Address to the Knowledge Nation Summit

Speech

Thank you very much, it’s great to be with you at the Knowledge Nation Summit, and to share a few thoughts from the Education portfolio’s perspective, following on I understand from my colleague Mr Pyne’s contribution this morning. 

I’m a happy father of two wonderful little girls, a three year old and a five year old, which pitches me well as an education minister to be very engaged thinking about the future of our education system. And earlier this year I got home from Canberra one Friday morning just in time to be able to take five-year-old Matilda to school. Matilda on the way to school on that morning said to me; Daddy after school today can we go to the moon. And I said well Matilda it’s not that easy to get to the moon. I said you need a rocket ship to get to the moon.

So after school today can we get a rocket ship and go to the moon Daddy? Well rocket ships aren’t that easy to find, they’re very hard to build, they’re very complex, and if you could find one I’m sure they’re very, very expensive. Well let’s just go and buy one after school today so we can go to the moon Daddy. I’m not sure that Mummy and Daddy have got enough money to buy a rocket ship Matilda. Well you’ll just have to work harder she said. 

Now I told that- that story partly because it’s nice to know that even at age five she at least appreciates the importance of a good work ethic, albeit she puts that onus of course on Mum and Dad. But also of course because it shows that since that boundaries are limitless at that age, and that limitlessness of boundaries is something that in gatherings like this is so important to the thought process.

Now Matilda may not be getting the rocket ship any time soon, but her optimism and the passion for pushing the boundaries is symbolic of so many young children and that willingness that we need to capture for the national future., So today as we meet here in the surrounds of an environment where entrepreneurs and researchers come together, I hope that if not in this room in the surrounding areas maybe we’ll find somebody who will help Matilda realise her big dreams of heading to the moon and other dreams of children around the world.

Because as scientists have invented and thought for centuries that we need to shoot for the stars, we need to contemplate that which we do not know. And we may not make it all of the way to the dreams or aspirations that people have, but we frequently, when you shoot a long way in the future, can land in a new horizon. And imagine over the years the progress that would have been lost if scientists, researchers, inventors, had set their sights lower.

Can I in starting my remarks today acknowledge the traditional owners, the Gadigal people here in the Sydney area, but all of Australia’s Indigenous owners, and as the nation’s education minister recognise that we continue to learn much of the knowledge of our Indigenous peoples, learn much from it, and of course the nation’s built upon it.

Can I also thank Elena Douglas the CEO of the Knowledge Society, and the many distinguished people who are here today including co-presenters, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, Bill Ferris the chair of Innovation and Science Australia, the members of the Commonwealth Science Council Ken Boal and Tanya Monro, and of course the sponsors of this event, the Australian Rio Tinto and Cisco, who bring such esteemed Australians together to chart a way forward on the innovation agenda.

Today I want to speak about the journey that we are all on, that shift in the economy, that transition, which we’re all so keenly aware of, and to outline what I think are the three most important areas of focus for Australia into the future. Firstly a common vision; a strategy that we can all get behind. Secondly how we the Turnbull Government are working towards that vision, and lastly how each of us can pitch in to help.

So what is it that should unite and bind us? Well the Turnbull Government recognises Australia’s economy is in transition. The Prime Minister has championed a number of key things. We want to see in Australia that it’s innovative enough to create new ideas in goods and services. From industries that are as old as society like agriculture through to the new economy in technology or services.

We want an Australia that is agile enough to respond to change, shifting from an economy powered by the mining boom to one that is geared to take advantage of new opportunities. We want an Australia that is nimble enough to be competitive, to live within its means, whilst achieving our economic transformation. And we want an Australia that is entrepreneurial enough to seize those new innovative ideas and translate them into business ventures that maintain our capacity to be a high wage, high standard of living, strong social safety net country, into the future.

I’m sure that it goes without saying that at an event called Knowledge Nation we in this room all acknowledge how central education is to Australia being innovative, being agile, being nimble, being entrepreneurial. In a prosperous and advanced nation like ours the advancement of more young Australians to ever high levels of educational attainment is a bipartisan achievement spanning multiple governments.

It is something that our nation should be proud of. Since the turn of the century the proportion of 25-34 year old Australians with a year 12 certificate, or a certificate three or four qualification has jumped from 74 per cent to 87 per cent, and the number of people with a diploma or higher education qualification has spiked from just 27 per cent in 2000 to 42 per cent now. Our high rates of educational attainment have helped Australia in economic transition and national productivity already, aiding our capabilities to grow service based industries, ensuring our resources and agricultural sectors are among the most efficient in the world, and equipping us to make the most of trade opportunities in a more globalised world.

These greater levels of educational accomplishment however have not come without a significant price tag. In both nominal and real terms Australia now spends more on early childhood care and learning, on schools, universities, and training, than ever before. Over the ten years since 2005 Australia’s GDP, our economy, has grown by 66 per cent in nominal terms. Taxpayer funding for Commonwealth supported places in higher education institutions has however increased by 116 per cent.

That’s a growth in spending on higher education that is 75 per cent more than economic growth. Over a similar timeframe Commonwealth spending for schools has increased by 97 per cent in nominal terms. That’s a growth in spending on schools that is 47 per cent more than economic growth. And over the 10 year period, taxpayer funding for child care and early learning has increased from $1.8 billion a  year to $7.2 billion a year, or 300 per cent growth over that time, which is a growth in spending on child care and learning that is actually around 350 per cent more than economic growth. 

So we must recognise that whilst having a well-educated workforce is central to our success as a knowledge nation, so too is maximising the attractiveness of Australia as an investment destination. There’s no point having the best educated populous in the world if high taxes or high debt or a combination of both scare off the investment required to ultimately employ Australians. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we must all live within our means, including governments, including education ministers. 

And that really brings me to my second point, what we as the Government are doing to strengthen Australia’s future, specifically within the education portfolio. Put very simply, I want Australia to secure the highest educational outcomes based on the most equitable and fair access to education possible, to do so as efficiently as possible from within the record funds that are already available, and which we will continue to ensure remain available into the future.

Early learning centres, schools, universities, training and research providers all need to seize the opportunities created by digital disruption to do things better, cheaper, smarter, while not losing sight of the basics that underpin a sound education. 

As one example, today we’ve announced that more than 300 pre-schools are being offered the opportunity to join the extended pilot of the Early Learning Languages program and Polyglots app. They’re play-based apps that mean more than 10,000 pre-schoolers will be able to study Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, French or Arabic. Following the success of this program, we’ve also committed $6 million through the National Innovation and Science Agenda to develop a similar app focussed on inspiring pre-school students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

These apps are initiatives that tick the boxes for an excellent education resource. They are backed by evidence, they inspire students, they get parents involved in education, and they’re useful for educators. They are also an illustration of the new wave of technology that gives drive to low cost and adaptable tools, which the National Innovation and Science Agenda embodies, and which we must ensure across our educational landscape we make maximum use of new, lower cost, smarter technologies that can help to ensure, with our record funding, we do derive much better and improved outcomes.

After 26 years of uninterrupted growth Australia may be the envy of the world, but we need to push ourselves to achieve more and to shore up our position. The same way we couldn’t be complacent back when we lived off of the sheep’s back, we can’t rely forever on our comparative advantage in resources. Education services are now our third largest export, ahead of tourism.

This hasn’t happened over night, it has been built over the last three decades, or arguably since the Colombo plan. Our Chinese friends, for example, are increasingly looking towards Australia to provide their countrymen and women with an education that develops skills rich in creativity and innovation. It is that vote of confidence in our education system by so many international students that we should not lose sight of when we consider the quality base on which we seek to build. 

When the Prime Minister announced the $1.1 billion Innovation and Science Agenda over the next four years, he said the opportunities for Australia had never been greater, and he’s right. That’s why when it comes to education NISA is rich on measures that start, as I said, in those earliest years with pre-schoolers, but particularly flowing all the way through to how it is we can drive more public and economic benefit from our research jobs. 

In considering our reforms to research funding, I am reminded of the words of the classical liberal philosopher of the Victorian era, Herbert Spencer, who said that the great aim of education is not knowledge, but action. And in a gathering such as today, with the themes and the thoughts that you are considering, they’re words that I think resonate greatly. Knowledge is an essential building block upon which innovation occurs.

However, knowledge is not the end, but rather the means by which we create new opportunities: new opportunities for new businesses, new opportunities for new jobs, new opportunities for new and improved public services. 

These are the actions we are wanting from better focussed research programs. That’s why our Innovation and Science Agenda entails a streamlining of the university research block grant programs, making six complicated schemes into two programs: the Research Support Program with annual funding of $885 million, and the Research Training Program with funding of $948 million. We’ve also tipped an additional $127 million in to reward business engagement, to provide for new arrangements that will shift away from disproportionate incentives to publish, as publications are already well-recognised and incentivised elsewhere in higher education, but instead that there are better incentives to collaborate. 

It’s also why, through the Innovation Agenda, we’ve ended the funding cliff for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy by giving over 35,000 researchers who rely on it a decade of certainty with $150 million per annum indexed for ongoing operations, knowing that research planning requires long-term horizon and perspective.

It’s why a panel led by the Chief Scientist will develop a national research infrastructure roadmap to identify our future research infrastructure needs, and why a 10 year plan for government, universities and industry, to most wisely use our finite research infrastructure dollars as efficiently as possible. It’s why the Australian Research Council is speeding up decision making processes to help researchers and businesses seize opportunities to work together at the time that best suits them, rather than a time defined by any bureaucratic processes.

And it’s why we’re developing new methodologies to establish how to measure the benefits of university research, and the extent of effective collaboration between universities and business, industry, or other end users.

So what we have are a range of initiatives to boost research and innovation in higher education, and today I’m pleased to also announce the findings of a report into our research training system to ensure it is performing at the level Australia needs. The Australian Council of Learned Academies has released a report on research training arrangements which shows the system performs well in terms of research output. It does, however, list a number of areas for improvement. They include better data about career outcomes for graduates, better information for aspiring PhD candidates on the quality and performance of university training, and more flexibility around funding for these students. 

These are worthy objectives right across our higher education landscape, which feature strongly in my thinking on future higher education reform directions. However, this report makes it clear that we ought to be properly considering these matters in funding policies around post-graduate research places, just as prolonged debates have done so in relation to undergraduate places. The council and the Expert Working Group led by John McGagh have done a great job, and I thank them for their work. The report provides clear direction for us and the university system on how to work together to improve the research training system.

Complementing good policy settings and support for our leading researchers and innovators, we’re also passionate about the power of STEM education and the need to ensure this and future generations of students are inspired to study the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s hard to ignore the value of STEM and I know it’s been a topic of conversation here today already, as it was at the table I enjoyed some debate at just a few minutes ago.

There are estimates that around 75 per cent of the fastest growing industries require skills in those STEM fields. It’s clear that STEM needs to be front and centre of our plans for our education system at all levels, from the high chair, from those early learning opportunities, through to higher education.

The innovation agenda has already set aside $64 million of funding for STEM and digital literacy education: the STEM apps for pre-schoolers I mentioned earlier, investment in giving science and maths teachers more skills, using technology such as [indistinct] to translate that knowledge as cost-efficiently as possible to those science and maths teachers, a digital component of the new Australian curriculum, programs to get more girls and women interested in STEM, and support for students and schools from disadvantaged backgrounds to teach IT and technology subjects in the classroom. These are just some examples of the initiatives we’re pursuing in this space. 

In my travels I have the honouring of seeing some of Australia’s best and brightest minds hard at work on solutions to some of our biggest challenges. What always strikes me is how much of that research is driven by the incredible mathematicians we have amongst us: the Nanopatch by Professor Mark Kendall; Dr Kenji Sumida, who is developing metal organic framework superstructures, such as new materials platform; and of course, in discussing mathematics, I pay tribute and my respects to Professor Peter Hall, who recently passed away.

Professor Hall was an outstanding mathematician, an ARC Laurete Fellow, he chaired the executive committee of the Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal Plan for the mathematical sciences, and led the establishment of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers. The Decadal Plan that he helped to oversee includes many worthy ideas to provide Australian school students with outstanding maths teachers, to improve the standards of teacher education programs in mathematics, and to require greater take-up of maths in the final year of school. 

In December 2015 I agreed with my state and territory counterparts to a national STEM school education strategy, which will endeavour to lift the quality of initial teacher education through the implementation of agreed national program standards, including mandatory content in requirements in maths and science, and the national literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education students. In recent years, year 12 enrolments in advance maths have declined significantly.

Based on an August 2015 report by the Australian Mathematical Sciences institute, there was a 20 per cent drop in advanced maths enrolments between 2000 and 2013. We know that ambition and obligation drives behaviour among students, parents, and schools. If maths or sciences can be part of a stronger requirement to attain an ATAR or a year 12 certificate, then we know that much more mathematical or scientific accomplishment would be expected through the early years of education too.

I welcome the recent decision by the University of Sydney to require from 2019 that year 12 students must have completed at least two maths units for 62 of that university’s undergraduate entry courses. That makes the University of Sydney the first university in New South Wales with this requirement. It’s a concept that I’ve been encouraged other institutions to consider. 

Our ambition to build our maths and science capabilities is why we’ve been funding the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute to help build our national STEM capacity. AMSI is a national leader in promoting awareness of the careers in the mathematical sciences, and plays a key role in building a national capability in STEM.

Between 2012 and 2016 our Government has provided funding of approximately $2 million to the Vacation Schools and Scholarships project, which supports maths research and enhances the knowledge and research experience of undergrad and postgrad students alike. Nearly 150 female students have participated annually. And today I’m pleased that we are extending and increasing that support, committing a further $2 million to their new project to secure Australia’s mathematical workforce. The project will offer new industry research training in bioinformatics and optimisation, and industry based internships for PhD students in commercial research and innovation.

Finally I want to touch this afternoon on how indeed all of us, all Australians can pitch in to help with the innovation and science agenda. To borrow the Prime Minister’s phrase, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian student, or an Australian researcher, or an Australian entrepreneur.

There’s never been a more exciting time to rediscover the curiosity and passion that has defined Australia. We should celebrate our accomplishments – we are the land that invented spray on skin, the bionic ear, the black box flight recorder, and even [indistinct] voice(*), perhaps the invention most dominant in many of our early childhood memories.

Last year alone we produced 3.8 per cent of the world’s research output from just 0.3 per cent of the world’s population. We aren’t just the lucky country, we’re a country that bats well above our weight, and that is where we could all go(*). Our capacity to break ground in new knowledge is obvious, but our more limited success in translating new knowledge into commercial breakthroughs means we are not realising all of the benefits of our knowledge capabilities.

The Government can support discovery, and innovation, and entrepreneurialism with more money, with new programs, and with refinement to our research processes. And we’re doing this through our National Innovation and Science Agenda – not only via STEM or reforms to research funding, but by making the tax arrangements for new investments in start-ups for venture capital all the more attractive. 

But ultimately, innovation is about our culture and our attitudes. It is up to each and every one of us to adopt the attitudes of innovation, push upwards, to back new ideas, to take risks and to test our boundaries, to shoot for the stars. 

If Matilda asked me today what she asked me those few months ago about why we can’t have a rocket ship, perhaps I would give different answers having had the time to reflect. Perhaps I tell her that it’s not possible today after school for us to go and pick up a rocket ship and go to the moon, but that it’s absolutely possible that maybe one day we can, and that we’re trying to create an Australia for her and future generations who will give her the knowledge and resources to do that, or to pursue other ideas that appear unrealisable today.

But tomorrow, who knows? Why not just a rocket ship? Why not a hover board, a teleporter, whatever other grand ideas that can transform our basis as a society for success in the future. The people in this room are incredibly important to our capability as a nation to change that culture, to achieve success, and I thank you all so very much for participating today, but more so for what you do every single day to help us achieve that.

Thank you very much

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