Television interview with Andrew Clennell – Sky News Sunday Agenda – Sunday 9 June 2024

SUBJECTS: International education reforms; University protests and safety on campus; Peter Dutton’s nuclear reactors and climate change

ANDREW CLENNELL: Okay. Joining me live in the studio now is Jason Clare, the Education Minister. Good morning, thanks for joining us.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Good morning. Great to be here.

CLENNELL: Let’s start on this then. So you put legislation before the Parliament that says, “The Minister may impose total enrolment limits”, and it says, “The Minister may, by legislative instrument, determine a limit on the number of overseas students that may be enrolled with a registered provider in a specified class”, and that’s for one or more years.

So which universities are you thinking of targeting and which courses are you thinking of targeting with these international student caps?

CLARE: We’ll go back a step. The boss made the point just then that international education is an asset. It makes money, creates jobs here in the country, but it also does something else. It makes sure that if someone studies here in Australia, they go back home, and if they love their experience in Australia, they take that back home with them, and in the world we live in, that’s really important.

Students are back post‑pandemic, but so are the shonks and in some circumstances the crooks that feed off international education, so this legislation’s about tackling that as well.

But students are back faster than anyone expected as well, and so this enables us to set a cap on the number of students at individual universities, but also VET providers as well, and potentially for courses.

Just by way of a bit of background, it’s a bit uneven, what’s happened over the last few years. There’s about 10 per cent more international students in our unis today than before the pandemic, and there’s about 50 per cent more international students in our vocational institutions than before the pandemic as well. So we’ve seen the big jump, not in universities, but in VET.

CLENNELL: So more of a focus on putting the caps in VET.

CLARE: Well, both. What the legislation would give me the power to do is to set a cap for every university and every higher education and vocational education provider that educates an international student.

CLENNELL: Are you going to do that?

CLARE: Yeah, that’s what we’re intending to do.

CLENNELL: So every single uni will have a cap.

CLARE: Correct.

CLENNELL: And what about every course, because it allows you to do it for every course.

CLARE: In a sense that’s a reserve power. I’m expecting the focus here and the work that we’ll do will take place over the next three months to set what those caps are, but the focus will be on the caps for the institutions rather than the courses.

CLENNELL: What’s the reaction from the university sector?

CLARE: A lot of universities have asked for this, because I said it’s been a little uneven over the last few years.

CLENNELL: Which ones?

CLARE: I’m not going to name them individually. But over the course of this year, Home Affairs have really ramped up the integrity measures that they’ve taken to make sure that people who are given a visa are here for the right purposes.

Now that’s meant that some universities have got more students this year than last year, and other universities have got a lot less.

So a lot of universities, in particular the smaller universities, have said to me, “We’d prefer a different system where you set a level or a cap for us each and every year,” and that’s what this legislation does.

CLENNELL: Is part of this about assuaging public concern?

CLARE: At the moment this is pretty much an unregulated sector. For domestic students, for Aussie students at university there’s effectively a cap on the amount of money that we provide to universities to fund Aussie students.

It doesn’t work like that for international students at the moment. So I think there’s a certain logic and common sense here, that if we regulate the number of Australian students, that we should do that also for international students.

CLENNELL: But there’s public concern about it too; is that fair?

CLARE: I think that with international students coming back as fast as they have, and it’s not just Australia, it’s Canada and in the UK as well, it’s important that we maintain the social licence for this important export.

Remember, this is the biggest export we don’t dig out of the ground, it’s worth $48 billion, and if we set this up and regulate it the right way it will help to make sure that we can continue to have that sector grow over the longer term.

CLENNELL: Has this been an issue in Labor focus groups as far as you’re aware?

CLARE: Buggered if I know, mate, I don’t look at focus groups.

CLENNELL: I mentioned in that question to the PM, 46 per cent of Sydney Uni students are international students. Is that too high?

CLARE: It’s about 70/30 across the board. So at some unis like Sydney it’s higher, but at other universities…

CLENNELL: Is that too high though? 

CLARE: …it’s much lower. Ultimately, it’s for each university to judge and individual students, Australian students will choose universities based on whether they think they’re getting value for money if those numbers are too high.

CLENNELL: But it’s also now for you to judge, if this legislation gets through, right? Would you like to see Sydney Uni go lower in terms of international students?

CLARE: What we want here, and what we want to incentivise here is the construction of more student housing as part of this. So we’re going to set limits for individual universities, but the fact is there’s not enough accommodation for Australian students or international students.

We’re saying here, we’ll set a limit, we’ll set a level, and if you build more housing, we’ve only got 78,000 student accommodation places in Australia at the moment, then we’ll allow you to have an increase in that cap.

CLENNELL: There are 700,000 foreign students in Australia at the moment. Is that the right number, or do you want to see that reduced?

CLARE: What I want to see is it grow sustainably over time. This is not about pulling out the meat axe, this is an important economic asset for Australia, but students have come back quickly, and I think what we need to do is have sustainable growth over the longer term.

CLENNELL: You’ve argued you’d done some of the heavy lifting on student visas already, we had in March and February this year the number of student visas granted just above pre‑COVID levels. But even with those numbers it will still be hard to hit the net migration target of 260,000, won’t it?

CLARE: I’m not going to pre‑empt that, but you’re right, we have taken a number of steps already, and part of that’s about the integrity of the system.

What happened during the pandemic is students were told to go home, and they did. Then they came back, but with an incentive to come here not to study but to work, because there were unlimited work rights. So we got rid of that. If you’re here to study, you should be studying rather than spending all of your time working.

And in effect there’s backdoors in the system that have encouraged people to come here to do a uni degree, then switch to a VET course, never turn up to the VET course and really just use that as the price you pay to work here.

We’ve shut down a number of those systems. It’s even worse than that. The Nixon Review showed that in some circumstances you’ve got international students who get here, have their passport taken off them and end up in some form of sexual slavery.

So you’ve got to tackle all of those problems where the system’s been corrupted, but at the same time we’ve also got to make sure that we set it in a way that’s regulated, a little bit like domestic students are too.

CLENNELL: A lot of Chinese students here too. Do you expect this issue to come up in discussions between the Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier next week?

CLARE: I don’t think so. There’s fewer Chinese students here today than there was pre‑pandemic. It’s still, I think it’s about 15, 16 per cent fewer Chinese students here today than there were before COVID hit.

CLENNELL: I wanted to turn now to the Palestine protests on campuses. You copped a bit of flack for saying the terms “From the river to the sea” and “Intifada” meant different things to different people. Josh Frydenberg said after this that the Education Minister needed an education, and you needed a visit to the Holocaust museum. And you later pulled away from those comments.

What’s your reaction to the backlash you received over that, including from Josh Frydenberg?

CLARE: I count Josh as a friend, and you know, I take everything that Josh says on this point very, very seriously.

I should have been clearer in those comments. I’ve made that point clear. Any words that stoke fear or intimidation are intolerable in our universities. I think I’ve called out the fact that antisemitism, whether it’s in our universities or anywhere else in the country is intolerable, and you see the poison of that leaking out into our community at the moment.

There’s always going to be a place for peaceful protest, you know, we’re not Russia, but there’s no place for hate or for intimidation or for antisemitism, whether it’s at our unis or anywhere else. I think in the lifetime of our grandparents we’ve seen the evil that that can wreak. And the fact is, I think Josh made this point, Jewish students have made this point to me as well, it’s not just that they feel unwelcome at university at the moment, but they’re being made to feel unwelcome. And that’s not on.

CLENNELL: Peter Dutton has called on the Sydney University Vice‑Chancellor Mark Scott to resign over the protests on his campuses. What do you make of that call?

CLARE: What I would say is I want all university vice‑chancellors to treat as their most important issue the safety of their students and their staff. That’s got to be their focus. I made that clear in a letter, I think, on October 11, and I’ve made that point continuously ever since.

To be fair, university vice‑chancellors are making sure that their codes of conduct are being implemented, and we’ve seen evidence over the last few weeks of where students are facing disciplinary action, in some cases some students being suspended or expelled.

You know, what’s not on is some of the things we saw in the last few weeks where students are basically doing a sit‑in, where other students can’t get into class. I want more kids to go to university, and I want them to be able to get into class.

CLENNELL: Do you want police and universities to intervene more there?

CLARE: I want universities working with police, and I think that’s what they’ve been doing.

CLENNELL: Do you feel a bit compromised dealing with this issue on campuses given the high Muslim population in your electorate?

CLARE: No, I don’t. It’s not people in my electorate that are encamped at universities. I guess the truth is people in my electorate are hurting, just like many Jewish Australians are hurting with the rise of antisemitism and what happened on October 7.

There’s a lot of people in my electorate that are hurting for similar reasons. You know, those dead bodies that we see on television, for many Jewish Australians and for many Palestinian and Muslim Australians, they have names, and they’re mum or they’re dad, they’re relatives, they’re family friends, and that’s why they feel that personally in a way that you and I would find hard to really truly understand.

CLENNELL: I wanted to ask now about the nuclear issue, the renewables issue. What do you make much Peter Dutton saying he’ll dump the target you had put in the Paris Agreement in 2022 upon coming to office? What are the possible ramifications from that?

CLARE: I think Peter Dutton’s made a big mistake. I think any Australian who thinks climate change is real would think now that Peter Dutton is a real risk; a risk to investment, a risk to jobs, a risk that Australia will do nothing to tackle climate change.

You know, even Tony Abbott didn’t pull out of a global agreement on climate change, and he thinks it’s crap. This makes Tony Abbott look like Al Gore. No wonder that you had a couple of Liberal MPs in the last few weeks hot‑to‑trot to bring Josh Frydenberg back.

CLENNELL: I don’t know if too many were that hot‑to‑trot, but why is the government ‑‑

CLARE: There were a couple.

CLENNELL: ‑‑ Karen Andrews was ‑ why is the government so convinced it’s in the right on nuclear, why no open mind to nuclear, at some point in the future as Tania Constable just said, to 2040 or whatever?

CLARE: Because it costs a bomb. It costs a fortune. Wherever it’s been rolled out or attempted to be rolled out around the world, costs have blown out. So it costs a bomb, it takes too long, and to be frank it’s about as popular as a mother‑in‑law on a honeymoon. Most Australians who look at this don’t want a bar of it.

CLENNELL: Okay. Jason Clare, Education Minister. Thanks so much for your time.

ENDS