Radio Interview with Dave Marchese – Triple J Hack – Monday 6 May 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
RADIO INTERVIEW
TRIPLE J HACK
MONDAY, 6 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Universities Accord; making HECS fairer; Commonwealth Prac Payment

DAVE MARCHESE: Let’s ask the guy in charge. Education Minister Jason Clare is with us now. Minister, thanks for coming on Hack.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, mate. It’s great to be here.

MARCHESE: Do you think that these announcements are going to be enough to satisfy struggling students across the country?

CLARE: This is the first part of the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord. What I announced yesterday is about making HECS fairer. It’ll cut HECS debt across the country by about $3 billion. It will reduce the HECS debt of about 3 million Australians. When that big hike happened to HECS indexation last year, it hit a lot of people hard, particularly a lot of young Australians, and they’ve made their voice heard and I heard it. It requires legislation, and so we’ll introduce legislation to implement that so that those HECS debts can be reduced.

MARCHESE: I mean, as we’ve heard, students have welcomed this, but a lot of students are saying it does need to go further. And if we talk about this HECS help announcement, it doesn’t really address the core problem of debts potentially spiralling out of control. Like, if we do have both high inflation and high wage growth in the years ahead, students are still going to be vulnerable. So, why not cap the amount so students know the absolute maximum?

CLARE: Well, if we cap the amount, then potentially indexation would be higher than what it will be under this model. If you look at the wage price index over the last ten years, for example, it’s never been at 4 per cent. So, those arguing that we should cap this at 4 per cent, which I’ve heard out there, would have meant that HECS debt would be higher. I’m taking the advice of the Universities Accord experts who looked at this for twelve months and have given us a blueprint for higher education reform for the country for the next decade and beyond. And their advice is that the best approach here, which I’ve also heard a lot of people argue for over the last twelve months, is that it should be set at either inflation or the wage price index, whatever’s the lowest. We’ve said, yep, I think that is the best way to do it, to make sure that indexation never grows faster than the average wage. And not only that, we’re going to go further than that, we’ll backdate it to wipe out what happened last year.

MARCHESE: Is the government going to change when indexation is implemented? Because our listeners are saying this isn’t fair, the June 1 date, because it means payments that they’ve made throughout the year aren’t deducted before indexation’s applied. Are you going to change that date?

CLARE: Well, there are a whole bunch of recommendations we’ll set out in the Budget on Budget night, the first stage of our response.

MARCHESE: So, will you change the indexation date?

CLARE: I’m not going to pre-empt the Budget, mate, but what I will say is the Universities Accord is bigger than one Budget. To implement it is going to take decades. What you’ll see on Budget night is the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord. We won’t set out the things that we will do and won’t do, but it’ll identify the things that we’re prioritising that we think we need to do first.

MARCHESE: Okay, so no news on that indexation date just yet. Can I ask, how does it work if you’ve paid off your debt last year? Like if you really tried to pay off your debts because you were worried about higher indexation, how’s the credit going to work? Does that come off what you owe in tax? Because it obviously can’t come off your HECS because you’ve already paid it off.

CLARE: Yeah, that’s right. So, you get a tax credit, so it’ll come off your tax or a tax refund. Really good question, mate. We wanted to make sure that for people over the last twelve months who’ve paid off their HECS debt, that they don’t miss out either.

MARCHESE: What about the Jobs Ready Graduates program? Because the University’s Accord was pretty scathing with that, said it was a failure. Are you going to scrap it?

CLARE: No. They made the point that if the intention of that, and I think you and I have talked about this before, if the intention was to get fewer people doing arts degrees, then it didn’t work. Last time I checked, there are more people doing arts degrees than before that change took place. But my answer to that question is the same as the question you asked me just a minute ago. You’ll see the first stage of our response to that report in the Budget.

MARCHESE: Because there are students who’ve obviously been hit with higher fees under this scheme and they’re saying, well, why aren’t we being refunded? It’s not fair. If it is a failure and we have been paying too much money, we want the money back.

CLARE: Everybody that has a HECS debt benefits from the announcement yesterday, all 3 million people with a HECS debt. But there are a bunch of recommendations in the report about one, the cost of degrees, two, cost of living, how you support students while they’re at uni. And I made an announcement today that we’ll talk about, I think, in a sec, about paid prac, how we provide financial help to students while they’re studying and doing their prac. The report also talks about the cost for this country of young people not getting a crack at going to university at all. And you’ll see some of the reforms that we will be prioritising to make sure that we tackle that invisible barrier that exists that stops a lot of young people from our outer suburbs and from the regions and from disadvantaged backgrounds from ever getting a chance to go to university in the first place.

MARCHESE: Yeah, this is Hack. I’m Dave Marchese, speaking with Education Minister Jason Clare about this student relief package that the Government’s announced in the lead up to the Budget. Minister. A lot of questions about the payment for mandatory work placements, which has also been announced. A lot of students happy with this. Some are also questioning, though, why it doesn’t apply to them and the amount as well. Like on Instagram, Talia says “$320 a week. That’s kind of a joke. The Australian government needs to do better.” What do you think? That $319 a week, is it actually enough for students that have to give up work and potentially travel far away and find a place to stay?

CLARE: It’s not designed to be a wage replacement. It’s not designed to be a wage. It’s designed to be a bit of financial help, a bit of financial support.

MARCHESE: Would you like to see universities and industries step up as well, to also contribute?

CLARE: What the report, the Universities Accord report said, is that we should prioritise teaching early education, nursing, midwifery and social work degrees. This is something that the Commonwealth has never done before. So, this is a big change. We’re talking here about people signing up to do some of the most important jobs in our country, educating our kids, looking after us when we’re sick or when we’re old, in aged care or in the case of social work, amongst other things, helping women fleeing domestic violence in our refuges. The report says that this is where government should focus first and that’s what we’re doing in the announcement I’ve made today.

MARCHESE: And so what about those other students that are impacted by placement poverty? Because, as you say, teaching students, nursing students, midwives, social workers, they’re included. But the other degrees, I mean, we got a message here from a vet student who says “we have to do almost 1000 hours of placement. We’re burnt out, we’re poor, we never get time off. “We’re also hearing from med students, OT’s, physios, psych students, radiographers. Are they all going to be eligible as well?

CLARE: No. What we’re doing here is focusing first on nurses and teachers, midwives, early educators and social work students. That’s where the report says that we should focus first. It might be that down the track, governments will look at other areas or that industry can provide important help here as well. But at the moment, what we’re focusing on are the areas that the report said that we should focus on. Let me give you an example of a nursing student I spoke to last week who came to see me. She said, look, I do about 20 hours a week at uni and then I work part time at the local hospital and I get paid to do that in a caring role. When I do my prac, I’ve got to work at the same hospital for 40 hours, but I can’t do the part time job because of rules and regulations and the fact that I’m working 40 hours and so there’s less money in my pocket and I’ve got to choose between whether I pay for parking at the hospital or whether I feed myself that night. I guess they’re the sort of things it’s designed to tackle.

MARCHESE: We’re hearing those same stories from people in all kinds of other industries, though, and they’re really upset that they’ve not been included on this. What do you say to those students who are studying other things outside of teaching, nursing, midwifery, social work, who are battling to stay studying and keep their heads above water?

CLARE: What I’d say is the report tells us that where we’ve got to start is teaching and nursing and social work, and so that’s what we’re doing here. This is the first time, mate, that the Commonwealth Government has ever done this. We’re breaking new ground here in providing financial help, cost of living help for students. I recognise that prac doesn’t just exist in one area here, but this is a massive investment by the Commonwealth Government in helping teaching students and nursing students to finish their degree. I recognise that placement poverty is a real thing.

MARCHESE: Can I ask how it’s going to be means tested? Because we know many students are already struggling to get access to things like Youth Allowance, other support because they’re not considered independent from their parents. Is this going to be just as hard to get access to?

CLARE: No, it’ll be broader than that. It’ll apply to around about 73,000 students at university or in vocational education. But I want to make sure that we get the detailed design of this right. It will require legislation and I want to work with students, with unions as well as universities on the detailed design of this to make sure that the money goes to the people who really need it. So, it’s not going to every student who has to do prac in these areas, but it needs to go to people who, if not for this, would fall into placement poverty and would potentially not be able to finish their degree or delay their degree.

MARCHESE: What about those who are struggling to get access to payments like Youth Allowance because of the way the means testing is set up at the moment?

CLARE: Yeah, as I said, it will be broader than that. People in that circumstance will be covered, but the intention here is that it is much broader than that.

MARCHESE: Minister, these changes don’t come into effect until 2025 for the payments for the work placements. We’ve got one listener, Simon, writing in, saying the problem is in the present, it’s not in a year from now. Why the delay?

CLARE: I hear that, but there’s work to do between now and implementing it. As I said, number one, legislation and number two, the design work on the means testing. And so, over the course of the next few months, we’ve got to make sure that we get the design right, implement, introduce and pass the legislation. Then we can implement it.

MARCHESE: Minister, just quickly, what do you say to young Australians who are not studying and are listening to this thinking? Well, I’m really struggling with the cost of living as well. Is there going to be any other relief that you can assure other young Australians are going to have access to in this Budget?

CLARE: I can’t, Dave. I can’t pre-empt the Budget. I’d get in trouble with the Treasurer if I did that. But what you’ll see in the Budget is the first stage of our response to that report, as I said, designed to reform the higher education system, but we’ve got to get the reforms right and you will see over the next twelve months, evidence of that.

MARCHESE: All right. Education Minister Jason Clare, thank you very much for your time.

CLARE: Thanks.