SUBJECTS: International Education; ABC report re Opus Dei affiliated schools; schools funding; mobile phones in schools; Jim Chalmers; Josh Landis
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: A change in education policy from the Chinese Government could spark a rush of students to enter Australia before the start of the new semester. In an extension of relaxed COVID restrictions, China will no longer recognise tertiary qualifications and studies entirely online.
Since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of international students have studied and completed their courses online without ever setting foot in Australia.
This new approach from Beijing, though, means students enrolled in universities must attend their classes in person. Let's bring in the Education Minister, Jason Clare. Is this move by China a positive for our universities and our economy to get those students back here?
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Both. It's great news. It's great that we've got China opening up and students are coming back. The challenge obviously is getting back to class. There are about 80,000 Chinese students that are here right now, and about 40 or 50,000 that are still in China that will need to go through the rigmarole of getting on a flight to get here. Most of those have already got a visa.
My Department met the Department of Home Affairs yesterday to go through this. We think most have already got a visa, but there's a smaller group of those that don't; somewhere between 5000 or 10,000, that need a visa.
GILBERT: So most have moved quickly off the back of that edict?
CLARE: We're processing student visas now within 14 days. When we came to office, it was taking 40 days to process a student's visa to get here; it's now only taking 14 days. The Department's advice to me is that we can process all of these visas of Chinese students within that timeframe. So that's good.
GILBERT: And the universities sound like they're going to be flexible. I spoke to Michael Wesley from the University of Melbourne yesterday, the head of their International Program. He says it looks like they're going to be as flexible as they need to be. I'm sure other universities would have a similar approach.
CLARE: They're doing some good work at the moment to try and find accommodation for students as well. The Chinese Government made a statement overnight that indicated a bit more flexibility as well. Not all students will need to be here on day one, if they're PhD students as well, but the big challenge is going to be getting a flight and getting accommodation.
GILBERT: But fundamentally it's a good‑news story, but I guess you'd think for some of those students who might be final year students, because of the pandemic, they've done their whole degree to this point online, and now they're going to have to scramble, come and meet their lecturers face‑to‑face, and live here?
CLARE: That's true, but I reckon there will be a lot of people excited about that too. When you get to study overseas, you want to go overseas, and having to do it remotely for so long would be awfully frustrating. So the chance to come and live in Australia, and a part of the magic of international education, this is our biggest export that we don't dig out of the ground, is that it doesn't just make us money, but it makes us friends, and if people come here and they soak up all that Australia's got to offer, they go back home eventually with a different opinion of us.
COVID kneecapped international education. It cut a $40 billion industry in half. It's coming back. We've got about 38 per cent more students starting degrees now than there were a year ago, but some students from some countries are coming back faster than others.
I'll give you an example of India, where we've got 160 per cent more Indian students starting degrees now than there were a year ago. But for China, it's still fewer students starting degrees than there were a year ago.
So this decision by the Chinese Government, opening it up, we've got the challenge of getting students back, but it will encourage more Chinese students to come and study here too.
GILBERT: Do you get a sense that the thaw in relations with Beijing is flowing on to international education?
CLARE: I never received advice that indicated that some of the chilliness in the relationship over the last few years had led to fewer students coming here.
GILBERT: So there's still been a demand?
CLARE: Still the demand. But I think that if you couldn't get here to study, it's one of the reasons not to study at an Australian university. This decision's going to help us, but it will help the US and the UK as well. If you can get on a plane and get here, more people, I suspect, from China will want to study here. But I want to make sure that we're diversifying, that we’re not just encouraging people from China to come back, but we're encouraging more students from all around the world to study here.
I'll head off to India in the next few weeks, working with the Education Minister there on a Mutual Recognition Agreement, so we make it easier for students to study here and study there.
GILBERT: On that graphic there, you can see Vietnam, Indonesia as well. You'd have to think in those two countries there's growth potential.
CLARE: Big time. You can see on that graph that Chinese students make up around about 38, 39 per cent of all international uni students, and then it's daylight to India after that, and then after that Nepal, and then Vietnam's pretty small, Indonesia's pretty small when you compare it to India and China.
I think there's great opportunity for us there to attract more international students from countries like those to come and study here and get one of the best degrees you can get in the world right here in Australia.
GILBERT: On to some other matters. The ABC reported claims around Opus Dei-affiliated schools. Are you satisfied with the response to the allegations made?
CLARE: I think the New South Wales Government's made the right decision. They are serious allegations; they've got to be properly investigated, and I think they will be. It's the right thing to do to refer it to the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (NESA). They're the body that have got the right powers there to seek documents, seek answers and find out whether there has been a breach of State or even the Commonwealth Education Act.
My Department, Kieran, wrote to the New South Wales Education Standards Authority this morning and asked them to keep us informed of their investigation, as well as what the outcomes of it might be, or are, when it concludes.
When a similar situation happened a couple of years ago with Malek Fahd Islamic School in Western Sydney, an allegation was made, the New South Wales Education Standards Authority conducted an investigation, and then the Commonwealth Department appointed an independent person to conduct their own audit. My Department's advised NESA today that, depending on the outcome of their investigation, they might do the same thing.
GILBERT: Now, onto the broader school system. New South Wales Labor, in the campaign yesterday, committed $400 million to that State's school system. Still going to be a 5 per cent gap in the school resource standard. Will the Federal Government ‑ that's basically the level that was set by the Gonski approach ‑ will the Federal Government step in and fill that gap of 5 per cent funding?
CLARE: We made the commitment in the campaign to work with States and Territories to get all schools to 100 per cent of funding. I want to see 100 per cent of schools 100 per cent funded. I welcome that announcement by Chris Minns yesterday because it gets us closer to that.
The report that came out from the Productivity Commission a couple of weeks ago was blistering in its criticism of the current Education Agreement that the former Government struck. Basically said there's no targets and there's no reforms to get us to where we need to get to.
GILBERT: So when will you get there?
CLARE: We've got that report now. We are going to set up an expert panel to give us the advice we need on what are the reforms that we need to fund to fix the problems that report identified.
If you're a kid from a poor family, or from the bush, or an Indigenous young person, that report tells us that you're three times more likely to fall behind at school.
We need to make sure that we're funding schools properly, funding's important, but what we spend it on is even more important. We've got to fund it on the things that will work.
GILBERT: But the schools, you know, in simple terms, are those schools not equipped for those additional funds to be spent.
CLARE: I was at a school yesterday, met a teacher who told me about her boy, who by the time he was eight, couldn't read. She was a teacher. She broke down telling me this story. He went through reading recovery, still couldn't read. She used $20,000 of her own money that she got from a will from a relative who passed away to get him out of school and to fix his reading skills. Between third grade and fifth grade in the NAPLAN testing he went from flunking to succeeding. Not every parent can afford $20,000 for that small intervention, small intervention in terms of one teacher and a couple of students, to help them to fix their reading.
What was spoken about yesterday by Chris Minns, by the Premier, by Grattan, was whether we should be funding at a greater level these reading and writing tutoring programs to help kids who are falling behind to catch up. It strikes me as pretty sensible. It's the sort of thing I'm talking about when I'm talking about making sure that we invest the money on reforms that are going to make a difference to the kids who need it.
GILBERT: The South Australian Premier committing to, or he's implementing a ban on mobile phones across schools in that State, Chris Minns committing to do the same in New South Wales ‑‑
CLARE: In WA, I think, as well.
GILBERT: Do you welcome that?
CLARE: They're decisions for the State governments but it strikes me as pretty sensible. If you're looking at your phone, you're not focussed on the teacher, you're not focussed on learning.
GILBERT: So, you support those moves?
CLARE: Yeah, it seems like a pretty sensible thing to me.
GILBERT: What about on another matter, Jim Chalmers, his essay on the values-based capitalism that he's argued for, it's caused a bit of a flurry, some suggesting ‑‑
CLARE: In some quarters.
GILBERT: It's at odds with the Hawke/Keating legacy; what do you think?
CLARE: I think PJK sort of put a nail in that today, didn't he? What Paul was about, what Bob was about, was good governments working with business and with unions and the broader community to get the right outcomes. That's what Jim's about. That's what he said today in that op-ed in the Fin Review.
GILBERT: Now, we've seen today a bit of a ‑ we've been talking about New South Wales a bit. It is an election campaign. Josh Landis, CEO of Clubs NSW said the Premier had acted from his conservative Catholic gut rather than based on evidence when it comes to pokies. He's issued an unreserved apology, which is I think appropriate. What do you make of those comments?
CLARE: I think everyone would agree, I saw your interview with Michelle Rowland, it was the wrong thing to say, it's good thing that he apologised, it's a good thing that he picked up the phone and apologised in person ‑ or on the phone.
GILBERT: Jason Clare, Education Minister. I appreciate your time. See you soon.