Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Triple J Hack


The Hon Jason Clare MP
Minister for Education

MARCHESE: Well, let's dig into some of this detail now with the guy who's in charge of doing something with all of these suggestions. Jason Clare is the Education Minister and he's with us now from Canberra, Parliament House. Minister, welcome back to Hack.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day, mate. It’s great to be here. 

MARCHESE: This Universities Accord, it's made 47 recommendations. How many of those is the government going to commit to?

CLARE: This is a big report. It’s a blueprint for higher education, not just for the next couple of years; it’s a blueprint for the next two decades. And it’s not about saying what we’ll do and what we won’t do, Dave. What the report says is you’ve got to stage these reforms out over two decades. So what I’m doing at the moment is looking through all of the recommendations, getting feedback from people, costing them, working out what are the things that we need to do first.

MARCHESE: Okay. Is there one specific priority you have, though? Because you have had this report for a few months, so is there one thing that you can say “Yes, I think that's a good option. We're going to go with that.”

CLARE: Well, I think I’ve made it clear – I think we’ve talked about this before too, mate – that my priority is making sure that more kids from the outer suburbs and the regions and more young people from poor families get a crack at going to university. At the moment almost one in two young people have a university degree – young people in their 20s and 30s – but not everywhere, not where I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, not in the regions, not in the bush. And this report says that if we’re going to have the workforce we need in the future, we need to fix that. 

It says we need to break down that artificial barrier between TAFE and uni, make it easier to move between the two. And it also says we need to get rid of that invisible barrier that stops a lot of young people from the outer suburbs, from the regions, from poorer families from ever getting to uni in the first place and then make sure that we help them succeed when they get there. 

MARCHESE: Okay, well, what about increasing welfare payments for students? Because the review says income support payments for students have not kept pace with wages or the needs of students and that's resulted in a smaller proportion of students now receiving some income support. Does that mean it is likely that you will boost support for students to try and get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into uni?

CLARE: It’s got a handful of recommendations there to help more young people get into university and stay there. So one of the recommendations in the Report is about fee-free university courses. Those sort of bridging courses that you don’t have to pay for at university but can help to make sure you succeed when you get there.

The Report also recommends changes with student income support. It also talks about paid placement for teaching students and nursing students and social work students. And then it says that we should think about a needs-based funding model, extra funding is provided for the students that need it most and completion bonuses for universities who invest in the right way and help to boost the number of students who finish their degree. So we’re looking at all of that. 

MARCHESE: Okay, because to be clear, and you mentioned a few of those areas just then, but this review says the urgent action requires a whole of student focus on learning and teaching, affordable student housing, assistance with finding employment, income support where relevant, as opposed to simply enrolling disadvantaged students into a course and hoping they succeed. 

CLARE: Yeah, that’s right. 

MARCHESE: I mean, it sounds like you really need to address all of those issues to tackle this massive problem.

CLARE: It also says this: we’re not going to fix this, we’re not going to hit that target if we just rely on reforms at the university gate, once somebody turns 18 or once somebody goes to university. At the moment the percentage of people finishing high school is going down, not up. Not everywhere, but in public schools and particularly young people from poorer backgrounds, from poor families. And there’s a link between those young people who aren’t finishing high school and the kids who are falling behind at primary school. It’s all connected. 

MARCHESE: I mean, you've already flagged some changes need to happen for cost-of-living relief. Straight away, can we expect to see a change to indexation, for example, of HECS, and help in this year's Budget?

CLARE: The Report talks about changes to indexation. It also talks about changes to repayments. When you have a look at what the report says about HECS, or what we now call HELP, it says that it’s a good system, that it’s helped to increase the number of young people at university, and that’s certainly true. What it says is we need to make HECS fairer and simpler. It recommends changes to indexation, but it also recommends changes to repayments. 

MARCHESE: So, will you be making changes in those areas?

CLARE: We’ll be looking at all of that. One recommendation in this Report, which is about changes to repayments for people on lower incomes. Say if you’re on $75,000 a year, it would mean your repayments would be about $1,000 less per year. And that’s just one of the things we’re looking at as we consider all of these recommendations over the next few weeks and months. 

MARCHESE: So, you back that idea of paying less for your study if you're not going to earn as much in the long term, that's something that you support?

CLARE: Dave, we’re not responding to the report now. This is a massive report that’s been put together by Professor Mary O’Kane and the team. And I’ve said that we’re going to judiciously look through all of these recommendations, get feedback from universities, from students, from everybody else over the next few weeks and months and then we’ll respond with the first steps in implementing this report. 

MARCHESE: Okay, this is Hack. I'm Dave Marchese. I'm speaking with Education Minister Jason Clare about this big review into universities, the final report being made public. A lot of people have been waiting for this. It's now out there and we're asking the Education Minister about some of the recommendations. 

Minister, another huge thing is obviously student placements. This Report recommends financial support for compulsory work placements. This is a massive issue for young Australians. Do you think students need to be paid for placements?

CLARE: We’ve talked about this before, mate. This strikes me as a good idea. I’ve spoken to lots of teaching students, lots of nursing students about what is effectively placement poverty, a big part of your degree for a teaching student, it’s 600 hours; for a nursing student it’s 800 hours; for a social work student it’s even more – it’s about a thousand hours. It can mean that you have to move to do the prac. It can mean that you have to quit the paid part-time job to do the unpaid prac and it can lead to people sometimes not finishing the degree. Only 54 per cent of students who start a teaching degree finish it. If we can boost that number – and part of it is making sure that the course is better aligned with what students need once they get into the classroom but part of it could be this in terms of supporting students while they do their prac – then that can go a long way not just helping students with the cost-of-living but also helping to tackle that teacher shortage crisis that we’ve got. 

MARCHESE: I mean, the Review found that there should be government support for nursing care, teaching placements, addressing that skills shortage that you were speaking about. I'm just wondering, though, when we see government support, do you think that there's likely to be a fight there about which Government, between Federal and State Governments? Who should fund this, where the money is going to come from?

CLARE: Perhaps. But I know from talking to State Education Ministers, they get this too. They understand exactly how important this is. The Report says that we need to work as governments on things like this. It also says we need to work with industry and other areas where there’s mandatory placement, where work-integrated learning is a key part of the degree. 

MARCHESE: There's some big targets in this report calling for 80 per cent of workers to have tertiary education qualifications by 2050, more than doubling the number of uni places to 1.8 million in 2050. Minister, do you reckon those goals are achievable?

CLARE: We’re not going to hit those targets unless we embark on reform which is about making sure we’ve got a better and a fairer education system in our schools and in early education along with higher education. 

MARCHESE: The reason I'm asking whether these are achievable is because there's a lot of excitement about this report, about what the recommendations that have been put out there. It's not the first review into Unis, though, and there was one you know more than a decade ago that recommended lifting participation rates of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But we're still having those conversations years later. Why should young Australians have faith that this is going to be any different?

CLARE: You’re talking about the Bradley review, the work that Denise Bradley did. A lot of good things came out of Denise’s work, including increasing the proportion of young people with a university degree to, you know, up to that 45 per cent level. They set a target of 40 and it exceeded it. 

MARCHESE: But it didn't increase the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

CLARE: No. That’s exactly right. We haven’t shifted the dial there. The key thing here, we haven’t talked about some of the architecture that sits behind this Report. What it’s recommending is that in addition to the things we’ve talked about, you establish a tertiary education commission to help to drive and sustain reform over the long term. 

Over the next 20 years there’ll be lots of ministers, there’ll be lots of different governments, there’ll be lots of different university vice-chancellors. And so you can get started on big reform and then there’s a change of government and reforms get upended. What this is recommending is that you need a steward here to help drive change over the next decade and the decade after that, what it calls a tertiary education commission. And, again, that strikes me as a good idea here – to make sure that we drive the sort of reform that’s needed. 

MARCHESE: Do you expect that the government is going to have some announcements, some action on some of these recommendations before the election?

CLARE: I’ve said that we will respond to this in the next few months. There are already some recommendations here that we’ve acted on. On Friday, I announced that we would establish an independent National Student Ombudsman to act where universities haven’t in areas like sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. That’s a long time coming. It’s happening now.

There were recommendations in that Interim Report about setting up more university hubs in the bush, in the regions and in the outer suburbs. We’re doing that too. So reform is underway. And in the next few months I’ll be announcing the first stage of our response to this, the Final Report of the Universities Accord. 

MARCHESE: And just finally, Minister, I mean, the last couple of years for students across the board have been so rough in terms of cost of living, in terms of feeling like they're really getting bang for their buck, the COVID years, all of it. How do you convince young Australians that it's an investment worth making? What's your pitch to really boost these participation rates, which is what you're trying to do? How do you do that?

CLARE: Yeah. I tell everyone that’s at uni now and everyone that’s thinking about whether they go to uni or TAFE that going to uni makes you money. It does. It is so worth it. And if you doubt me, ask somebody else that’s been to university and ask them if they regret going. Because the evidence is that the person with the university degree makes on average $30,000 a year more than somebody whose last year of education was Year 12 at high school. So this makes you money. It sets you up for the future. It opens your mind to new possibilities as well. 

In the years ahead we’re going to need more people to go to TAFE or to go to university, otherwise we’re going to have an economy with a hand brake on. We’re not going to be the productive, bold country that we want us to be. We’re not going to be the country of our imagination. We can make that real, but we’ve got to make sure that we build the skills we need for the next decade and the decade after that. And a lot of that work happens in our TAFEs and happens in our universities. 

MARCHESE: All right, Education Minister Jason Clare, appreciate you coming on Hack.