Press Conference – University of Technology Sydney – Thursday 13 June 2024

SUBJECTS: Commonwealth Prac Payment; Making HECS fairer; Universities Accord; International students; AI deep fake technology; Consent education.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Can I thank UTS, the whole team here for inviting me to come along today to meet the nursing and the midwifery students who are here, and some of our plastic assistants who are with us on the beds as well.

I got a chance today to look at the simulation work, the simulation practical experience that students get, but there’s nothing like working in a hospital with real-life patients, and that practical training that nursing students get, that comes with a cost.

It’s a financial burden that a lot of nursing students and midwifery students face. That can mean that sometimes students don’t finish their degree or delay getting their degree. And we’re talking about here about some of the most important jobs in this country. We’re talking about people who signed up to do jobs that involve looking after us when we’re sick, or when we’re old, helping women during childbirth. 

And the policy that we announced in the Budget about paid prac, providing a bit of financial support for people while they do their practical training, is all about helping to address that, to encourage more people to want to be a nurse, more people to want to be a midwife, and for that matter, more people to become a teacher and more people to work in early education, more people to want to be a social worker too, help women when they’re facing the crisis of having to flee to a domestic violence refuge.

Many people have told me in the last 12 months that it’s the poverty they experience when they do their prac that can often mean that it’s hard to finish their degree. Now that’s either giving up part-time work ‑ we spoke a moment ago about a young woman I met who said she works as an assistant in nursing at a hospital while she’s at university, but when she does a prac, she works at the same hospital for 40 hours a week and doesn’t get paid at all, doesn’t get any financial support at all. She told me that that sometimes means that she has to choose between paying for parking at the hospital or what she’s going to eat that night.

What we’re doing in the Budget is about trying to address that. It’s the first time the Commonwealth Government has ever done this, a bit of practical support to help people with their practical training and help people who’ve signed up to do some of the most important jobs in our country to do that; encourage people to become nurses and midwives and help more people to complete that degree.

It’s just one part of what I’m trying to do to build a better and fairer education system. In the Budget we’ve set out the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord.

What that report said is that by 2050 ‑ some of us will still be in the workforce then ‑ by 2050 we’re going to need a workforce where 80 per cent of the people in the workforce, so everyone from 15 to 65, 80 per cent of the workforce is going to have a TAFE qualification or a university degree.

When I was your age, or a little bit younger, and Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were the Prime Ministers of this country, we saw a massive increase in the number of people finishing school, and for a lot of people behind the camera, you’ll remember those years; from 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent of people finishing high school, and that changed us as a country. We’re a different country now than we were back in the early 80s because more people are finishing school and then going off to TAFE and uni.

This report says we’ve got to take the next big step and become a country where we don’t just have 80 per cent of people finishing school, but we’ve got 80 per cent of people that have finished school and then gone to TAFE or to university, and to do that we need to do things like this.

We need to make the sort of changes to HECS that we’ve announced in the Budget too, to wipe $3 billion of HECS debt, that’s going to reduce the HECS debt for more than 3 million Australians.

So that helps with the cost of living, things like paid prac, it helps with the cost of degrees. But at its core what the Universities Accord about is helping more young people to get a crack at university in the first place.

Around 45 per cent of young people in their 20s and 30s today have a university degree, but not where I’m from about an hour west of here, not in the regions, not in the rural remote parts of Australia, and that invisible brick wall that stops a lot of young people from thinking that university’s for them, that they could be here, that they could become a nurse or a midwife, we’ve got to break that barrier down as well.

There are a number of things that we’re funding in the Budget designed to break that barrier down, whether it’s uncapping funding for free courses at university to prepare people to do a degree, or whether it’s changing the funding model, or whether it’s providing needs-based funding to help people who start a degree to finish it.

All of those things are going to be fundamental if we’re going to help to make sure more people get a crack at uni and succeed there.

And even that’s not enough, because reform can’t just start at the university gate, or at the ground floor where the elevator is. We’ve got to change our whole education system.

Over the last seven years we’ve seen a drop in the number of kids finishing high school across the country from 85 per cent down to 79 per cent, and in public schools it’s even bigger. It’s dropped from 83 per cent to about 73 per cent.

So at a time when we need to help more people go to uni and go to TAFE we’re seeing a drop in the number of people finishing high school, and that’s why funding our public schools properly is critical, and tying that to real reform, particularly to help kids who fall behind when they’re little to catch up.

Can I end by just congratulating the Victorian Government today on the reforms that they’re announced in the science of teaching, making sure that it’s evidence‑based, with a real focus on phonics. The reading wars are over, we know what works, and that’s what the Victorian Government is rolling out in classrooms, and they’ve announced that today.

I want to congratulate them on the reforms that they’ve announced. It complements what we’re doing at university to improve the course at university for teaching students, so teachers come out of university with all the skills they need to teach young people to read, because we know that by the age of eight you need to learn how to read so that from eight onwards you can read to learn. You can’t be a nurse or a midwife unless you’ve got those fundamental skills, and what Victoria’s announced today off the back of what New South Wales has announced are really important reforms to make sure that more kids get the skills they need to finish school and then go on to TAFE or to uni.

Now, I’ve gone on a bit. I’ll shut up now and hand over to our students to talk about their own experience and why this is important.

ELIJAH GORDON: Hi there, my name is Elijah, I’m a third‑year nursing student here at UTS. I think this announcement is really important and really positive for both nursing and midwifery students.

I think it shows that the Government wants to support us as we go through training into ultimately roles that are really important for our community and really essential for the way Australia works.

I think this is personally going to be really helpful. I am a final‑year student, so I won’t quite make the cut for getting this, that’s all right, I think it’s really essential that students that are coming through have the backing to do placement.

Placement is such an essential part of our uni education. We’ve seen before that we’ve had to go on the plastic mannequins. They’re great, and we practise lots of skills, but it’s only when you go, and you actually meet patients face‑to‑face and interact with them that you actually get to properly practise those skills.

And so, I think the subsidy to help students on prac will be really beneficial for us, particularly as it alleviates some of the potential mental stress of when you’re on placements, and you’ve already got, you know, first time maybe doing an injection or the first time you’re looking after a really sick patient, and I think it’s actually really helpful that you don’t have to worry about, you know, “How am I going to buy food this week, or how am I going to pay for petrol or parking at placements.”  Thank you.

SARAH MORABITO: Hi, my name is Sarah, I am a third-year midwifery student here at UTS. One of the greatest things about this degree has been completing the amount of clinical hours we have to undergo. Then at the end of this year I’m expected to complete around 1,000 clinical hours, which is really great, really positive, and that is where you consolidate all of your learning. It is that hands‑on experience in the hospital that we need.

I definitely think that this student support funding will encourage students to have, you know, that reduced cost‑of‑living pressure, such as paying for parking, paying for petrol, you know, if you’ve got your car insurance that needs paying for [indistinct] living pressures. I definitely find for myself, for example, there have been many times where I’ve had to toss up between where my financial priorities lie as I’ve been completing, you know, 40 hours a week at the hospital and trying to balance that.

CLAIRE LEARNED: Hi, my name’s Claire. I’m a first-year mature‑age midwifery student. This payment is going to be absolutely life-changing for me. As a mother of two small children, I’m often balancing between practical work, placement and looking after my babies. There are literally some days where I’m doing 16‑hour days between my study and my work and looking after my children.

I cannot wait for this payment to be available for myself and other future mature-age students who might also want to enrol in this course who previously couldn’t financially afford it.

CLARE: Thanks guys.

JOURNALIST: S&P Global is warning international student caps could erode financial performance and damage global rankings of Australia’s top universities. Does that make you reconsider your approach to the sector?

CLARE: International education is really, really important, not just for our universities, but for our economy as well. It makes us money, creates jobs here in Australia, but more than that, it makes us friends.

I get that international education is one of those rare things that doesn’t just financially benefit us as a country, but it creates friends across the sea, across the or side of the world, because when you come to Australia and study, you fall in love with the country, then you take that love and affection for us as a country back home with you.

And in the world, we live in, you can’t buy that. That’s really, really important. And so I say in response to that, that this is not about taking a meat axe to international education or to our universities. It’s about making sure that we provide our universities with certainty and stability and long‑term growth for this important national asset.

JOURNALIST: S&P Global has also warned planned caps will hurt operating margins and the university sector is warning of potentially thousands of job losses. Are caps too hard of an answer when the sector has become so dependent on international students?

CLARE: We regulate the number of Aussie students that go to university, we don’t currently regulate or set caps on the number of international students. It strikes me as common sense that we can do the same in both, and that’s what this is about.

What’s happened over the last couple of years is that the pandemic hit, international students went home, they were pretty much told to go home, and as the pandemic waned, students have come back, they’ve come back quicker than anyone expected, both here and around the world.

As students have come back, so have some of the shonks and the crooks that feed off this industry, and so the legislation in front of the Parliament is designed to tackle that.

But also, students that come back quicker than expected, it’s important that we provide the sort of certainty and stability that this sector needs to maintain its social licence to operate.

And just to give you a little bit of perspective, because your question’s about unis, there’s about 10 per cent more international students at our unis today than there were before the pandemic, but there’s about 50 per cent more international students in our vocational education providers than there were before the pandemic.

International education is not just about people coming from another country to study at uni here, it’s also people coming from another country to study in one of our VET providers. As we look at this and we set caps, we’re looking not just at unis where it’s gone up by 10 per cent, but in the VET sector where it’s gone up by considerably more.

The other thing I’d add is that international education is not one‑way street. It’s not just about young people coming from one side of the world to Australia to study. It can be, it is, and it can be even more, Australian universities setting up campuses overseas, because there’s a lot of people who want to come to Australia to study. Not everybody can afford to do that, whether it’s the cost of the degree or the cost of living, paying for rent and food when you get here. And so, if Australian universities set up campuses overseas, then that provides an opportunity for even more people to get an education at one of our first-class education providers. And that’s happening in India, for example, in the last 12 months we’ve seen Deakin University and Wollongong University set up campuses in Gujarat.

JOURNALIST: Thank you. And a planned crackdown on student visa hopping will see some genuine students fall through the cracks. What safeguards will you have to ensure that doesn’t happen?

CLARE: The details of that, my colleague, Clare O’Neil, Minister for Home Affairs, can talk to. One of the things that we’ve seen happen over the last 12 months is that students have come back, some students have enrolled in a university degree, and then they get approached at a railway station or somewhere else by an education agent about enrolling in a VET course for a smaller price. They enrol in that VET course, they stop going to uni, the university suffers a financial loss, they never turn up to the VET course, and in effect what’s happening here is the system’s been manipulated or abused as a back door just to work here. So we’ve closed that loophole.

What Clare O’Neil has announced here is about effectively tackling another issue where students will come and get a degree, then work with the benefit of a graduate visa, and then when that visa’s about to expire, enrol in another course, usually in a VET course.

What we want to see is not people caught in limbo where they graduate with a degree here in Australia and then lose those skills because they might have qualified as an engineer and now, they’re working as an Uber driver, or they’re working in a coffee shop. We want them to use those skills to get jobs in the areas where they’ve got those qualifications, and if they do that, then they can transfer into one of those skilled visas.

JOURNALIST: Look, I’ve just got a two-fold question when it came to the AI generation of nude images at a Melbourne school. So the first one I just want to ask about is what happens in instances like this; what do you think the schools should do?

CLARE: The first thing I’d say is this is terrifying. My first thoughts are for the young women that have been the victims of this. Obviously, in a circumstance like this, I would expect that the school principals and the leaders in those schools take action against any students that have been involved in perpetrating these sorts of horrific images.

To give you an example of the seriousness with which the Government takes this, there’s legislation that’s been introduced into the Parliament, I think only in the last week or so, which means serious jail time for people who use deep fake imagery to produce this sort of content or circulate it on the web.

It’s hard to think of something more frightening or more awful than the use of AI technology to then perpetrate these false images and circulate them online.

JOURNALIST: And then just finally from me, in terms of broader initiatives sort of comes to education, so in Victoria I believe is the only State that has a school-wide approach when it comes to integrating consent and discussions about some of these issues. Just wondering if you could make some comments on whether you think there should be a national approach to consent education. I know there’s a work taskforce, working groups looking at this. Do we have any updates on when they’ll report and when we might be able to get some movement in this space?

CLARE: Everybody’s got a responsibility here. We’re not going to be a better, safer country for all Australians unless we tackle this as political leaders, but also as parents, and there’s a role to play in the classroom too.

That’s why we’re providing, something in the order of $70 million, a little bit more than that, for consent and respectful relationships education right across the country, nationwide. I’m in the process at the moment of finalising agreements with all States and Territories about the way in which they will roll that funding out.

There is no silver bullet here, but there is a role to play in the classroom to make sure that boys and young men in particular understand how important this is. As I said, I recognise it as a role for pollies, for parents, but there’s also a role in the classroom here as well, and that investment is going to be very important in making sure that we shape our boys into respectful young men.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, do you think the [indistinct] by the start of the 2024 year ‑ sorry, 2025?

CLARE: I would hope so. That’s the subject of the negotiations with the States at the moment. But hopefully, we will be able to finalise those agreements with the states very soon.

JOURNALIST: Thanks for that, mate.

CLARE: Thank you.

ENDS