Television Interview with Rafael Epstein – ABC Melbourne Mornings – Monday 6 May 2024

MONDAY, 6 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Commonwealth Prac Payment; Commonwealth Teaching Scholarships; making HECS-HELP fairer; university protests.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If you want to become a teacher, a nurse, a social worker, you’ve got to do that work placement. A lot of other degrees as well, or qualifications. But you don’t get paid – you are deliberately not paid while you are trained. It’s a huge impediment. Starting in July next year teachers, nurses and social working students will get $300 a week. It is means tested. Jason Clare is the Federal Education Minister. He joins us this morning.


EPSTEIN: These extra placement payments, does this mean more people will take up nursing and teaching?

CLARE: I hope it will encourage more people to want to be a teacher. We’ve got a teacher shortage crisis at the moment. And more people to want to be a nurse. More people who want to work in areas like our domestic violence refuges, it’s the sort of thing that people who do social work degrees work in, because we need more people doing these important jobs.

I hope it also helps more people who are doing these courses now to finish their degree and finish their course, because a lot of people tell me that placement poverty, struggling to pay the bills while they’re doing their prac means that they either delay their degree or they don’t finish it at all.

EPSTEIN: It comes up all the time that people thinking about doing nursing and teaching saying they don’t have enough. I know this money isn’t intended to be an income –


EPSTEIN: But is it enough to actually get more people doing teaching, nursing and social work?

CLARE: It’s part of it. You’ll know that we’ve also announced and rolling out scholarships worth $40,000 to encourage more people to want to be a school teacher, for example. But, let me give you an example of a nursing student I spoke to last week in Sydney. And she told me that she’s at uni about 20 hours a week and she’s got a part-time job at the local hospital where she works effectively as a carer, and that helps pay her bills. When she’s doing her prac – and she’s got to do about 800 hours of prac for her three-year degree – she can’t do that part-time job at the hospital; she’s got to work at the same hospital for free. And that means that she doesn’t have money in her pocket to, you know, pay the rent or, as she told me, to pay the parking fee at the hospital. So it’s a bit of extra financial help to pay for things like transport, like the rent, like the bills that you incur. And sometimes life’s made more difficult because you can’t do your part-time job while your doing your prac.

EPSTEIN: We’ve got a survey from the teachers union today saying more teachers are thinking of retiring early. I guess this is the same question asked a different way: we need more people doing these jobs. Is there more coming that is going to actually mean that we get the people filling the jobs we need filled?

CLARE: There is a little bit of good news. We’re seeing more people in teaching degrees this year than last year. We’ve also got more people teaching in our classrooms last year than the year before that. But I’m not saying that it’s fixed – it’s not. The teacher shortage crisis is about 10 years in the making and it’s going to take a long time to turn it around. You mentioned the word retiring; I’d call it resigning. People are resigning rather than retiring. And always when you ask teachers why, one of the things they’ll say is pay but the other thing they’ll say is workload. The idea that teachers rock up at 9 o’clock and knock off at 3 o’clock is rubbish. And there’s always more work that we need to do as governments, federal and state, to make sure that we give teachers more time to teach and remove that admin burden.

EPSTEIN: You announced yesterday that some of the HELP or HECS debt is going to be wiped. The big change, I guess, is linking it to whatever is lower when you index it – either wages or inflation. What hasn’t changed is how much comes out of someone’s pay packet every fortnight. You haven’t changed that amount. Why not?

CLARE: One of the ways HECS works is that the more you earn, the more you pay. It’s different to a standard home loan or a personal loan where the interest rate is set and you’ve got to pay it. And I think it’s one of the things that makes HECS work better than, say, the United States where debts are double and you have to pay things back sooner.

What we announced yesterday will make a real important difference for a lot of young people who felt like they were hit really hard last year by indexation going up by 7.1 per cent. That wipes that out and makes sure that this never happens again. But the Universities Accord report that recommended that is a big report. It sets out 47 recommendations for how we reform the entire higher education system over the next decade and beyond. The changes we’re making to HECS are part of that. The paid placements that we’re announcing today are part of that. But you’ll see the first full stage of our response to the Universities Accord in the Budget.

I should make the point, implementing all of those recommendations can’t be done in one budget; it’s going to take a decade or more. And what you’ll see on budget night are the things that we need to do first. We won’t be saying these are the things we’ll do and these are the things we won’t do, but it will set out the things that we really need to do first.

EPSTEIN: One of the real wrinkles with the debt people build up at uni, it gets counted when they are assessed for a home loan. That universities report sort of also suggested you change that or ask the banks not to include that, because it’s different to another debt. Is that going to change? Is the government going to make that change?

CLARE: The report also said that there’s work that needs to be done there. And in response to that the Assistant Treasurer has written to the banks, written to the ABA asking for advice on how they treat HECS debt. So there’s work underway in response to that recommendation as well.

EPSTEIN: So you think that’s likely that won’t be included in people’s home loan calculations in future?

CLARE: Well, watch this space, Raf, is what I’d say. We’re doing work with the banks, so I can’t give you a conclusive answer on that until we get a response.

EPSTEIN: Jason Clare is the Federal Education Minister. If you – you can hear what he’s saying. If it’s going to make you more or less likely to do something like nursing, teaching, social work, 1300 222 774.

Minister, the protests on university campuses, almost all of them pro Palestine and a few counter protests, pro-Israel one. The Opposition – your shadow Sarah Henderson, she says those encampments, the Gaza solidarity encampments, should be dismantled. Do you think they should be?

CLARE: Raf, there are always going to be protests in a democracy. There’s always going to be protests at universities. It’s the type of protest that matters here. That they’re peaceful and that they’re respectful. There is no place for hate or violence or intolerance, whether it’s at university or anywhere else. And there’s certainly no place for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. In the lifetime of our grandparents we’ve seen the sort of evil that anti-Semitism can lead to, and in our own lifetimes we’ve seen what sort of bloodshed Islamophobia can cause – just think about what happened in New Zealand in the last few years.

What I’ve said here is we’ve just got to lower the temperature – as politicians, as community leaders, as religious leaders, in the media as well. What’s happening on the other side of the world is trying to pull our country apart. And we’ve all collectively here got a responsibility to try and keep our country together.

EPSTEIN: Do you think the uni should be okay with most of what has happened? I mean, I’ve got a few examples I’d like to ask you about, but on the whole, do you think those unis – those protestors have mostly been okay, or not?

CLARE: What I’ve said to vice-chancellors is that there’s nothing more important than the safety of students and staff. That it’s obvious that there are students, Jewish students, who feel that they’re afraid to go to university, and that’s not on. No one should ever feel afraid to go to university. The universities have codes of conduct, and they should implement them. And to be fair to universities, we’re seeing examples of that –

EPSTEIN: So there’s no need for you to step in – forgive the interruption, but are you seeing anything where a university is not doing something that you would like them to do? Do you need to step in?

CLARE: It’s not appropriate for me to step into the shoes of vice-chancellors. If universities are failing to implement their codes of conduct, then TEQSA, the tertiary education regulator, has the power to issue fines to universities, for example. But you’re seeing universities, for example, in the case of ANU where students said some things on radio last week, taking disciplinary action. You’re seeing examples in Queensland where a flag was flown at a protest where Queensland University has intervened and had that flag removed. You’ve seen at Macquarie University examples of an investigation into a professor there. So universities are responding in a responsible way, implementing their codes of conduct. And I’m encouraging them to do so.

EPSTEIN: Just two quick examples, if I can end with them. Firstly, the word or the chant “Intifada”, which means uprising literally, but it means different things to different people. Is “Intifada” acceptable at these protests, that word or that slogan?

CLARE: No, it’s not. And, you know, anything that stokes fear at universities is intolerable, and I think I’ve made that clear.

EPSTEIN: And the other example, middle of the night at Monash Uni, it looks like one of the Gaza solidarity camps at Monash was broken up, or some guys with Israel flags basically sort of went there in the middle of the night – precisely what happened, but they clearly tried to dismantle the tents. Is that okay?

CLARE: What I don’t want to see is violence at our universities. I don’t want to see what should be peaceful behaviour on our universities’ campuses become violent. That is the last thing that we want to see here. That’s why I’ve said to universities, as I said a moment ago, that the safety of all students is the most important thing. It’s why I announced a couple of weeks ago that we would establish a National Student Ombudsman in response to those terrifying examples of sexual assault or sexual harassment on our campuses, and this is the same. Universities need to be safe places.

EPSTEIN: Jason Clare, Minister for Education in Anthony Albanese’s government, thanks so much for your time.

CLARE: Good on you, thanks mate