Radio Interview with Sarah MacDonald – ABC Sydney – Wednesday 15 May 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
RADIO INTERVIEW
ABC SYDNEY – MORNINGS WITH SARAH MCDONALD
WEDNESDAY 15 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Federal Budget; Energy bill relief for every Australian; Building a better and fairer education system; Making HECS fairer; Paid placements; Fee-Free Uni Ready Courses; International education reforms; University protests; Fairly funding public schools; Book bans

SARAH MACDONALD: Well, some very thankful for the $300 power rebate coming announced in the Budget last night. Some saying, I don’t need it. We should means test it. What is your overall reaction to the Budget? Getting lots of people texting in about where they would have liked to have seen money spent. And yet, the government couldn’t throw around too much or that would add to inflation. Jason Clare is the Federal Education Minister and the Member for Blaxland in Sydney. Good morning.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day. How’re you going?

MACDONALD: Good. I want to talk about young people in the future for them in Australia in just a moment. But I want to ask you about this $300 power rebate. Why not means test it? Because some people are saying, I don’t really need this.

CLARE: The simple answer is it’s the most efficient way to do it. The energy companies don’t have the information about people’s income and how much they earn. This enables us to get this money to the energy companies and reduce people’s bills in a really efficient way. We know that everybody’s electricity bills are being affected by the war in Ukraine. This will provide support for everyone there. There’s other measures in the Budget that are really designed to help people who need help the most. I’m thinking of the tax cuts, which were originally for people on higher incomes, are now going to be for everyone. The rent relief for a million households that are for people who are really struggling to pay the rent. And the cheaper medicines, the freeze on medicines, particularly for pensioners, for five years that you saw in the Budget last night.

MACDONALD: Can you guarantee there won’t be price jacking up of our energy bills by the energy companies?

CLARE: That’s not what this is about. It’s about the reverse, making sure that people’s energy bills drop by $300 lower than they otherwise would have been.

MACDONALD: Yeah, but they can’t put the prices up because they’re getting this, this rebate.

CLARE: No.

MACDONALD: A couple of people are very worried about that. So, yeah, it comes in four sections of $75. You mentioned the rent help and the Medicare. Can you subsidise your way to low inflation?

CLARE: What this is all about is providing cost of living help for people who need it. We’ve got a lot of Australians that are struggling to make ends meet. This helps them. We’ve got to get inflation down. That’s the top priority in this Budget. And you’ve seen inflation half over the course of the last year or so. But we’ve also got to set ourselves up for the future. 

What you see in the Budget is two things: One, tackling inflation in the short term, but secondly, sowing the seeds that set us up for the future. And what I announced last night in higher education is a big part of that.

MACDONALD: You have set a new target of eight out of ten young people will be in tertiary training by 2050. So, this is part of the University Accord. So, that means they’ll be at university, TAFE or some sort of formal training.

CLARE: It’s bigger than that. It’s 80 per cent of the entire workforce by 2050, having either a TAFE qualification or a uni degree. Think back to what Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did in the 80s and 90s. We saw a jump in the number of people finishing high school from 40 per cent to almost 80 per cent. That was nation changing. This is the next step. What we said last night is we’re setting a target that by 2050, so in just over 25 years’ time, we’ll have a workforce where not just 80 per cent of people have finished high school, but 80 per cent have either a TAFE qualification or a university degree. And that will be nation changing. It will help set up the businesses that we need for the future.

MACDONALD: What kind of numbers have we got now?

CLARE: Not enough. It’s about 60 per cent. And the only way we’re going to do it, to be frank, is to help more young people from the outer suburbs and the regions, more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a crack at going to uni. 

At the moment, about one in two young people in their 20s and 30s have a uni degree, but not in my neck of the woods in Western Sydney and certainly not in the bush. And so there are three big things that we announced in the Budget last night that are designed to help more young people from the suburbs and the regions and from poorer families to get a crack at uni. One is a massive expansion of FEE-FREE University Ready courses. These are these courses that are a bridge between school and uni. They’re free, they go for anywhere from a couple of weeks up to 12 months and they provide you with the foundation skills to succeed when you’re at uni. We’re uncapping funding for that. The second is we’re uncapping the number of funded, guaranteed places at uni for kids from poorer families to help make sure that more young people from places like the one that I’m privileged to represent in Western Sydney get a crack at uni. And third, a new needs-based funding system to make sure that we’re providing extra funding to universities who are enrolling and educating students from poor families and in the regions in the bush to invest in things like academic support and mentoring, because we know that a young person from the regions or a young person from a poor family is less likely to finish a degree than everybody else. And if we’re going to get more people with a uni degree, we’ve got to get more in and we’ve got to get more through.

MACDONALD: Jason Clare is with me, the Federal Education Minister. Jennifer’s texting in saying that university costs are continuing to grow and the arts degrees got more expensive under the previous government. And so she worries fewer people will be able to go. Her daughters in year 11, worried about the degree she wants to do and how much it will cost her.

CLARE: I want more people to go to university. The evidence is if you go to university, then your average income is significantly higher, about $30,000 a year, higher than somebody whose last year of education was at school. We’ve got a good system in HECS, a contingent loan system. That means that you pay back once you’re earning. But there’s a flaw in the system that we’re fixing in this Budget. We saw indexation rates spike last year because of an increase in inflation. That’s why we’re cutting HECS debt by about $3 billion in this Budget for about 3 million Australians. The average HECS debt at the moment is about $26,000, and it’ll be cut by that $1,200. So, that’s important. 

MACDONALD: Are you thinking of changing how much some of the degrees are compared to others that happened under the federal government? Say, I think it was a doubling of arts.

CLARE: We’ve got a report here called the Universities Accord. It’s got 47 recommendations. We’ve bitten off a lot of that in the Budget last night, about 29 of those recommendations in full or in part. But this is a blueprint for reforming higher education, not just for the next couple of years, but for the next few decades. Responding to that is bigger than just one Budget. Those changes that have been suggested about the cost of degrees, we’re going to ask the Tertiary Education Commission that we announced we would establish last night to look at that and steer reform.

MACDONALD: Now, in terms of this, though, won’t universities struggle a bit now because overseas student numbers are to be drastically cut and they’ve become very reliant on that income?

CLARE: What we want is managed growth for universities in international education. This is an important asset for us. It was worth about $40 billion to the economy before the pandemic. It was effectively kneecapped by COVID and became an industry worth about half that. It’s now worth about $48 billion. 

So, students have come back at a great rate, but so have the shonks and the crooks that seek to exploit people. When you’ve got a sector worth so much, there’s always going to be people who try to use the system as a backdoor to work here. And the legislation I’m introducing into the Parliament’s designed to focus and zero in on that. 

But it’s also about making sure that we set the system up for the long term, provide a bit of certainty for all universities about the numbers of students that they can have. And to be frank, over the course of the last few months, it’s universities that have told us, “we want that certainty”. “We want you to set levels for us of international students”. It’s good for them. International education is good for us as a country because it makes us money, but it’s not lost on me that this also makes us friends because a student who comes here gets a degree and then goes home. They take the love and affection that they’ve garnered for Australia while they’re here back home with them.

MACDONALD: Jason Clare, you’re going to pay students for placements if they’re doing teaching and nursing. What about for things such as psychology? We have a real mental health crisis and they do find it hard to get into the master’s courses and then do the practical work we need. Is this one area we can help in terms of mental health?

CLARE: We’re focusing on teaching and nursing and social work first because that’s where the Universities Accord told us to focus first. This is the first time the Commonwealth’s ever done this. It’s important to bear in mind the Commonwealth Government has never paid students to support them while they’re doing their prac. And the Universities Accord told us to start with teachers, nurses as well as social work students, the sort of people you see working in a domestic violence refuge. Part of that’s because the completion rates are so low, particularly in teaching. 

Only about one in two people who start a teaching degree finish a teaching degree. There’s lots of reasons for that, but part of it is the cost of doing prac and having to give up your part time job to do it. This is a bit of practical financial help to help people while they’re doing their practical training. We’re focusing first on the three areas that the Accord team said we should.

MACDONALD: Okay. I want to go to Georgia because she’s just called in. She’s a social worker at the University of Wollongong. She’s a student in social work, I should say. Hi, Georgia.

GEORGIA: Hi. How’re you going?

MACDONALD: Good. So, you’re doing your final placement this year?

GEORGIA: Yes, starting on the 29 July.

MACDONALD: Aha. And so will you get this, this payment for placement?

GEORGIA: No, unfortunately not. We’ve been, Wollongong specifically has been sort of protesting this, trying to get placements for a few years now. And unfortunately, I missed out.

MACDONALD: Right. So, you just. So, when does it start, Jason Clare.

CLARE: Yeah, it’s 1 July next year. So, unfortunately people like Georgia will miss out. But I want you to know it’s people like Georgia who have been at the front line of campaigning for this and of the reason that this change is coming.

MACDONALD: Right. So, it won’t help you Georgia, but it’ll help the students coming up behind you.

GEORGIA: Yeah. So, a lot of students like myself are in the position of questioning whether or not to defer uni until next year just to get the placement. But yeah, that just sucks. Then it makes the degree even longer.

MACDONALD: Right. Well, I can see why you’d be doing that. I wonder if that’ll happen a bit. Maybe. Okay, well, you could understand that, why that would happen. Jason Clare, do you think there’ll be lots of deferment?

CLARE: Each student will make their own decision. But for students like Georgia who are accumulating that HECS debt, one of the big things in the Budget for them is that we’re cutting that indexation rate, wiping out what happened last year, which will mean that their HECS debt will drop because of that change.

MACDONALD: Yeah. Thanks so much, Georgia. Great to speak to you. And all the best deciding what you want to do. Jason Clare is the Federal Education Minister. Now, of course, Diane’s texting in saying not all kids need to go to university. We badly need tradies. My son earns and pays more tax than my two sons with multiple uni degrees. This is part of this, isn’t it? In terms of the 80 per cent, they’ll also include trade. Those who are trained in trades.

CLARE: Don’t confuse anything I’ve said as meaning that everyone has to go to uni or that everyone should go to uni. We need more people to go to TAFE and uni and that 80 per cent is made up of people doing both. I talked a moment ago about FEE-FREE University Ready courses and how we’re going to massively expand them. 

We’re also rolling out FEE-FREE TAFE courses and we thought about 180,000 people would take those up last year. Turns out it was double that. So, people have been lapping that up. If we can provide education opportunities like that skill Australians up, then we’ll get those skills we need for the jobs of the future.

MACDONALD: And so you’re expanding them. Can the TAFE system cope?

CLARE: There was another $20,000 announced in the Budget last night, particularly in the construction area, given the shortages in the area of building housing.

MACDONALD: Right. So, the other issue I want to ask you about, and I’ll read some more messages coming in in just a moment. But there have, and I hate to go back to unis because I agree that these are wildly popular, the TAFE courses, but the opposition wants uni demonstrations regarding war in the Middle East to be forcibly broken up. What do you think about that? Deakin University has requested students to leave, but do you think they should be forcibly broken up?

CLARE: People have got a right to protest, but they’ve got to do it peacefully. There’s no place for hate or intimidation or intolerance. There’s certainly no place for anti-Semitism, whether it’s at university or anywhere else in the country. 

In the lifetime of our grandparents, we’ve seen the evil that anti-Semitism can lead to. Jewish students have made that very clear to me that in many cases they’re being made to feel unwelcome and unsafe at universities. 

What I’ve said to vice-chancellors is that their most important job here is to make sure that students and staff are safe. Now, they have codes of conduct. And I said to the universities that they need to make sure that those codes of conduct are enforced. Ultimately, how universities do this is a matter for them and they’ll take appropriate legal advice and advice from authorities about the actions that they take. 

MACDONALD: Well, Deakin’s protesters have said, no, we’re not leaving. So, what do they do next?

CLARE: Let me just add on to that, because a number of universities are taking action. At ANU, for example, they’ve investigated complaints about things that students have said and taken disciplinary action against students. The same has happened at Queensland University. At Monash University yesterday, they issued orders after a protest there as well. Deakin’s taking its own actions. The point I’d make is that ultimately how universities do this, the responsibility rests with them about how they do this, and they’ve got to take appropriate legal advice, but also advice from authorities like the police.

MACDONALD: Jason Clare, what about the school student funding? We still haven’t got an agreement with NSW on public school funding and the Commonwealth hopefully helping out more here. When are we going to get this?

CLARE: We’ve got to do this this year. We’ve got to strike a new National School Reform Agreement this year. I’m committed to working with not just NSW but all states. We’ve done a deal with WA and the Northern Territory. I want to make sure that working together with the states, the Commonwealth chipping in and the states chipping in, that we get all our public schools fully and fairly funded. I’ve put $16 billion on the table to do that. To put that into context, that’ll be the biggest investment in public schools from a Commonwealth Government ever delivered. And what it means for NSW is more than an extra $4 billion. So, those negotiations are going on. I’m not going to do that on the radio, but we’re doing two things at once. First, looking at the funding and secondly, chiselling out that new National School Reform Agreement and what it needs to include. 

What are the targets and what are the reforms that need to be included in the agreement? Here’s why this is critical. Sarah, I talked a moment ago about how Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had seen an increase in the number of kids finishing high school from 40 per cent to 80 per cent. It’s now going backwards. And in public schools in the last seven years, the percentage of kids finishing high school has dropped from 83 per cent to 73 per cent. This is happening, remember, at a time where we need more people to finish school and turn it around.

MACDONALD: Yeah, it’s a real worry. It must worry you greatly.

CLARE: It worries me. This is what keeps me up at night. If we’re going to fix this, funding is part of it. Fairly and properly funding our schools is part of it. And then tying that funding to the sort of things that help kids who fall behind to catch up and keep up and then more kids finishing school and then getting a chance to go to TAFE or get a crack at university.

MACDONALD: Yeah, they’ve got to finish the school to get into that TAFE and that university.

CLARE: We’re not going to be successful here, we’re not going to hit that target in 26 years unless we tackle, you know, we can’t start at the gate of university. We’ve got to fix those problems, those funding problems and those reform challenges in school. And it goes back further than that. And the work that we need to do to make sure that kids don’t start behind at school because they don’t get a chance to go to early education when they’re three or they’re four as well.

MACDONALD: Yes. And I think there’s increases for childcare workers, too, in the Budget. But I want to ask you a final question, and this is about young kids. Cumberland Council meets again tonight. It looks like it may try and rescind the vote last week to ban a kids book that had same sex parenting within it. I think it was borrowed once, I believe. Now, this crosses over with your electorate in the Fairfield area, as the local MP and Education Minister. Yeah. What do you think about the book banning?

CLARE: I think it’s pretty simple. I think everyone listening would agree it’s not the job of politicians to be telling families what books they should be reading.

MACDONALD: Yep. All right. Well, I think that’s pretty clear. Thanks for your time this morning.

CLARE: Good on you, cheers.

MACDONALD: There’s Jason Clare, the Federal Education Minister.