Television Interview with Greg Jennett – ABC Afternoon Briefing – Thursday 28 September 2023

GREG JENNETT: Australia’s top universities have slid down one of the more respected international tables that rank performance on search and teaching. Oxford University topped the charts followed by Stanford. Here in Australia the University of Melbourne is the highest ranked institution at 34th. Six unis are in the top 100. This is of The Times Higher Education rankings.

We sought some interpretations from Education Minister Jason Clare. He was in Goulburn in New South Wales today outlining plans for new regional study hubs aligned with Australia’s universities. Jason Clare, good to have you back on the program. You’re there in a regional New South Wales town inviting applications for these regional universities study hubs. And I think a good number already exist. But I also imagine not many people have an understanding of what they do. Are they satellite campuses? Do they have their own staff? Who runs them?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Lots of questions there Greg, I’ll try and answer all of them. There’s about 34 at the moment across the country. We’re going to double the number. We’re going to create 68. That means 20 more of them in regional Australia and 14 for the first time in the outer suburbs of our major cities.

They’re places where you can study for a university degree and almost any degree at any university. It’s not just a place where there’s a desk and fast internet; it’s also a place where there’s staff that can help you with academic support as well as health and wellbeing support, help students to make sure that they finish their degree. And I’m at Goulburn at the moment. Places like this, where we’ve had Hubs like this for a number of years, show that the number of people in the local community studying a university degree goes up and the percentage of people finishing their degree goes up as well. So they work. They’re a great way to make sure that more people in regional Australia get a crack at university. And that’s critical because even though around about 45 per cent of young Australians today in their 20s and 30s has a university degree, it’s only about 25 per cent in regional Australia, and with more jobs requiring you to go to TAFE or uni, we need to make it easier for people to get a crack at uni, and that means Hubs like this that bring university closer to home.

JENNETT: Okay. And where are the geographical gaps then? I imagine there’ll be a competitive process around these applications. But you must have some understanding about towns that are crying out for this sort of support?

CLARE: There’s towns right across the country. I saw a map earlier today that shows that in Queensland there’s fewer than there is, say, in Victoria or New South Wales. But bottom line: this is a competitive application process. We’re opening applications for another 10 today and another 10 next year. And we’ll select them based on need. So that means we want these Hubs to go to places where the percentage of the community with a uni degree is low and where it’s a long way away from the local university campus. Because they’re the sort of places where this can make the biggest difference.

JENNETT: You say there’s already an established correlation between completion of degree in places where regional hubs have been set up. But further to that, why are they necessary then in an era when most of us assume that remote interactive online learning has never been more attractive, never better designed and never more available?

CLARE: It’s a good question, mate, because you’re right, a lot of people will study at home. But when you can come to a Hub like this and you can get that extra support from the staff, but also support from other students, and students today were telling me about when things get tough and you feel like you might give up or you need an arm around the shoulder to tell you, “Look, if you do it this way, you might be able to get a better result,” all of that can make a difference.

I know through COVID we spent a lot of time online and a lot of time alone in our homes and we were bursting to get back out and to shake people’s hands, hug people and work together. You see that in the big university campuses at the moment as more and more people get back on campus. And these Hubs do in a sense the same thing – they provide that camaraderie and support and they also provide that professional support to help people with writing skills, research skills as well as those health and wellbeing skills that can make all the difference between whether you complete a university degree or not.

JENNETT: All right. Let’s take you then, Jason Clare, to the performance of the major universities as they are ranked globally by the highly respected ranker in these things, The Times Higher Education. There has been slippage almost across the board by Australia’s big and well-established research universities. They at Times Higher Ed say this provides serious warning signs. What is this decline telling you as the responsible minister?

CLARE: I know we’ve got great universities, Greg, and the fact that we’ve got six in the top hundred tells you that. We punch above our weight when it comes to universities. But when you look at this report out today and these rankings, you can see the direct correlation between the rankings and international student numbers. In a sense, that doesn’t surprise me then that we’ve seen the results we saw today because the number of international students in Australia plummeted during the pandemic, more than many other countries. Students were effectively told to go home, and they did. And now we’re seeing students coming back. I think there’s about the same number of international students at our universities today than there were back in 2019. And so, if international students are a barometer of rankings, then you need to take that into account.

The other point I’d make, though, mate, is that university aren’t just about rankings; fundamentally they’ve got to be about students and supporting students to get the education they need for the future. That’s why Hubs like this are so important. A great university isn’t a place of privilege; it’s a place of opportunity. And that’s what the big reforms that we’re undertaking in higher education are all about.

JENNETT: Yeah, no, I understand that. And you have an ongoing major piece of work to address that. But just on these rankings, you know, to the extent that they are indicative of performance, are you suggesting that as student numbers do rebound further on a do-nothing policy change scenario Australia’s rankings are reasonably expected to bounce back up, are they?

CLARE: That’s what it would seem to me. If there is a direct correlation between rankings and student numbers then you’d expect that you would see a difference next year. It really all depends, Greg, on the different ranking companies and the methodology they use. There’s another ranking company that put out a report a couple of months ago where all Australian universities or a lot of Australian universities jumped in the rankings because they use a different methodology. I just don’t want us to get hung up on the rankings per se because it’s all dependent upon the methodology. What I want us to get hung up on is this: making sure that we make university more affordable for Australian students, that we tackle the sort of cost of living issues that a lot of students face, and that’s why the work we’re doing on paid placements for teaching students and nursing students that I announced on Monday is important. And also making sure that we don’t forget the cost of young people in some parts of Australia missing out on a university degree at all, whether they live in a regional town or in the outer suburbs of a big city like where I grew up. And the Accord and the work that’s being undertaken right now is all about identifying that – how do we help to make sure that we make uni more affordable, that we make sure that we address those cost of living issues that can be the big difference between a student completing their degree or dropping out, and how do we make sure that you don’t have to live within 10 kilometres of a CBD to get a fair crack at university.

JENNETT: All right. A quick final one at the extreme other end of your portfolio responsibilities – child care. Jason Clare, Fair Work has cleared the way for multi-employer collective bargaining. I know claims will range up to about 25 per cent. Will the government participate in the process here?

CLARE: Greg, we welcome the work of the Fair Work Commission going to the next stage, which is the bargaining stage. And for people watching the program, this has directly come about because of those industrial relations changes we got through the parliament last year implementing multi-employer bargaining. A big part of the reason that we introduced and passed those laws was for workers like early educators, some of the most important workers in our country. The first five years of a child’s life are the most important, and our early educators make a fundamental difference in the start in life that children have, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from what they’re paid.

And so, we will be willing to participate in the bargaining process at the appropriate stage. But I don’t want to pre-empt at the moment what the outcome of that might be.

JENNETT: Of course. We’ll keep across progress on that as well as some of the other areas we’ve discussed today. Jason Clare, really appreciate your time, as always. Thanks for joining us.

CLARE: No worries. Thanks, Greg.