SUBJECTS: Safety on university campuses; Safety in early childhood education and care settings; International education integrity; Voice Referendum
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Education Ministers are looking at establishing a national student Ombudsman to hold the sector to account. The proposal was put to Federal, State and Territory Education Ministers when they met yesterday afternoon.
The Federal, the National Minister for Education Jason Clare joins us this morning. Jason Clare, welcome.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G'day, PK.
KARVELAS: Let's just talk about this issue. The latest National Student Safety Survey says close to 15,000 students are subject to sexual violence at university every year. It's staggering, it's alarming. Students want this proposed body to have strong powers to tackle it. How will it work?
CLARE: That survey was done by Kate Jenkins I think in 2021 and it showed that one in 20 students said they'd been sexually assaulted. One in six students said they'd been sexually harassed. I'm not naive enough to think this is just a problem in universities. We see it in our homes, in our workplaces. You see it in Parliament House. But this is a problem in universities as well and these are places where people don't just study or work, they're places where people sleep and live.
It is very obvious from that survey, as well as what advocates in this area have told me that not enough has been done in the past, that students haven't been heard. They're being heard now and the Working Group that's working on this briefed Education Ministers yesterday about potential reform here. One of those ideas that was presented to us yesterday was the idea of a stand-alone National Student Ombudsman, something that would be independent of government, and of the universities, that would investigate complaints made by students and have the capacity to resolve disputes with universities.
KARVELAS: And is that something you support, and you think needs to have teeth?
CLARE: Yeah, I'm interested in it. Whatever we do, it needs to have teeth. It needs to have the power to act. I'm not interested in setting up a body just for the sake of setting up a body. I want us to act here. The time for talk here is over.
KARVELAS: And when you say you want it to have teeth, what might that look like?
CLARE: That's the work that's going on right now, PK. I'm not going to pretend that I've got all the answers. We've set up a body that includes representatives from every State and Territory but we're also talking to student organisations like stop and End Rape On Campus and Fair Agenda. They're part of a representative group that's helping us to develop these ideas. This is just one of them.
But I just make the general point that if the recommendation comes forward to Education Ministers when meet again next month that we should set up a stand-alone National Student Ombudsman, then I want to make sure that it's got the powers that it needs to act, and a key part of that is listening to students right now about what the powers are that this body would need.
KARVELAS: Okay. And if you say if it comes up, which inevitably it will next month, how quickly could you get it up and running, being able to deal with complaints and acting on them with teeth with consequence?
CLARE: Yeah and we will meet again next month, PK. That's the key decision that was made by Ministers yesterday. We were briefed on ideas, and we agreed to meet again at the end of November where we'll be presented with a package of reforms by the Working Group on what should happen. And then we'll make that decision next month and then implement them as quickly as we possibly can.
KARVELAS: So could you get it up and running at the start of next year?
CLARE: Well as soon as possible, I can't put a date on it. But as I said before not enough has happened…
KARVELAS: But to start the university year next year, I mean, you know, there's kind of a sense of urgency around it, isn't there?
CLARE: That's why we're meeting again next month. I'm not mucking around here. But if we decide to set up a stand-alone body, we may need to pass legislation to do it. So I won't commit to a date right now but what I will commit to is acting as quick as we possibly can.
KARVELAS: I want to move to another big issue. What safeguards are going to be put in place to prevent anything like what's happened with the abuse in childcare centres that unfolded in Queensland?
CLARE: We were briefed on this as well yesterday, PK, by the Federal Police but also by ACECQA. They're the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority, they're doing a piece of work for us on safety in childcare centres.
I won't talk about the specific investigation that the police have been doing, but on the work that ACECQA are doing, they're looking at things like banning the use of private mobile phones by educators in childcare centres. They're looking at removing waivers to ensure that there's clear lines of sight to observe workers in childcare centres at all times. They're looking at the different Working With Children Checks that exist in different jurisdictions and how to potentially improve or harmonise them. And they're looking at things like teacher registration.
Teachers are registered in all jurisdictions around the country, but not all teachers who work in early education centres are part of that register, and the overwhelming majority of people who work in childcare centres are not teachers, they're educators, people with TAFE qualifications. There's no register for them at the moment, so they're looking at things like that. And they're also looking at what sort of training or support could be provided to people who work in child care centres to identify grooming when it happens and how to respond when you identify it.
KARVELAS: So how could rules around mandatory reporting of these kinds of incidents and teacher training be strengthened again in a timely way?
CLARE: One of the points that's been raised by ACECQA yesterday is the confusion around mandatory reporting. That sometimes the rules around it are unclear. I don't want to go into the detailed examples that they gave us for fear that there's a matter before the court, but they are looking as part of this, PK, at how you might improve the information that's provided to educators in child care settings around mandatory reporting.
KARVELAS: Minister, just on a few other issues before I let you go. The student visas is another big issue in your portfolio. Earlier this week you called out shonks and dodgy operators in the education system exploiting students. What happens to the students who have been duped? What protections and support will they be offered?
CLARE: The key thing, PK, is to make sure that you prevent them being duped in the first place. We want students to come here to study, not to use the visa system as a back door to work. And we've seen more of that as students have come back to be honest. I think we've spoken about this before.
As students have come back the shonks have come back, and we now have about as many international students in Australia today as we had before the pandemic back in 2019, and there are people out there, people acting as education agents, in some cases some dodgy VET providers, who are using international students to make a quick buck.
Let me give you an example of what's been happening. A student might come here with a visa to study at a university. Then they're approached by an education agent who encourages them to enrol in a VET course instead. They drop out of the university course. They never turn up to the VET course and what they're effectively using is the visa system as back door to work here.
Christine Nixon has recommended to us a whole bunch of reforms that are needed here. One of them is to stop that double enrolment, so we've banned that. But also, to ensure that it will be illegal, we've got to pass legislation to do this, to pay commissions to education agents for getting students to change courses, as well as preventing the cross‑ownership of businesses by these dodgy providers and dodgy agents. But it's going to take more compliance as well to make sure that students that are in Australia studying at our universities in these courses, are actually there.
KARVELAS: I want to move on to an entirely different issue. And if you're just tuning in you're listening to ABC RN Breakfast and the Education Minister Jason Clare is our guest.
The Voice referendum is clearly obviously in the last phase, entering the last week in fact. The independent Senator Lidia Thorpe yesterday accused the Prime Minister was wanting the fascists to get her. It followed a racist video of a Neo‑Nazi threatening the Senator. It's obviously been condemned but what's your response to Senator Thorpe's accusation?
CLARE: What I'd say, PK, is that what happened to Lidia Thorpe was vile and abhorrent. I know the police are investigating, I hope they catch this bloke and put him behind bars. But what I'd say is don't judge Australia by the actions of one wanna be Neo‑Nazi dressed in a balaclava. Australians are better than that.
We're good honest and decent people and you'll see that in the week ahead. There's about another seven days or so to go and 17 million Australians will vote. Some will vote yes, some will vote no, but we'll do that peacefully. That's how democracy works in Australia. And bigger than that, not every generation of Australians gets a chance to make history. We do. We get a chance in the next seven days to put our history in our Constitution, to recognise the fact that Australia didn't start when Captain Cook got here.
KARVELAS: Now you say that but actually Peter Dutton argues and others argue that in fact you could have got the recognition which acknowledges, as you say that before 1788 Australia was absolutely a land with a culture, diverse cultures across the country, but The Voice part they say is the deal breaker, that in fact it's not just the recognition you talk about.
CLARE: This is a practical thing that we can do. We can make the best country in the world even better and even fairer. And when I see a bloke dressed up as a Neo‑Nazi saying that he's going to vote no, I want to be on the other side of that. My grandfather fought against these sort of people and I'm glad that I'll be voting on the other side of them when referendum day comes in seven days' time or so.
KARVELAS: So you say don't judge Australians by this bloke in a balaclava, and I get what you're saying, but are you concerned that there are more blokes in balaclavas, so to speak, and there's a rise of this?
CLARE: PK, we shouldn't be naive enough not to think that people like this haven't hid in dark corners of this country forever. They have always been.
KARVELAS: Are there more now?
CLARE: No. They’ll use this as an opportunity to wave their ugly flag. But this is not Australia and the 17 million Australians that will vote over the next seven or so days will prove this. This is not Australia. These are people who hide in the dark corners of this country who are trying to use this as an opportunity to promote themselves. Let's not let them do this.
KARVELAS: And if Australia votes no, has all of this, including things like that, been worth it?
CLARE: Well, PK, this reminds me of that story of the Irishman who dies and goes to heaven. He's at the Pearly Gates trying to get in and Saint Peter says to him, "Show me your scars" and he says, "I don't have any scars" and Saint Peter says to him, "Wasn't there anything in life worth fighting for?" PK, this is worth fighting for.
KARVELAS: Jason Clare, thanks for joining us.