Interview - ABC RN Breakfast, Patricia Karvelas
SUBJECTS: Australia-India relationship; International education; Public Education Day; National School Reform Agreement; AI in education; Teacher training
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Education is Australia’s third biggest export and rakes in billions of dollars a year. A new deal with India will help grow that further and allow Indian university students to work here for longer after they’ve finished studying.
Jason Clare is the Education Minister, and he joins me this morning. Welcome back to the program.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, Patricia.
KARVELAS: What is this deal expected to do for the university sector? How many more students will we see studying here?
CLARE: You’re right, Patricia, international education makes us money, but it also makes us friends. I think something like one and a half million Indian students over the last 20 years have come to Australia, got a university degree, taken those skills back with them to India but also a love and affection for Australia.
In March I signed an agreement with the Indian Government, a mutual recognition of university qualifications, to make it easier for students in both of our countries to study in each other’s country. This agreement struck with the two Prime Ministers this week in effect builds on that. It’s a commitment by both countries to facilitate the smooth entry of students into each other’s countries to be able to study at our universities, as well as academics, researchers and business people as well.
KARVELAS: There’s an increase in universities, however, banning students from some Indian states over concerns on visa fraud. How will you manage that as we try to get more students from India in?
CLARE: You’re right. There’s a number of universities that have put a halt on applications from students from some Indian states at the moment. I understand that’s because we’ve seen a jump in the number of visa cancellations after the university application has taken place, after a student is in Australia and has dropped out of that university qualification. There’s another problem as well, Patricia, and that’s, frankly, the unscrupulous behaviour of some education agents here in Australia who are enticing students to drop out of their university degrees and either go into a TAFE qualification or out of the education system altogether. The integrity of our system is critical. This is, as you pointed out at the start, one of our biggest exports, something that we sell to the world, and Clare O’Neil, the Minister for Home Affairs, working with me and with Brendan O’Connor the Skills Minister, is looking at the reforms we need to take here to ensure the integrity of our system.
KARVELAS: Yesterday Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Anthony Albanese had assured him there will be strict action against Sikh separatist groups in Australia who have been agitating for an independent state in India. I know some people are very concerned about the language there. What does it mean?
CLARE: Can you just repeat that point, for me, Patricia?
KARVELAS: Yeah, well, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Anthony Albanese had assured him that there will be strict action against Sikh separatist groups in Australia. Now, these are Australian citizens, some of them are protesting. They’re not obviously – they’re obviously quite upset about the Indian regime. But this language of strict action against people living in Australia, is that going to happen?
CLARE: I’ll just make the general point, we are a peaceful, multicultural nation and we don’t want conflicts, wherever they are around the world, brought here to Australia. It’s one of the things that makes Australia the best country in the world. We’re a country made up of people from all around the world, all different backgrounds and religions and different cultures and faiths living here in harmony.
India is very multicultural as well. I think it has the biggest Muslim population in the world outside Indonesia. I was at an event with Prime Minister Modi last night as well as Prime Minister Albanese. He said it slightly in jest, but it was a serious point, he said for a very long time the relationship between our two countries has been like a koala – mostly asleep. But he said, now the relationship between our two countries is like a kangaroo – moving forward. The work that we do together, whether it’s in trade generally, whether it’s through the Quad and national security, or the work that I do with my counterpart in India in international education is important in forging closer bonds between our two countries.
KARVELAS: Let’s move very much to your portfolio again and schools. Today is Public Education Day and in this year’s budget, you increased funding for public schools. But you’ve acknowledged it’s not where it needs to be. Now if states and territories aren’t pulling their weight to adequately fund government classrooms, why can’t you put in a temporary cash injection until they can?
CLARE: It is Public Education Day. Happy Public Education Day to everyone across the country, particularly people like me who are a product of public education and proud of it. What we saw in the Budget is an increase in funding for public schools, but a drop in the number of students going to public schools. That worries me. What worries me even more, Patricia is this: that over the last five years, we’ve seen a drop in the number of students in public schools finishing high school. In 2017, 83 per cent of students finished high school in year 12 in public schools. Last year that dropped to 76 per cent. If that doesn’t tell you that we need serious reform, I don’t know what does. We need to fix that funding gap. We’ve made a commitment to close that funding gap, working with States and Territories to do that. Part of it is the funding, part of is what that funding is spent on, what we invest it in. That’s why I’ve established a panel of experts led by Lisa O’Brien, the head of the Australian Education Research Organisation, to give advice to me and other Education Ministers about the sort of things that we should tie this funding to, to fix some of the big structural problems in our education system.
It's not just the fact that we’re seeing a drop in the number of students in public schools finishing high school, that’s a domino effect of something that happens much earlier. If you’re a child from a poor background or from the bush or an Indigenous Australian, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. Fifteen years ago, the gap in reading skills of a child from a poor background and a child from a wealthy background was one year. Now it’s two. And not a lot of those children catch up. In fact, the gap in learning grows. And as the gap grows the chances of you dropping out of school grow.
This is what we’ve got to fix. The work of this panel is to identify the sorts of reforms and early interventions to help children catch up so more children finish school. We live in an age where finishing school is your ticket to the show. Nine out of 10 jobs require you to finish school and go on to TAFE or uni. If kids aren’t doing that, then that is a massive problem.
KARVELAS: That’s certainly true. But given there’s a march away from public education across our country, does that mean in your view there is a crisis in public education or trust in public education?
CLARE: I want public education to be the first choice for parents.
KARVELAS: But it’s not increasingly, is it?
CLARE: No. And it worries me that parents are thinking that they have no choice and that they are opting to move out of the system. That’s why the reforms that we’re taking here are so important. That’s why it’s important that the funding that we’re talking about here go to the most disadvantaged schools first. Now the funding that’s needed here to finish the job that David Gonski started is this: non-government schools at the moment are above the Gonski Schooling Resource Standard of 100 per cent. They’ll taper down to that level by the end of this decade.
Public schools will top out at about 95 per cent of that in different states over the next decade. New South Wales in 2025, Victoria 2028, Queensland 2032, the Northern Territory 2050. The money that we put into the Budget only a couple of weeks ago of $40 million in Central Australia for 46 schools which bring that forward effectively for those schools in Central Australia – the most disadvantaged schools in the country where the attendance rates are the lowest, the NAPLAN results are almost the lowest, the school completion rates are the lowest – it will bring that forward from 2050 by 26 years to 2024.
I’m serious when I say I want to make sure that we’ve got the funding right, investing in the sorts of things that are going to help children to catch up and that we provide that funding and those resources to the schools that need them the most first.
KARVELAS: Okay. There’s a few specific questions I have on other issues. You’ve declared artificial intelligence isn’t going away, and while many schools are banning students from using it, you’re encouraging teachers to take advantage of tools like ChatGPT. Why?
CLARE: What I’m saying is it’s a bit like the internet, it’s not going away. It’s a bit like email, it’s not going away. It’s how you use it. It can be used for good to help you learn and to help assess. Potentially, it can help teachers to reduce workload over time. We’ve seen examples of that overseas as well. But it can also be used to cheat. We don’t want students to get marks that they don’t deserve. It’s not just schools grappling with this; it’s universities as well thinking about how it might change how we learn, how we teach, how we assess students. Some school systems have banned it, others haven’t. At the last meeting of Education Ministers, we agreed to develop a national best practice framework to inform the way this operates in our schools. We’ll meet again in a couple of weeks – I think in the first week of July – where we’ll look at the first draft of that framework.
KARVELAS: And what do you – what can you tell us about what’s in that draft of that framework?
CLARE: Too early, PK.
KARVELAS: You must have some idea?
CLARE: No. It’s being worked on by experts. But have me back and we might be able to talk about it when we see the draft.
KARVELAS: Okay. We’ll put you on our list. Just on another issue – teacher training, which you put on your agenda - since coming into government you’ve been looking at a broad range of reforms to get more teachers into the classrooms and improve teacher training. What are you looking to do and how quickly will it be done?
CLARE: This is a big issue. Something like 70 per cent of students finish their university degrees that they start, only about 50 per cent of students who do a teaching degree finish it. And if you ask most teachers, they’ll tell you that when they first became a teacher, they didn’t feel prepared for the classroom. That the prac they got when they were at uni wasn’t up to scratch, it didn’t really prepare them for the work of being a teacher. That what they learnt at university didn’t give them all the skills they needed to teach students to read or to write or to manage a difficult and disruptive classroom. I think I’ve mentioned to you before, Patricia, that something like 30 to 50 per cent of teachers quit in the first five years. We don’t have enough young people becoming teachers. Too many drop out at uni, and almost 50 per cent are leaving in the first five years.
What we do with teacher training is important because it has the potential to fix this. So at that same meeting in a couple of weeks’ time in July we’ll look at work that Mark Scott, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, along with a number of others, have put together for us about what are the reforms that we can make to teacher training, both to course content and to practical experience that will help to make sure teachers are better prepared for the classroom.
KARVELAS: Okay. PwC has now been referred to federal police. Have you got any contracts with the Education Department, and will you cancel them?
CLARE: Not that I’m aware of.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.
CLARE: Good on you. Thanks, PK.
KARVELAS: Education Minister Jason Clare there. You’re listening to ABC Radio National.