Press Conference – University of Newcastle – Friday 24 May 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
THE UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE
FRIDAY, 24 MAY 2024

SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Thanks for being here this morning. My name’s Sharon Claydon. I am so delighted to have my good friend and colleague Minister for Education Jason Clare back at the University of Newcastle. 

He is, of course, no stranger to our region and, indeed, this most recent budget was in my view really tailor-made for the University of Newcastle where there is terrific acknowledgement of the exceptional work of the enabling programs that run from this university. The University of Newcastle is the oldest and largest of the enabling programs in this country. If anyone needs to know how to do it well, you come to the University of Newcastle, which is why I’m delighted to have Jason Clare back again.

We’ve just heard some really exceptional stories from students about the profound difference the enabling program has made to individuals’ lives, to lives of families surrounding and to our community. 

And on that note, I’m going to hand straight across to Minister Jason Clare. 

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks, Sharon. It’s great to be here in Newcastle. Thank you, Alex, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University for making me feel so welcome and giving me the opportunity this morning to talk to some of the students who are doing the Open Foundation course who are graduates of it whose lives will be changed and are being changed exponentially by it, not just their lives, their kids’ lives will be changed by it as well. And this town, this city, is being changed by it, and has been changed by these enabling courses. 

When I was a kid growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did something that really changed our country forever. We went from a country where about 40 per cent of kids finished school to almost 80 per cent of kids finished school. That was nation-changing stuff. In the budget last week we set ourselves a new target that by the middle of this century, by 2050 – so in just over 25 years’ time – that we’ll have a workforce where not just 80 per cent of people have finished school but 80 per cent have finished school and then gone to TAFE or to university. 

Now to hit that target we need more young people to get a crack at going to university, in particular, a lot more young people from the outer suburbs of our big cities and from our regions to get a crack at going to university. Almost one in two people in their 20s and 30s have a uni degree at the moment, but not where I’m from, not the western suburbs of Sydney, not in the ‘Gong, not in Newcastle, not in regional Australia. So how do we fix that? How do we change that? 

I got a chance when I was brand new into the job just over a year and a half ago to come to Newcastle University to see what Open Foundation is doing and I was struck immediately that this is the way to do it. These fee-free courses that give people a chance to get the skills that they need to succeed at university are really the bridge between school and uni. It’s a bridge for people who finish school but aren’t ready for uni. It’s a bridge for people who may not have finished school to get all of the skills that they need to succeed at university. It’s for young people, it’s for older people – and I met a whole bunch of them today which just reinforced for me that this is what we need to do if we want to build the sort of country where more people have more skills, where 80 per cent of our workforce has a university qualification or a TAFE qualification. 

At Newcastle University now one in five people who get a uni degree start with one of these fee‑free courses. I told the story inside about Jennifer Baker. This is just one of 70,000 people over the last 50 years who’ve gone through Open Foundation. Jennifer Baker became a mum at 19, she did hospitality for 10 years then she saw an ad in the paper for one of these fee-free courses and thought, “Maybe I could do this.” Now she’s got a science degree, an honours degree, a PhD and a Fulbright Scholarship. She’s a computational medicinal chemist. Her life has been changed by these courses, and she’s just one of 70,000. There’s going to be an exhibition here I think in July, Alex, is that right? 

ALEX ZELINSKY, VICE CHANCELLOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE: Yes. 

CLARE: Where you’ve got a really hard task to pick 50 graduates of the 70,000 to tell the story of 50 years. And I don’t envy the person who’s got to pick those 50 people to tell the story of 70,000 because this really is a program that builds a bigger, wider, stronger bridge for people from school to university, to build the skills our country needs, to build the country of our imagination. And that’s why we invested so much in the budget last week in this, because I’m convinced that this is the way to build a better country and a fairer country. 

Happy to take some questions. 

JOURNALIST: What is it particularly about the Open Foundation course here compared with other similar courses around the country that appealed to you? 

CLARE: Yes, there’s a whole bunch of universities that do this. I think it’s fair to say that no-one does it better than Newcastle. Newcastle has been doing it longer than anyone else. Newcastle educates more students and provides this foundation course to more students than anyone else. The different universities are funded differently for this. So I think that what we’re doing, what we’re saying we’ll do in the budget, is uncap funding so that there’s more funding for more universities to do this and to fund it at the proper level. By doing that we’ll encourage more universities to try to replicate the secret sauce that you find here in Newcastle. 

JOURNALIST: Just on moves by the government to cap immigration, so legislation that will allow you to cap student intakes at individual universities, as I understand it. That has the potential to impact Newcastle University and its revenue streams. What can you say to the university to guarantee that their economic model won’t be undermined by this? 

CLARE: The first thing I’d say is that I recognise just how important international education is not just to the university here in Newcastle but to our country. International education is the fourth biggest export in this country. It’s the biggest export we don’t dig out of the ground. It makes us money. It doesn’t just make the university money; it makes us money as a country. You see that in all the jobs that it creates here in town and right across the country. 

It also makes us friends because when you come to Australia, and you get an education, and you fall in love with the place and some of the people – maybe one special person – you take that love and affection for our country back home with you. So in that sense it’s like no other export. 

The pandemic cut international education to smithereens and turned a $40 billion export industry to a $20 billion export industry. Students were basically told to go home. Students are now coming back, but as students have come back some of the shonks and crooks who feed off the sector have come back as well. So the legislation, firstly, puts in place the necessary measures to protect the integrity of the system to make sure it’s sustainable in the long term. 

As you rightly point out, it also sets a limit or a level per individual universities, but not just universities, for vocational providers as well. Recognising the fact that international students have come back to Australia, and for that matter Canada and the UK and other countries, much faster than we expected them to come back. I said last year that my department predicted that international students would be back at pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2025. They’re back at that level now and above it. 

And so in order to maintain the social licence for this important export industry what we’ve said is that we’ll set levels, and that will be for individual universities and vocational providers but also potentially for courses as well and locations where those courses are provided. The intent here is to provide sustainable growth and also to provide certainty for industries as they plan for the future. 

JOURNALIST: Vice-chancellor, are you able to answer questions along those lines? 

ZELINSKY: Sure. Well, let me firstly welcome the minister back to Newcastle. You’re always welcome here. And I think the remarks you’ve made about the Open Foundation, it’s just fantastic to be recognised. And I just want to say that our university is ready to help the rest of Australian universities get to where we are and learn from the experiences. So what we need to do is really move things along and improve them. Yes, so that’s the very first thing I want to say. 

The other thing I want to say is the minister has really shown a lot of leadership around teacher education. And he came to graduation here last year and talked about that program, the campaign the government has had. And we’re actually seeing the results of that. Our enrolments here to teacher education both post-graduate and under-graduate levels are right up. In some cases, postgraduate over 250 per cent, undergraduate up 20 per cent. So we’re now starting to produce those very important teachers in that pipeline for the future. So this is a really important reform. People don’t really pick up on it, but I really want to congratulate the minister on this leadership. 

JOURNALIST: On the question of the immigration caps and also the on overseas intakes, as I understand it, the university relies significantly on overseas students for revenue. The estimate I see – I saw was about 94 million last year. That’s a significant amount of money if your student intake dries up. 

ZELINSKY: Well, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that. And as the minister said, student – international students are Australia-fourth largest export industry. One of the things we’ve seen with international education is previously it’s been basically uncapped, unlimited and you could charge whatever you want. In the domestic market our numbers are capped and we also – the prices there are set by the government. So we actually are used to that kind of regulation and it’s always been negotiated with the government in good faith. [Indistinct] prices up, they give us more funding and sometimes we create more positions. So now we’re going to engage in I think a very productive and I think constructive discussion about what should be the course limits for – sizes for various courses that we offer. And I think we’ve got capacity to probably grow our numbers. A lot of the international students have been generally concentrated in the capital cities. And there’s been more concentration in recent times post-COVID. I think there’s a real opportunity for regional cities like Newcastle to take more students. So I’m very much looking forward to have a constructive discussion with the government. And I’m confident we’ll reach a solution which is viable and sustainable, because we want to make sure people support what we do in the sector. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, just back on the Open Foundation, is it a matter of one size fits all? 

CLARE: No, I think different universities will always do it differently. And, you know, one of the interesting things I took out of the conversations with some students just a moment ago is that a lot of students will start the course thinking that they’re going to do one degree and then in the middle of the course work out that they want to do another degree. What’s common in the feedback I got from students, though, is that this is a course that changed their life. Sometimes it was an ad in the paper that they saw, sometimes it was their wife or their partner that said, “I’ve done it, you can do it too.” Sometimes it’s their son who’s doing an engineering degree at Newcastle University who said, “Mum, you always wanted to be a nurse. Why don’t you try?” 

Just because you didn’t finish high school doesn’t mean that you can’t go to university. You can do this at Newcastle and you can do this anywhere. And so I got a chance to meet one woman today who grew up in Fiji, didn’t get to finish school, has raised two amazing children. One of them is doing engineering here at Newcastle now. And it was him who said, “Mum, you can do this.” And she’s now finishing that Foundation course in the next four weeks and hoping to study nursing here and become a nurse here in Newcastle. 

JOURNALIST: Is there anything more that the Federal Government can do to address the 1,000 or so rural teacher vacancies across New South Wales given that the state programs and incentives really aren’t working that greatly? 

CLARE: We have a teacher shortage crisis in this country. And it’s 10 years in the making. And it’s going to take time to turn it around. But there is good news in the news that at Newcastle University we’re seeing more people enrolling in teaching this year, both in the under-graduate course and the post-graduate course. Alex, what were the numbers you just gave me? 

ZELINSKY: We’re up several hundred students. Overall we’ve got 3,000 students in the program. And our first student intake is up about 300, 400. 

CLARE: So that’s great news, and we’re seeing it up in a number of universities across the country. There’s also more teachers in our schools this year than last year. One of the reasons I think for that is the decision of the New South Wales Government to give a considerable pay increase to teachers as well. In the Budget last week we took it a step further and said we’ll provide financial support for teaching students while they do their prac. A lot of teaching students have made the point to me over the last couple of years as we’ve put together the reforms to higher education that we announced last week that sometimes they have to quit their part-time job to do the unpaid prac. That’s teaching students in schools and nursing students in hospitals. And that can sometimes mean that people put off finishing their degree because they can’t afford to do their prac. What I’m hoping is that the decision that we took in the budget to provide financial support while you do your prac will encourage more people to want to be a teacher, more people to want to be a nurse or a social worker as well and help all of those teaching students at Newcastle and at universities across the country right at the moment to finish their degree and get into the classroom. 

JOURNALIST: We have an example at Merewether Public School where a $20,000 sign-on bonus isn’t enough to get people to apply for jobs. So whilst it’s great to have more people studying there and throw money at them, how do we actually get them out into the regions? 

CLARE: There is not one single fix here. There’s a whole bunch of things we need to do. So paid prac is part of it, salary is part of it. We’re now offering $40,000 scholarships to encourage people to become a teacher too. That pays for the cost of your HECS plus the cost of living while you’re at university. If you go and work as a teacher in a very remote part of Australia we’ll also wipe your HECS debt after a number of years as well. 

So there’s no silver bullet here. But one thing we do know is that the most important thing in the classroom is the teacher. It sounds cliched, but it’s true. And we need more teachers. And so that’s why we’re focused on tackling our teacher shortage crisis. I work with state ministers right across the country on that. But not just that. What we also need to do is fund our schools properly, fund our public schools properly. Non-government schools are funded at the Gonski level at the moment; no public school is, except in the ACT. And I’ve struck a deal with WA to get all of those public schools in WA to the full Gonski level by 2026. I’ve struck a deal with the Northern Territory to get all the public schools in the Northern Territory to that level by 2029. And I’ve got $16 billion on the table to do a deal with every state and territory in the country. To put that in perspective, it will be the biggest extra investment in public education by the Commonwealth Government in this country’s history ever. And that’s not a blank cheque. That money would be tied to the sort of things that are going to make a difference in our schools, that are going to make sure that kids that fall behind at school get the extra wraparound support that they need to catch up and to keep up and to finish school. 

So it’s what we do to help make sure we’ve got more teachers in the classroom, to make sure we don’t have teachers leaving the classroom because they’re overloaded with the extra work that you don’t expect you have to do when you become a teacher. And it’s funding our schools properly to make sure that more kids finish school and get a chance to step into these Open Foundation courses or go straight to uni. Thanks very much. 

SHARON CLAYDON: We’ve got some students from the Open Foundation course that are happy to share their stories.

JOURNALIST: What’s your name? 

LIAM GLEESON: I’m Liam Gleeson. I’m currently studying with Open Foundation. I’m getting towards the end of the course in about three weeks. 

JOURNALIST: Yeah, okay. And what are you hoping to study? 

GLEESON: Paramedicine. 

JOURNALIST: Okay. So can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be in the Open Foundation? 

GLEESON: Yeah, I graduated in 2014, high school. And originally I wanted to study education, an English teacher. Unfortunately towards the end of the first year of study there [indistinct] off that path. I fell into kind of substance abuse issues. I spent the next number of years struggling with that. Having [indistinct] break free of that, I [indistinct] and I [indistinct]. I was fortunately saved by some amazing paramedic staff and some nurses, and after my time in rehab [indistinct] wanted to do. And [indistinct] those paramedics today, and I’d like to go into that to help people in the same situation. Open Foundation has given me the path to do that. 

JOURNALIST: Wow. That’s quite a story. Are you from Newcastle? 

GLEESON: I am. 

JOURNALIST: And how have you found Open Foundation? Has it been harder than you thought or challenging or has it been – how do you feel? Because I suppose at first it can be intimidating at times? 

GLEESON: Not harder than I thought, but, honestly, I was quite nervous [indistinct] without study. But it’s – I’ve had some great teachers who have [indistinct]. It wasn’t too [indistinct]. It’s obviously changed my expectations. You expect like, [indistinct]. 

JOURNALIST: What do you feel like life would have looked like or panned out to be if it weren’t in Open Foundation? 

GLEESON: Very different. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try and – I probably wouldn’t have [indistinct]. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to study again and do this course. 

JOURNALIST: Thanks for sharing that. 

CLAYDON: And one more. 

ZEE JOHNSON: Hi, my name is Zee Johnson. I completed Open Foundation in 2019 and I came to it at a point in my life in my late 40s when most people would think about winding down in life. My husband had a stroke in 2013 and our youngest son was diagnosed with autism. So from the sales and marketing background and the financial security that we had, overnight that was gone. So over the next few years where we were able to get rehabilitated to a point where I realised it’s up to me now to try to rebuild some financial security. And it was at that time that I decided Open Foundation would be the way to go. And I was fortunate enough to get the support I needed. 

I didn’t struggle academically; it was what life was throwing at me that was making it very, very difficult. And the program gave me the support I needed. It gave me the start I needed to enter into my undergrad degree, which was in biosciences. I successfully completed that degree with distinction, went on to honours, which I’m completing at the end of this year in ovarian cancer research at HMRI. And the biggest change, though – I’m fortunate because I’ve seen Open Foundation from the lens of a student, but I’ve also seen it through the lens of staff. I was offered the opportunity to start teaching throughout my degree, and when I completed my degree, I currently lecture to the health sciences and coordinate courses in the Open Foundation program. And the reward that we receive to see students coming through is even more rewarding than what I experienced with myself. So I don’t know if that gives you enough kind of background to my story. 

JOURNALIST: You’re also from Newcastle? 

JOHNSON: Yes, born and bred Newcastle. 

JOURNALIST: You mentioned it gave you the support you needed. Can you explain that a bit? 

JOHNSON: Yes, so you can understand that I went from a position of financial security to having to rely on a carer’s pension. So there were numerous scholarships that were available – equity, diversity, opportunity support, innovation are really big values at the University of Newcastle. And it gave me the extra financial support at a time when I needed it. But also the amazing – the program is free, but there are support programs, there are peer-assisted study programs that are all funded free. There are extra drop-in sessions that staff put on to allow students the extra help that they may need. Allowance is made for students with disability or carer responsibilities around extensions or adverse circumstances. It’s a real network of support that’s there for students. 

I mean, the fact that the program is free is amazing to allow opportunity, you know, to be available to people everywhere from all backgrounds and circumstances. But then to have not just the program be free but all the support that’s given as well be free, that’s what allows people to really see it through, I think. I think that’s a big factor in our numbers. I mean, my story is one of 70,000 over the last 50 years. But that wouldn’t continue to happen if there weren’t all these supports and the support that we receive all around in the community. 

JOURNALIST: And what’s your goal going forward in terms of career-wise? 

JOHNSON: My goal career-wise is next year stepping into a PhD. And I’m really being drawn towards the area of enabling education because that’s where I’m seeing lives change. My life changed, my family’s life changed. I’m able to now help support others change their lives.