Television Interview with Claudia Long – ABC Afternoon Briefing – Monday 26 February 2024


SUBJECTS: Australian Universities Accord; Building a better and fairer education system; National Student Ombudsman.

CLAUDIA LONG: Minister, thank you for joining us this afternoon.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks for having me on the show. 

LONG: So everyone’s struggling a lot at the moment with cost-of-living things are so expensive. How soon can young people expect a bit of relief out of something like this Universities Accord?

CLARE: The Accord talks about how we can make HECS fairer and simpler. It’s one of the things that we’ll look at when we respond to the Universities Accord in the next couple of months. I’ve said that we will respond, and we will set out what the first stage of our response is to this big, bold plan. It’s a plan for how we reform universities over the next decade and beyond. But I’d set out the first stage of our response in the next couple of months.

It talks about how we can change the way HECS is indexed, but it also talks about how you can change the way HECS is repaid. For example, Professor Bruce Chapman, the architect and author of HECS, recommended to the Panel, and it’s in the Report, changes so that someone on a low income pays less when they’re on a lower income. For example, if you’re on say $75,000, under the recommendation in the Report you’d pay about $1,000 less a year. That would provide immediate cost-of-living benefit for people on lower incomes. It’s one of a number of recommendations about changes we could make to HECS, it’s now called HELP. Of course, it’s one of 47 recommendations in this report.

LONG: You mentioned immediate cost-of-living relief. Now it’s still a few months until May, that’s still a lot of time for people to have to make hard decisions. Is there anything that’s going to be decided and help with this cost-of-living relief out of the Universities Accord before the May Budget?

CLARE: We’ve already responded to some of the recommendations in this Accord. They’re the ones around establishment of the National Student Ombudsman.

There’s also the recommendation about changes to early offers, the early offers that universities make to high school students before they start at university, we’re implementing those. But I’ve said that over the course of the next few months we will respond to the other recommendations in this Report. They include things like those recommendations dealing with HECS. There are other things that are recommended in this Report designed to help cost-of-living as well. It recommends the establishment of the Jobs Broker, to help young people while they’re at university to get paid part-time to work in an area where they’re studying.

I mentioned to Speersy yesterday that I worked at Sizzler while I was at uni. I spent a lot of time waiting tables and cooking cheese toast rather than getting experience in the area I was studying like law. It strikes me as a good idea.

There’s also recommendations in the Report about paid placements. Students who are learning to become school teachers or nurses or social workers, they spend a lot of time not actually on campus but in the classroom or in a hospital where they’re not paid for the work that they’re doing. Sometimes they have to give up the paid part-time job in order to do that and this Report’s making a recommendation that governments pay for that, provide financial support for students while they’re doing a prac. That’s the sort of thing that can help with the cost-of-living as well. 

LONG: Just based on what you just said, we will come back to unpaid placements in a second, but it does sound like any direct cost-of-living-relief, it still sounds like it’s a few months away based on what you just said about the Universities Accord. 

CLARE: We released the Report yesterday, we didn’t respond to the recommendations yesterday. What I said is that we will respond in the next couple of months. It’s a big report. It’s telling us what we need to do not tomorrow but what we need to do over the next two decades. Responding to it is bigger than one Budget. It’s a long term plan but we need to start now so what I’m doing right now with my colleagues and working with universities and talking to students, is working out what are the things we need to do first.

LONG: The report was also very clear about job-ready graduates and how that program has really failed, the former Coalition Government’s program. If students were affected by that and saw that they had to pay higher costs for their degrees under these changes, would they potentially get some of that money back?

CLARE: What the report says is that it didn’t work. The intention of it – I’m putting words into the former government’s mouth – was to have fewer people doing arts degrees. There were more people doing arts degrees after it started than before. And that doesn’t surprise me because when you’re thinking about what you want to study at university you do what you love, what you like, what you’re passionate about rather than the debt that you’re going to have to pay back afterwards. Changing that, though, is expensive, not easy.

There’s another recommendation in the Report saying that we should set up a Tertiary Education Commission to help build a new financial model, a new funding model for universities. It strikes me this is the sort of thing that they would need to look at as part of a suite of recommendations that are in this Report about a new funding model.

LONG: Just on the student safety side of things, because that’s been a really big part of this Accord process, you’ve said you’re really passionate about it. What is your timeline now, now that we’ve got the national action plan, when can students expect to see an ombudsman in place and the national code of conduct?

CLARE: Early next year. That’s the answer to that. I’ve got to introduce legislation into the Parliament to set up the Ombudsman and to entrench the code and I will do that in the next couple of months and I want the Ombudsman up and operating early next year. It’s taken too long for this to happen. It’s only happening, not because of me, but because of people who lead organisations like End Rape on Campus, Stop Campaign and Fair Agenda, they’re the change makers. They’re the ones whose stories have driven Ministers to act. They certainly helped me, drive me to act.

Universities haven’t done enough, we all know that. When one in 20 students report that since they’ve been at university they’ve been sexually assaulted, one in six have been sexually harassed, and one in two students say they haven’t been heard when it happens. The response hasn’t been good enough, then you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to act. That’s what I’m doing.

LONG: And the numbers, like you’ve just gone through, are absolutely devastating, those numbers. We’ve seen universities, since the Change the Course Report, which came out when the Australian Human Rights Commission detailed all of this stuff. They committed to changing. We’ve seen since then another guidance note on how to handle this. We’ve seen them sign up to the UN Charter. It was incredibly similar to previous commitments. If they don’t measure up under this new action plan, what are the consequences going to be for them?

CLARE: Well under the Code there’s minimum standards, expectations about what universities have to do in terms of helping to prevent the worst from happening in the first place. But when it does, making sure that the support is there for students and for staff, the right sort of training is put in place as well.

But there will be obligations on universities to report on what they do to me, to the Government, and then I will have to report to the Parliament, so we know reaction of students, whether they’re satisfied with what the universities are doing or not, and what the outcomes are of each investigation that universities conduct. And obviously if universities aren’t up to scratch there’s the Ombudsman, there’s also a special unit that I will set up in in my department.

In fairness to the unis, one of the things that filled me with a sense of optimism on Friday is when we announced this, great response from the unis, great response from the other politicians in this building. This is happening not necessarily because of them, it’s because of the brave women I just spoke about and journalists like you, Claudia, as well. But there is a view that is emerging that this is something that we should have done a long time ago. It’s happening now. 

LONG: You have to forgive the cynic in me a little bit, Minister, because it sounds like a lot of this is in your hands. If they don’t measure up, if they don’t come through, what are you going to do?

CLARE: I’ll give you a classic example. Imagine a student reports a complaint to a university, they’re not satisfied with the way the university manages it. It goes to the Student Ombudsman. The Student Ombudsman can investigate, they can bring the parties together to try and sort out the issue. They can make recommendations to the university about the actions they should take. If the university still doesn’t take that action, and I think it would be pretty brave university to not listen to the Student Ombudsman, then there will be powers that my department would have to make sure that that happens.

LONG: Minister, thank you very much for your time today. 

CLARE: Thanks, Claudia.