make sure that indexation doesn’t go up faster than the average wage. By legislating to do this to say that it should be set at either inflation or wages – whatever is the lower – it makes sure that indexation doesn’t go up faster than the average wage.

JOURNALIST: You said that the Accord has recommended that you do this. What do you want to do, though, for people that are living under the shadow of this growing debt?

CLARE: This is the action that we’re taking, and this is going to cut HECS debt for about three million Aussies by about $3 billion. The Universities Accord gave us a big report with a lot of recommendations. It’s bigger than one budget. I’ve said that a number of times. We need to identify what are the things we need to do first, and this is one of them.

JOURNALIST: This was one recommendation 16(d), but there was (a), (b), (c), (d), (e). Are you going to look at doing(a), (b), (c) and (e) as well?

CLARE: We’re looking at the whole report. This is a report not just for the next budget but for the next decade and beyond. This is one of the recommendations that we’ve identified that we need to act on now – and not just now, but we need to take action to fix what happened last year. In the Budget we’ll set out what the first stage is of our response to the Universities Accord. You’ll see that on budget night.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Coalition is calling for universities to break up pro-Palestinian encampments on campus or face fines. Would you support doing that, or universities taking further action about those?

CLARE: There’s always going to be protests in a democracy. There’ll always be protests at universities. There’ll always be protests anywhere in a democracy. What there’s no place for is hate. What there’s no place for is prejudice or discrimination. What there’s no place for is intimidation. What there’s no place for is anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. I think we’ve seen in the lifetime of our grandparents the evil that anti-Semitism can wreak. We’ve seen in our lifetimes the evil that Islamophobia can wreak. Just think about Christchurch. And what we need to do here is just lower the temperature. At a time where parts of our community are being cleaved apart, as political leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, we need to work together to bring the country together, not let it get torn apart.

JOURNALIST: Should they be removed? Or should they be allowed to stay, these camps?

CLARE: What I’ve said to vice-chancellors is that there is nothing more important than the safety of students at our universities. Students shouldn’t be afraid to go to university. Universities have codes of conduct. I’ve asked them to make sure that they implement their codes of conduct. You’ve seen examples over the course of the last week of universities acting on that.

JOURNALIST: Minister Clare, on your previous point, though, about intimidation and anti-Semitism, calls like from the River to the Sea or calls for Intifada, do they rise to the standard? Do they rise to the level of intimidation or anti-Semitism?

CLARE: Any words that stoke fear are intolerable. Any words that stoke fear in our community or make people not want to go to university are intolerable here. I’ve seen people say that those words mean the annihilation of Israel. I’ve seen people say that it means the opposite. I’ve seen people say that they’re slogans that Israeli political parties have used too. What I’d say is this: what I want all Australians to be calling for is a two-state solution. Two countries, two people, two states side by side where people can live in peace without fear, without terrorism, without checkpoints, without occupation.

JOURNALIST: Just on the Budget, is today’s announcement, is that all we’re going to see on education and from talking about steps in implementing the Universities Accord? Is there going to be more in the Budget, or is this it?

CLARE: Sorry, I thought I made that clear in my introductory comments – this is one part of the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord.

JOURNALIST: But just in terms of the Budget. I know, I understand that this is the first step in responding. But will there be anything else in the Budget? You know, student placement, funding for that.

CLARE: You’ll see more in the Budget is the short answer to that question. I’ve made the point in Parliament and outside the Parliament that we’ve got to do something about the cost of degrees. This helps with that. We’ve also got to do something about the cost of living for students while they try to complete their degrees. There’ll be things talked to that in the Budget and to respond to that in the Budget as well. But even more fundamentally what we’ve got to do is something about the cost of kids missing out on going to university in the first place.

You know, HECS is a good system. It’s helped to blow the doors of university open for more Australians. When I was born, when I was a little kid, only 5 per cent of Australians had a university degree; now it’s about 26 per cent. And about one in two, almost one in two Australians now have a university degree if they’re in the 20s or their 30s. And HECS has helped with that to provide the financial system to open the doors of university to more people. But not everyone. Not where I live, not where I grew up. It’s only about a quarter of young people in my neck of the woods that have a university degree. And we bear a cost for that.

What this report says is that by the middle of this century we need about 80 per cent of our workforce to either have a TAFE qualification or a university degree. And if we’re going to do that we’ve got to break down the invisible barrier that stops a lot of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, from our outer suburbs and from our regions from getting a crack at going to university in the first place and succeeding when they get there. And you’ll see the work that we’re doing on that front in the Budget.

JOURNALIST: But to combat that there’s also been calls to either freeze indexation on the HECS debt or scrap it – the Greens are calling to scrap it altogether. Is that possible?

CLARE: That’s not what the Universities Accord recommended. I saw also the suggestion that indexation should be capped at 4 per cent. The changes that we’re announcing today mean that indexation for the last year will be at 3.2 per cent. The purpose of this reform is that indexation doesn’t go up faster than wages. If you capped it at 4 per cent, this could still happen. For example, if you look over the last 10 years, wages and wage growth has been less than 4 per cent. So, the idea of capping at 4 per cent would mean that indexation would be higher than it would be under a scheme like this.

JOURNALIST: Minister Clare, are the pro-Palestine protests on campus becoming a threat to public safety?

CLARE: There is nothing more important than community safety. I made the point that in a free country like Australia there is always the right to protest, but it must be done peacefully, it must be done responsibly. There is no place for fear and intimidation and hate. That’s why it’s incumbent upon all of us – and I include politicians, religious leaders, community leaders, student leaders, members of the media here – we’ve just got to dial the rhetoric down, get the temperature to come down a little bit here and work together to try and bring the country together rather than letting it be torn apart.

JOURNALIST: Minister, we’ve seen a 16-year-old shot dead by police in WA. They say he was radicalised online. Does there need to be additional powers available to detain or charge individuals at risk of being radicalised?

CLARE: I haven’t been briefed on that matter. I understand the Prime Minister is being briefed on that matter and will release a statement shortly. Can I use this opportunity, though, to thank the West Australian police for the work that they do in helping to keep our community safe.

JOURNALIST: Minister Clare, do universities need more power to enforce their codes of conduct?

CLARE: That hasn’t been put to me. Universities have codes of conduct and the ability to enforce them. In fact, they are doing that. You can see evidence of that from the actions that the University of Queensland have taken in the last few days as well as the Australian National University and the work that Macquarie University is undertaking as well.

What we need to do better is improve communication between universities and student representatives, in particular Jewish students who are looking for more information about what is happening on campus. Last week I asked my department to convene a meeting of representatives of the Jewish community and Jewish students on campus with university leaders, vice-chancellors and peak groups. One of the key things that came out of that meeting was the need for better communication between universities and student representatives, and they agreed at that meeting to make sure that that’s the case.

JOURNALIST: Have you been brought in as education minister on conversations around violence against women in terms of, you know, potentially better education programs for younger students and also what’s happening around – on university campuses?

CLARE: Two separate but related points. In terms of university campuses, I made the decision and announced recently to establish a National Student Ombudsman. The evidence from the Human Rights Commission about sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities is terrifying and demonstrates a need to act. I brought together state and territory education ministers to agree to establish a national code as well as a National Student Ombudsman to respond to this, and I’ll introduce legislation into the parliament soon in order to implement that.

But this goes back further than just the doors of university. Truth be told, it goes back further than school as well. We have responsibilities as a country, as parents to make sure that we entrench in our children when they’re very young the values of making sure that all people in Australia are safe, in particular, Australian women. But we have a role to play at school as well. At the last election we committed to establishing a Respectful Relationships program in our schools. I’m in the process at the moment of getting agreements signed between the states and territories and the Commonwealth to roll that funding out. We expect that that program will roll out very soon.

JOURNALIST: Minister, at Columbia University in New York when they removed the encampments, that seemed to intensify things and make them even bigger. Will you be worried about that happening here?

CLARE: The last thing I want to see is violence on our campuses. The last thing I want to see is for this to break out into violence, into more fear. The last thing I want to see is people feeling intimidated or fearful of going to university. That’s why I stress the point that we’ve just got to lower the temperature here. There’s always a right to protest in a democratic nation like Australia, but there’s no place for fear and intimidation and hate or anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. And there is a role to play for all of us here – politicians, the media, religious leaders, community leaders here – to work together here to keep our country together, not let it get torn apart.

JOURNALIST: The vice-chancellor of Sydney uni, Mark Scott, has gone out quite strongly saying – he’s criticised the American response to this. He says it’s part of who we are as Sydney uni, in his words. Do you think that is the right approach, that what Mark Scott has been saying around these protests on campus?

CLARE: First, I’ve made the point to vice-chancellors that there’s nothing more important than the safety of students. Students need to feel safe to go to university. If students don’t feel like they’re safe to go to university, then more work is needed between the university and the student representatives to make sure that that is the case. That was part of the purpose of bringing student representatives and university leaders together last week.

JOURNALIST: So, you support Mark Scott’s approach to this?

CLARE: What I’m saying is university leaders need to work closely with students on campus to make sure that students are safe and feel safe. That’s an ongoing task. That’s a hard task at the moment, particularly for students of the Jewish faith and students of the Islamic faith at the moment, who every night wake up and hear more about what’s happening on the other side of the world. For many young Australians this is personal because it’s not just an event that’s happening on the other side of the world; this is family that are directly affected by this.

JOURNALIST: Minister Clare, what does further action look like? You said, you know, if students don’t feel like they’re safe on, you know, to come to campus, you know, that more engagement is needed are student leaders between universities et cetera, what does that look like? Because clearly something is wrong because, you know, Jewish students are reporting that they feel, you know, intimidated to come to campus, they’re no-go zones. So, what does that further action – you know, what does that further conversation look like?

CLARE: Yeah, I spoke to representatives of Jewish students last week. They were very supportive of that meeting. They found out at that meeting some of the things that universities were doing that they weren’t aware that they were doing. But they agreed that more needs to be done. I’m not going to step into the shoes of the university vice-chancellors, but they all agreed that they need to work more closely with students to make sure that students are safe and that they feel safe on campus.

JOURNALIST: Minister, I understand that you haven’t been properly briefed on the situation in WA with this teenager because it’s just happened.

CLARE: Yeah.

JOURNALIST: But off the back of what’s happened in Wakeley with the church stabbing and a teen charged with a terror act, are we going to see anything in the budget that’s going to help prevent students being exposed to radical ideas programs as such?

CLARE: There are programs that are run in schools at the moment that are very important to help with harmony in our community, to make sure that wherever racism exists in our community we try to quash it. As I said, there’s no place for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia in our universities. There is no place for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia or any sort of racism or hate anywhere in our community. And this isn’t just a responsibility for universities or for schools; it’s for all of us. This is related to the question I was just asked about the treatment of women in our society as well and respect for women. We all have a responsibility here as mums and dads as well as community leaders.

I won’t pre-empt what’s in the budget; it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to do so. But that is something which, as a representative of a very multicultural community in Western Sydney, is always at the core of my concern.

JOURNALIST: Minister Clare, what do you make of Sarah Henderson’s suggestion that universities that fail to enforce a code of conduct should be fined?

CLARE: As I said, universities have got a responsibility here to make sure that their students are safe. There is no more important task for universities than to make sure that students are safe. You saw that with the action that I’m taking in relation to sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities. And you see that here, I’m stressing the point that universities need to make sure that students are safe. They have codes of conduct. The point I would make here is that you’ve seen over the last few days that they are implementing those codes of conduct.

JOURNALIST: So [indistinct] fined or, you know, are you ruling out [indistinct]?

CLARE: No, what I’m saying is universities have codes of conduct and they should implement them, and they are.

JOURNALIST: The crossbench have called for you to go further on HECS debts to change the date indexation is applied and to change banks’ treatment of HECS debts. Are these things that you can do immediately or are they in the bucket that might take more time?

CLARE: On the issue of the way banks treat HECS debt, the Assistant Treasurer has written to the banks. He’s written to the ABA seeking more information on the way in which banks treat HECS debt. That is one of the recommendations that you highlight is in the report. In relation to all of the other recommendations, you’ll see the first stage of our response in the budget.

Can I make the point just as a related matter to the United States and the way student debt works in the United States. On average student debt in the US is double what it is in Australia. And in the United States you have to pay that debt back sooner – you pay that debt back six months after you graduate. The way HECS works is it’s an income-contingent loan; that you start paying that debt back once you reach an income of about $50,000.

I note the comments that the US President has made recently that they want to move to a scheme that they call SAVE, which is an Australian HECS-type model based on income-contingent loans. I think that tells us that the model that was developed by Bruce Chapman all those decades ago is a good system. It’s helped more people than ever before to get to university, but we do need to make it fairer, and that’s what the announcement we’re making today is all about. Thanks very much.

ENDS