SUBJECTS: Australian Universities Accord Interim Report; Cancellation of 2026 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Federal Government wants to double the number of Indigenous and regional students going to university as part of a wider overhaul of the university sector. That’s one of the key announcements from the Interim Report from the Universities Accord, which seeks to reshape tertiary education to meet what the government believes will be the future needs of our economy as it really shifts and there are big changes to the way our country will be looking in years to come.
Now, the report found that almost half of all young people in their 20s are now getting a degree. Those figures are much lower for students from rural and regional Australia.
Jason Clare is the Education Minister, and he’s been leading this process and will be releasing the full report later today. That’s the Interim Report; there’s another one to come later this year. And he’s addressing the National Press Club later, but first he speaks to us. Minister, welcome.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, PK.
KARVELAS: You’re going to guarantee funding for every Indigenous student who meets entry requirements. Just talk me through that proposal and why that’s a key one that you’ve embraced.
CLARE: If you’re a young Indigenous person today, you’re more likely to go to jail than you are to go to university. You made the point a moment ago that almost one in two young Australians have a university degree. But that’s not the case everywhere. It’s not the case in the western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or in our regions. It’s not the case for poor families. And it is a magnitude lower for Indigenous students – only 7 per cent of young Indigenous students in their 20s and their 30s have a university degree.
Now, at the moment if you’re a young Indigenous person and you live in regional or remote Australia and you get the marks, you’re guaranteed a funding spot at university. But not if you live in one of our big cities.
So, if you live in Townsville, you get it, but if you live in Logan, you don’t. If you live in Armidale, you get it, but if you live in Mount Druitt you don’t.
And as you know, most of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, a lot of them live in our major cities. If we really want to tackle the gap in opportunity, if we want to close that gap, if we’re serious about that, then this is one way to do it. The evidence that’s been accepted by the Panel is that if we do this, we could double the number of Indigenous students at university in a decade.
KARVELAS: So, you’re saying that the system at the moment skews to regional and remote areas and you want to bring the cities in. So just explain what happens currently if you get the marks, right - because you still have to meet the requirement of universities.
KARVELAS: What happens?
CLARE: This is not about lowering standards. You need to get the marks; you need to qualify for the course. If you do qualify for the course, then you’re guaranteed to get access to a Commonwealth Supported Place. So, the university knows that it’ll get the funding necessary to enable the student to do the course. It’s what used to be called ‘demand driven.’ And that applies if you’re an Indigenous person who lives in the regions but not in the cities. What this report has said is that we need to make it across the board.
KARVELAS: So, you want it to be across the board. How much will that cost?
CLARE: It’s estimated that that will cost over the course of the next four years about $34 million. That’s a pretty good investment, I think.
I made the point a moment ago, that if you’re a young Indigenous person today, you’re more likely to go to jail than you are to university. The cost of having somebody in jail every year is about $120,000. The cost of a university place is $11,000. We’re having a conversation now about the Voice in this country and about how listening to people gets better results and a better use of taxpayers’ money. I can’t think of a better example than that. The cost of having someone in jail, $120,000 a year; the cost of giving somebody a university degree and a great start in life, $11,000 a year.
KARVELAS: Just 15 per cent of young people from poor families have a university degree. So how do you plan to lift that?
CLARE: This is hard. Whitlam, Dawkins, Gillard all tried to do this with limited success. What this report says is that this is now no longer just the right thing to do; it’s what we have to do.
There’s no one thing to do this. If you think that you can fix this at the gate of university when someone turns 18, then you’re wrong. It goes back to what we do in our schools and in early education as well.
One of the challenges we’ve got – I think I spoke to you about this last time when I was on the program – is that the percentage of young people from poor backgrounds and in public schools finishing high school is going down. Over the last six years we’ve seen the percentage finish high school drop from about 83 per cent to 76 per cent. You’ve got to fix this at every point in the education system – from early education to school education, to higher education.
But one of the things that we can do here and one of the things that’s in this report is that we should be building university hubs closer to where people live. The fact is, postcode can be a brick wall for a lot of young people going to university. I saw it myself growing up in western Sydney in the 80s and the 90s. A lot of my mates thought university just seemed to be somewhere else, for someone else. Lots of McDonald’s logos and KFC logos but not a lot of university logos.
What this report recommends is that we bring university closer to where people live. There are university hubs in our regions at the moment – about 34 of them – that enable you to do online, basically any university course that’s offered at our universities around the country. We know that that works because the assessment has been made that it increases university participation and retention where those hubs exist in regional Australia. What we’re saying is we’ll double them, an extra 20 for the regions, and for the first time ever, we’ll put 14 of these hubs in our outer suburbs.
KARVELAS: Jason Clare, you’re announcing that you’ll scrap the 50 per cent pass rule that was created for the Morrison government’s Job Ready Graduates Program. Just explain the rule for those not familiar with it and why you’re getting rid of it.
CLARE: This was brought in by the former government. It basically means if you fail more than half of your first year at university then you’re forced to quit. And we’ve now seen over the last few months the real-life impact of this. At just one university – Western Sydney University in my neck of the woods – 1,350 students have been forced to quit in the last few months. Across the country, more than 13,000 students have been forced to leave their degree. And most of those students are from poor families and from the regions or from the bush. And what this report basically says is that we should be helping them to pass, not forcing them to quit.
And so, it recommends we get rid of the rule – we’ll need legislation to do that – and that we work with the universities to make sure that they’re putting in the sort of support that these students need to make sure that they pass their courses.
KARVELAS: Well, that’s a key part, isn’t it, Minister? Because if they’re failing at that rate, there’s obviously something going on or going wrong for them in some way.
CLARE: Yeah, absolutely.
KARVELAS: How do you address that? You have to invest in that, don’t you?
CLARE: Yeah, and that links into another recommendation in this report about providing funding certainty for the next two years for universities while these reforms roll out but requiring universities to use any funding that is not allocated to the extra academic and learning support that students need to pass their courses. So, there’s a logic here in the arguments that the Accord Panel are putting up, which is that we shouldn’t be forcing students to quit; we should be helping them to pass. And university should be putting those supports in to help students who need that assistance.
KARVELAS: This is an interim report. The full list of recommendations will come to you at the end of the year and there will be more announcements when the full report is announced later today, and we’ll be talking more about it throughout the week. But just give me a sense of the changes that you will make immediately. You just mentioned, for instance, legislation will be needed. How quickly are you going to turn all of that around?
CLARE: I’m hoping to introduce legislation when Parliament returns in order to deal with this 50 per cent pass rule as well as the changes to enable more Indigenous students to go to university. Other changes don’t require legislation, but the changes recommended in the area of governance require me to work with state and territory ministers as well as universities. I’ll write to ministers about that today and convene a meeting of state and territory higher education ministers on that.
Kate Jenkins’ work in universities showed that 16 per cent of students were sexually harassed on campus and four and a half per cent sexually assaulted. The catalogue of evidence before the Ombudsman shows that there is plenty of examples in our universities of the underpayment of staff, and this report also makes the point that the way in which the boards and the councils of our universities operate is not up to scratch, that they don’t have the right people with the right skills on them. So, this issue of governance needs to be addressed as well.
I’ll write to ministers about how we address that recommendation today. So, there’s immediate recommendations that form part one of this report. Then there’s a swathe of other suggestions or ideas in this report – I think 70, 75 different ideas the Accord are proposed in the report that they’re going to seek the views and the advice and the feedback of the community on, ways to improve them or reject them, whether others should be suggested. Between now and December when the final report is handed to me there’ll be a pretty full‑on debate in the community about what are the recommendations here that are right, what are wrong, what else we should be doing to make sure that we set up our higher education system not just for the next couple of years but for the next decade and beyond.
KARVELAS: Yeah, I think that debate is absolutely necessary as we plan for the future. Minister, before I let you go on a completely different issue, we’ve given the bulk of the time, of course, to this very important university reform, but a very significant decision was made yesterday. Is Victoria’s decision to pull out of hosting the Commonwealth Games embarrassing for Australia?
CLARE: I think it’s disappointing for sports fans wherever you live across the country. Each government has got to make their own decisions about what their priorities are. In my area in education I think I’ve made it pretty clear what my priority is in making sure that more kids from poor backgrounds and more kids from the regions get a crack at university. That’s my priority. That’s where I’m focusing my attention.
I know in my house my little fella is probably more interested in making sure that Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler score lots of goals over the next few weeks in the soccer World Cup than they are about the Commonwealth Games.
KARVELAS: That’s all I care about too right now, but the Commonwealth Games, why did they go and say they wanted the Commonwealth Games if they were going to cancel it? I mean, that’s part of the issue, isn’t it?
CLARE: You’re asking the wrong person, PK; you should talk to the Victorian Government about that rather than me.
KARVELAS: Can’t wait, but do you think it’s embarrassing?
CLARE: I said it’s disappointing. But each government’s got to make a decision about what it thinks are its top priorities.
KARVELAS: Fair enough. Minister, thank you so much for your time.
CLARE: Good on you. Thanks, PK.