Radio Interview with Sally Sara – ABC RN Breakfast – Monday 6 April 2024

MONDAY, 6 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Commonwealth Prac Payments; university protests; making HECS-HELP fairer.

SALLY SARA: Well some teaching, nursing and social work students at university will get paid for their compulsory placements from 2025 as the Government introduces changes to the University Accord. Yesterday the Education Minister announced changes to indexation rates also for HECS loans, saying that it would reduce the average HECS debt by around $1,200 this year. Jason Clare is the Federal Minister for Education and joins me now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.


SARA: So students in teaching, nursing, social work, if eligible, will get around $320 per week, that’s the Austudy rate. How do you decide who’s eligible and who’s not?

CLARE: We’re going to means test it. This is a big investment that we’ll make in the budget, and it’s intended to help to make sure that a lot of people who struggle to pay the bills while they’re doing their prac as part of their degree, finish their degree.

A big part of becoming a teacher or a nurse or somebody that studies social work that wants to work in, say, a domestic violence refuge is prac. Teaching students do about 600 hours as part of their degree, you know, in a classroom. Nurses do about 800 hours in a hospital and sometimes they’ve got to give up their part time to do it, and this is a bit of practical help to help them to do that practical part of their course.

We’ll work with unions as well as the university sector to make sure that we sharpen and define the means testing model that we’ll put in legislation to make sure that we’re giving this to the people who need it the most.

SARA: So you will be means testing the students or their parents or both? ‘Cause if a kid’s living at home, for example, they’ll have an advantage compared to someone who’s trying to make their own way in share house or somewhere else.

CLARE: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So we’ll look at that. We’ll look at young people who are currently receiving financial support, but also young people that have to work, for example, 15 hours or more a week.

Let me give you a really practical example. I met with a nursing student in Sydney last week. She’s doing a nursing degree at uni, she’s at uni about 20 hours a week, she’s also working part time at a hospital in a sort of a caring role. When she does a prac she’s working at the same hospital 40 hours a week, but she can’t do that part time job. One, because there’s not enough hours in the day. Two, because of regulations there. So it means that she doesn’t have money in her pocket. She told me that it can make the difference between paying for parking at the hospital or paying for food that she wants to eat every night.

They’re the sort of things that we’re trying to tackle here. Placement poverty is a real thing. We’ve got lots of people, whether they are teaching students or nursing students, telling me that they can afford to do the degree, they can do the theory, but they can’t afford to do the prac. That’s what this is designed to tackle.

SARA: Minister, the Government’s own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee has found that payments like Austudy and Abstudy are too low and can’t be lived on. Why not tie these placement payments to the minimum wage instead?

CLARE: This is not designed to be a wage, but it’s designed to be a bit of extra financial support.

SARA: But not enough arguably.

CLARE: There’ll be a lot of people who will still be able to work at the same time as they’re doing this but there are people who can’t. This will provide that bit of extra help to pay the bills, put food on the table, pay for transport.

Sometimes the relocation costs that come with prac you’ve got to remember the Commonwealth Government hasn’t done this before. This is the first time that this has happened. It’s happened in response to calls from students, both teaching students and nursing students and social work students across the country, and it’s come out of the work of the Universities Accord team that heard loud and clear that there is placement poverty in this country.

And if we want more people to finish their teaching and nursing degrees, if we want to get more people, you know, teaching our kids, helping us when we’re sick, working in domestic violence refuges, then this is part of the way to do it.

SARA: Minister, what about some of the other professions, I’m thinking like physiotherapists, for example, radiographers and others who are also in this situation, they’re in high demand, there’s short staffing across this system, why are they not included?

CLARE: Yeah, you’re right, and part of their degree is prac as well. What the Universities Accord team recommended is that we focus first on teaching, nursing, midwifery, early education teachers as well as social work. So that’s where they said we should work first.

It also said —

SARA: Would you extend it?

CLARE: — that we should work with state governments as well as with industry on work integrated learning more generally.

So what we’re announcing today is that we’re going to provide that prac payment for teaching students, early educators, nurses, midwifery students and social work students. In terms of the broader set of courses, that’s something that we’d have to look it down the track.

SARA: The issue of university protests over Gaza at the moment, do you think those protests should be able to continue for as long as students are prepared to man those positions, to be in those positions?

CLARE: There’s always going to be protests in a democracy. That’s part of being a democracy. What there’s no place for though is hate or violence or prejudice or discrimination, and certainly no place for anti Semitism or Islamophobia, whether it’s on our university campuses or anywhere else in the country.

What I’d say is that we’ve just got to lower the temperature here. What’s happening on the other side of the world is trying to pull our country apart. We’ve got to work together, whether it’s politicians or religious leaders or community leaders, whether it’s the media or student representatives to work to keep our country together, not let it get pulled apart.

SARA: Have you heard reports already of people feeling unsafe on campus because of these protests?

CLARE: Yes I have. I’ve spoken to Jewish students who feel like they’re afraid to go to university or their parents telling me that. And if people feel afraid to go to university, then that’s intolerable. I want more people to go to university, not less. And that’s why I’ve said to university vice chancellors that the most important thing is making sure that people feel safe at university. That’s why I’m establishing a Student Ombudsman in response to the terrifying evidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our universities. And I’ve told university vice chancellors there are codes of conduct for their universities and it’s important that they’re implemented. To their credit, a number of universities are doing that, and you’ve seen examples of that recently at ANU and Queensland University.

SARA: Minister, let’s have a look at the announcement yesterday about changing the indexation for HECS. It still doesn’t change the date of when HECS is indexed. Currently money is taken out of your pay and held by the Tax Office and the loan gets indexed before your money is used to pay down on debt. Why haven’t you changed that?

CLARE: What we announced yesterday is about changing that indexation rate. Obviously last year there was a big hike in HECS debt, and it hit a lot of young Australians hard. They made their voice heard and I heard it and we’re responding to that and fixing that and making sure that it never happens again.

So that has a significant impact on people’s HECS debt. If you’ve got, say, an average HECS debt in Australia at the moment is about $26,000, that will cut their debt by about $1,200. But as you say, it’s one recommendation in a big report. The Universities Accord looked at the whole higher education system, made about 47 recommendations about how we reform the higher education system for the next decade and beyond. I responded to one of them yesterday, another one today. We’ll set out our full first stage response in the budget in eight days’ time.

SARA: Jason Clare, thank you very much.

CLARE: Thanks very much.