SUBJECTS: Expert panel to inform a better and fairer education system; International Students returning to Australia
GREG JENNETT: Jason Clare, great to have you back in the studio, as always. Now, the Lisa O'Brien review, which you've established today, picks up on the work of the Productivity Commission, when it comes to the function of our schools around the country. One of the key initiatives is setting and reporting targets to reduce the proportion of students who don't meet basic levels of literacy and numeracy. I suppose the question that arises for you and for Lisa O'Brien is why aren't those targets already there? Is it simply inertia on the part of the states, the territories, and for that matter, the feds?
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, JASON CLARE: Good question. I wish I knew the answer. First, you need real targets, then you need real practical reforms to make sure you hit those targets. It's the same approach we've taken with Closing the Gap measures. If you don't set the target, if you don't measure progress, if you don't put in place the evidence-based reforms that are going to help you meet those targets, then we're never going to tackle the big challenges in education. We've got a good education system, but it can be a lot better, it can be a lot fairer. That report told us that if you're from a poor background, if you're from the bush, or if you're an Indigenous Australian, then you're three times more likely to fall behind at school. And there's no targets, there's no reforms to fix that at the moment. I've said we'll fix that. And that's what this review is all about.
JENNETT: I want to pick up on your equity agenda in a moment, but just on targets. Not much good having them if there aren't consequences, should you not meet them? What are the consequences under the reform agreement that you'll be knocking into shape?
CLARE: Look, really important that I make this point. First you set the target, then you've got to identify what's the real evidence-based reform to help you meet the target and fund it. But what we shouldn't do here is say that the money is linked to an outcome. And so that if you go to a school, like the schools I went to in Western Sydney, that we used to call disadvantaged schools, and they don't hit some target, that you rip the guts out of the funding for it, that's counterproductive. That's going to make it harder.
JENNETT: Not in a punitive way, but what about an incentivising way?
CLARE: Well, I think what we need to do is make sure that the reforms that this panel identifies and that we implement are a living set of recommendations. What I mean by that is if we find that those reforms aren't working, then we go back to the drawing board and we use that funding to invest in the things that we know will work.
JENNETT: All right, your equity agenda, I suppose in the past, the tendency has been to really target those cohorts that are under par. But I do note that the Productivity Commission says, while students from Priority Equity Cohorts are three times, agreeing with you, more likely to be among those who've fallen below minimum standards, they still represent less than half of all students who fall behind. So what do you do about that? It's not simply a matter of targeting the most disadvantaged.
CLARE: No, it's not. But what this panel's work is all about is about identifying what are the things that work to help children who fall behind, whether they're from one of those disadvantaged groups or whether they're not. What are the things that will work? What are the practical, real things? Let me give you an example about where the evidence is heading. What the evidence shows us is that if a child's falling behind in reading or math skills at primary school, then if you get that child out of the classroom and into a small literacy tutoring group, then that can help a child to catch up. Now, if you direct the funding to provide schools with the support and the people and the expertise they need to help a child who's falling behind to catch up, that'll make sure that that child not only catches up where they want to be in primary school, but they end up going on to high school and finishing high school.
JENNETT: I see that's worked in Finland and Singapore and indeed that the Smith Family ran some sort of tutoring program here –
CLARE: And still do.
JENNETT: – with some success. But again, that is going to come back to availability of teacher numbers and to some extent funding, which we won't get into, but teacher availability, how is the review going to address that?
CLARE: Well, maybe touch on funding, Greg, because this is important to understand what this is all about. David Gonski outlined a school resource standard that all schools should be at, with additional funding for schools where there are children who need extra support. At the moment, non-government schools are on a trajectory to get to 100 per cent of what David Gonski said they should be by the end of this decade. Government schools aren't. At the moment, they're likely to top out at around about 95 per cent in different states over the course of the next decade. So there's a 5 per cent gap. We made a commitment at the election that we will work with the states and territories to get every school on a path to that 100 per cent figure that David Gonski set out.
What this panel's job is, is to tell us what are the evidence-based reforms that we should tie that funding to, that are going to help to make sure that we've got better and fairest schools, that children who fall behind are helped to catch up. But also, what are the things that we should be investing in that are going to improve the wellbeing of all children at school, as well as tackle the problem you've just picked up, which is the fact that we just don't have enough teachers.
JENNETT: Yeah. So then you get to some really basic indicators when you're talking about evidence-based stuff that the Productivity Commission has come up with. Attendance is pretty fundamental to learning. And we see there evidence that in the seven to ten years, high school years, attendance had fallen by ten percentage points before COVID –
CLARE: Before COVID.
JENNETT: – came along. What's that telling you about whether kids and their families have decided that education is a choice, not compulsory?
CLARE: I'm glad you asked that, because when the Productivity Commission handed down their report, I met with them and I said, what's happening here? They said, we don't know. And I said, give me more information about what's happening with attendance. It's not just year seven to year ten, it's kindergarten all the way through to the end of high school. It's boys and girls. It's private schools and public schools. It's the city and the bush. We've seen attendance drop in every school and every level of schooling over the last ten years. And whenever I ask, whether it's the Productivity Commissioner or anyone else, what's happening here, all I get is crickets. So I put this on the agenda for Education Ministers a month ago. We agreed to refer that to the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), so we get a better handle on what's happening.
JENNETT: Would you set a target around that, in this agreement? That you, State X or Territory Y, need to get it back to –
CLARE: We have targets at the moment, which is that we want students to be at school at least 90 per cent of the time and that's tapering off. I want to see what AERO tells us from the work that we've commissioned them to do. I want more children at school more of the time, because if you're not at school, you're not learning.
JENNETT: Leaping finally right away from school education to higher education. I'm fairly certain that we've established a strong return rate from international students, maybe approaching that point where universities might have to tap the brakes because some were encouraged after the pandemic not to return to levels that they'd been running beforehand. With that in mind, is it wise or helpful for State Premiers, Dan Andrews as a current example, to be out drumming up yet more business for international students?
CLARE: Well, keep this in context, Greg. We won't have as many international students in Australia as we did before the pandemic until the end of 2025.
CLARE: Students are coming back, but there's still a long way to go. We've seen a big increase in students from India. I think we've got about 160 per cent more students starting degrees in Australia from India, as we did this time last year. The return of Chinese students has been much slower. Chinese students were able to study in China remotely for Australian university degrees. That's now changed and we're seeing Chinese students start to come back, but at a much slower rate than other countries.
JENNETT: So no risk, no harm in a premier trying to encourage more?
CLARE: International education is the biggest export we don't dig out of the ground. It's a $40 billion industry, and it was cut in half by the pandemic. We want more students back. It doesn't just make our universities money, it makes our country friends. Because when you come here, you study, you learn, you make friends, you fall in love with Australia, you take that affection for our country back home with you, and in the world we live in Greg, you can't buy that.
JENNETT: Or under some of the immigration reforms, convert them to full time Australians, I think, is one of the objectives.
CLARE: That's part of it as well, because we started talking about skill shortages. There are real skill shortages in our economy at the moment. A lot of students will come here, learn, get a degree from an Australian university and then go home, where, if they're engineers, for example, it'd be terrific to have them stay a couple more years and help us fill those skill shortages.