Television Interview with Greg Jennett – ABC Afternoon Briefing – Monday 6 May 2024

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
TELEVISION INTERVIEW
ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING WITH GREG JENNETT
MONDAY, 6 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Commonwealth Prac Payment; making HECS fairer; university protests; Yarra Valley Grammar School

GREG JENNETT:  Jason Clare, welcome back to the studio and to the program. So you’ve made this announcement before budget about Commonwealth prac, practical learning payments, covering about 73,000 students. So the Government will be picking up the tab for nurses, social workers, carers and teachers who are studying.

Is there any understanding as you pick up this tab that the prac element of their courses won’t be artificially expanded now that the bill is being picked up?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: No, but there is a good argument, for example, in the area of social work that the prac hours should be shortened. We saw that shortened under COVID from about 1,000 hours to 800. And so there’s recommendations there in the report that talk to that.

By way of background, prac is a big part of becoming a teacher or becoming a nurse or, if you’re doing a social work degree, the sort of people you see in a domestic violence refuge helping women fleeing domestic violence. For a teaching student it’s about 600 hours, for a nursing student it’s about 800 hours, and as I said, for a social work student it’s about 1,000 hours, and you’ll often hear people say that they’ve got to give up the part‑time job in order to do the prac. They talk about placement poverty. Either delaying the degree, they can do the theory, but they can’t afford to do the prac, or they don’t finish the degree. And these are some of the most important jobs in the country. Teaching our kids, looking after us when we’re sick or when we’re old, as I said, women fleeing domestic violence, and this is a practical thing that we can do to help people do the practical part of their degree.

JENNETT: No, I don’t think anyone would dispute its value. At $320 a week I’m sure it will address part of that problem.

Are we at risk though of two classes of students though now? Those who will get the Government funded prac payment, we’ve already mentioned them, and those like engineers, architects, pharmacists, IT and computing, who won’t, and if not, will that be addressed?

CLARE: You’re right. Work integrated learning or prac is part of a lot of degrees. What the report says is this is where we’ve got to focus our attention first. This is the area where you’ve got people doing a lot of hours. There’s a lot of hours in other areas as well.

JENNETT: Yeah.

CLARE: But where we’ve got chronic shortages then we should focus here first. I’ve seen other examples where companies have taken students on board in their first year of their degree, IT students, and they get paid while they study at the company working, and then when they finish their degree the company pays off their HECS.

JENNETT: Right.

CLARE: That’s a good example in IT. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to see more of but there’s different models here.

JENNETT: I understand. So that is an acceptance, is it, that as you move on to those groups of students we just mentioned, there’s more likely to be an employer contribution than among social workers, nurses and teachers?

CLARE: Yeah and the report talks to that. It says there’s a role here for government, there’s a role for employers. Employers recognise that too. And the example I gave, which is a company called WiseTech, it’s a win-win because the company gets people in at the ground level and can train them up, you know, so that they’re a really valuable employee, and for the student they get paid while they work and while they study and their HECS get paid by the company.

JENNETT: Would you mandate that though as you move on to something with private sector responsibility, would you make it compulsory?

CLARE: No, it’s not about mandating it. I guess it’s where it works for both and there’s a classic example of where it does.

JENNETT: All right. Let’s move on to your significant announcement of recent days, Jason Clare, which is the HELP/HECS indexation changes.

CLARE: Yeah.

JENNETT: A very broad question to begin with. Does the Government actually make money from HELP/HECS debts, that is the money that the Government borrows, buys, or borrows at, is it priced higher for students?

CLARE: What the indexation basically means is that if we lend a dollar then the taxpayer gets that dollar back in real terms down the track. It’s not intended to be like a bank where you get interest paid. It’s indexed to inflation in order to get that taxpayer dollar back. But that big spike that happened last year which was something that we hadn’t seen in a very, very long time – hope you’ll never see again – meant that for a lot of young people they said, “Hang on, this is not fair”.  And so I asked the Universities Accord team to look at it and they said, “Look, a better model is to index HECS at either the lower of inflation or wages”, so in other words that your HECS debt doesn’t go up by more than the average wage. And we’ve taken that recommendation up and we’re going to go further than that and back‑date it, wipe out what happened last year.

JENNETT: So by economic design of the Government one of those is going up, that’s wages, and the other is meant to come down, inflation. Have you in coming up with this scheme projected when those lines cross and just for how long people might be going for the wage price index as opposed to ‑‑

CLARE: I think we’re seeing that cross now. You know, we want to see inflation come down. We’re seeing inflation drop by about two‑thirds over the last 12 months or so. We want to get wages moving and you’re starting to see that. That’s a good thing. We want inflation down, wages up, you want low unemployment.

But this creates a protection to make sure that we never have a repeat of what happened last year.

JENNETT: You won’t have a repeat, but you also can’t guarantee that it gets down to those historically low‑levels, will you, to back in the 2 or 3 per cent band? That’s not likely to happen for what, a couple of years? Have you crunched those sort of numbers into these projections?

CLARE: I’ll get in the trouble off the Treasurer if I was to tell you what those numbers are. You’ll see those in the budget. But, I’ve heard some people say, “Look, just set it at 4 per cent”. If you were to do that then if you have a look at what wage growth has been over the last 10 years, then indexation would have been higher.

So we’re taking the advice of the Accord team. They looked at this and a lot of other things over 12 months and they’ve said, “Do this” and we’ve said, “Okay, we’ll do it plus we’ll wipe out what happened last year”. 

JENNETT: And is that the end of the line for your HELP/HECS initiatives? Will you, for instance, at a later time come back to the threshold at which repayments kick in? Currently 50,000 average income of course in the 90s.

CLARE: Yeah, and that goes up 1st of July to 54,000, but you’re right, there’s a whole bunch of recommendations in the report about HECS, but also about how we reform the entire higher education system.

What the report says basically is that about 60 per cent of the workforce has a TAFE qualification or a uni degree today, but by the middle of the century we’ve got to get it to 80 per cent. Now that’s a big ask. And the report says we’re only going to do that if we break down the artificial barrier between TAFE and uni, make it easier for people to move between the two. And if we break down that invisible barrier that stops a lot of young people from my neck of the woods in Western Sydney from getting to uni in the first place and then succeeding when they get there, along with people from regional Australia.

So what you’ll see on budget night is the full first stage of our response to that report. There’re 47 recommendations in there. We’re going to bite off some of it, not all of it. This is bigger than one budget. It’s a plan for the next two decades that Accord report, but we’ll be, in the budget you’ll see our first stage of our response to that report.

JENNETT: For the phased adoption of the other 47 recommendations.

CLARE: Yeah.

JENNETT: Let’s move, Jason Clare, to something that is a running issue on campuses at the moment, and these are the pro‑Palestinian demonstrations or encampments as they’re called.

You said yesterday there’s a divergence of meaning to different people around some of the chants and phrases being used there, like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea”.

This morning the Prime Minister said specifically on “from the river to the sea” it’s a slogan that calls for opposition to a two‑state solution. Do you agree with him?

CLARE: Yeah, I do. I do. You know, the problem with that slogan is it conjures up the idea of one‑state, and I don’t support that, I’m sure you don’t either. I’m sure most people watching, most Jewish Australians, most Muslim Australians, want two states. One called Israel, one called Palestine.

JENNETT: Do you regret having sort of injected an ambiguity to those phrases where the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have any? He’s very resolute that it’s not in the interests of Israelis, nor in the interests of Palestinians to use that.

CLARE: No, and I think that’s right. I think that’s right. You know, the point I was trying to make yesterday is that if words breed fear, they’re intolerable. And it’s obvious that words are breeding fear in our universities.

I’ve talked to Jewish students who have told me they’re afraid to go to university. Their parents have contacted me to tell me the same thing.

The point I was keen to make yesterday is I’d like to see the protests at universities calling for a two‑state solution. Two states, two people, two countries where you’ve got one, Israel, behind secure borders, and another called Palestine where people have self‑determination.

JENNETT: Could you have been clearer then in your reference to these phrases “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” having different meanings to different people? It sounded like you were accommodating them more than the Prime Minister has today.

CLARE: Look, can always be clearer. Let me stress the point though. Where you’ve got people that feel intimidated to come to university because of words being uttered or the way that people are behaving, then that’s intolerable.

It’s why I’ve said to university vice‑chancellors that the most important thing is to make sure people feel safe to go to university and make sure that they are safe at university.

To be fair to, you know, I’ve said to universities they’ve got to implement their Codes of Conduct and to be fair they are. We’re seeing examples of that at ANU. We’re seeing examples of that at Queensland University and now at Macquarie as well. And if universities don’t implement their Codes of Conduct then there are powers that the tertiary education regulator has to fine them or require them to do that.

JENNETT: And you’re leaving it to them? If, you know, we get to those red lines, so‑called, and they’re crossed, is it something that you as Minister would issue directives on?

CLARE: That’s the role of the regulator. I guess the point I want to stress here is we’ve just got to turn the temperature down a bit here. What’s happening on the other side of the world is pulling our community apart. I’ve got a role as a politician, the media have a role here as well, community leaders, religious leaders, students, all of us have a role here to work to make sure that we keep the country together rather than letting it get pulled apart.

JENNETT: All right. Final one, just on school education since you’re not entirely the Higher Education Minister.

CLARE: No, that’s true.

JENNETT: You have other areas of responsibility.

CLARE: Yeah.

JENNETT: Yarra Valley Grammar, the latest school to be facing public reporting on highly inappropriate messaging and ranking by boys of girls on some sort of score sheet.

CLARE: Yeah.

JENNETT: Has the school’s disciplinary response been sufficient?

CLARE: I think we’re all sickened by what we read and saw this morning. I was glad to see that the school had suspended the students, and also that they’re offering counselling for the girls at the school, the young women at the school.

The impression I get is that the principal’s tackled this head‑on and fronted up to the media today, which is a good thing. Obviously, if a school doesn’t do that then there are powers that I have as Minister under the Education Act to act. The impression I get today is that the school is taking the sort of action that it should.

JENNETT: And you’re satisfied up to this point, are you?

CLARE: Well up to this point. But I guess I’ve made the point today, I’m glad the school’s fronting up. I think that they’ve taken the sort of action that the community would expect. But under the Education Act if schools don’t prove that they’re a fit and proper person, and there’s powers under the Education Act that can withdraw funding.

JENNETT: All right. We’ll keep an eye on that, as you obviously will too. Jason Clare, thank you.

CLARE: Thanks mate.