SUBJECTS: Australian Universities Accord Interim Report; Voice to Parliament.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Now, let’s talk about some of the plans here – this notion of giving free places to First Nations students in cities as well as what the Morrison government did in regional areas. Talk us through the rationale there.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Maybe go back to the key point that’s in this report: it says that more jobs are going to require a university qualification in the years ahead. It says that about 36 per cent of the workforce has a uni degree today and that by the middle of the century that will be about 55 per cent. So that means more people at university. And at the moment around about one in two Aussies in their 20s or 30s have a university degree, but not everywhere, certainly not in my neck of the woods where I grew up in western Sydney. Same in the western suburbs of Brisbane, the western suburbs of Melbourne. Same in the bush, same in the regions. The average across the country is almost one in two young Aussies having a university degree, it’s only 7 per cent of young Indigenous Australians.
If you’re a young Indigenous bloke you’re more likely to go to jail than university at the moment. And at the moment, the way the law works is if you’re a young Indigenous person who lives in Townsville or Armidale or Port Hedland, then as long as you get the marks, you can get guaranteed access to university for the course that you qualify for - what used to be called “demand driven”. But the same rule doesn’t apply if you live in a big city, and almost 50 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in our big cities.
What this report says is, if you apply the same rules to the city as the bush, then we could double the number of Indigenous Australians at university within a decade, and that strikes me as a good thing to do.
CLENNELL: Well, I grew up in WA, as you know. I went to school with Aboriginal kids. It was after a brief period in your electorate growing up, by the way. I don’t remember one of the Indigenous kids I went to school with that went to university, but I know of at least one that went to jail, illustrating your point. Nevertheless, there are parts of the Australian community who will resent this. You know, we can’t sugar coat this. They feel that it’s a decision made on race. Why should Aboriginal people get special treatment, as they’d see it, on tertiary education? What would you say to them?
CLARE: Just to be clear, what the report suggests is that this is a model that could possibly work for everybody who lives in regional Australia and for poor kids right across the country as well. The big challenge we’ve got is that not enough people from our suburbs, not enough people from our regions are getting a crack at university. Postcode really is a brick wall for a lot of young people to get to uni. I saw it when I was growing up. A lot of people that I went to school with either didn’t finish year 12, or they finished year 12 and they didn’t go to uni because they thought it was so far away – it was for someone else, somewhere else. Growing up in western Sydney, there was a lot of Maccas logos, a lot of KFC logos; not a lot of university logos.
The report is looking at what can we do to help more people from the suburbs, from the bush and Indigenous Australians all to get into university. Now, there’s no other group of Aussies where there’s a lower representation at university than Indigenous, and what the report says is that if this is happening in the regions it should happen everywhere. But it takes the next step too, and it says maybe this is a model that we should roll out for all groups of Aussies that are underrepresented at the uni at the moment.
CLENNELL: Sure. So you’re acting on Indigenous students now but there’s a prospect of a wider group being affected by it, is that what you’re saying?
CLARE: Potentially. And this report is in two parts – there’s a handful of recommendations that they want us to act on now, this year, and we’ve said we’ll do that. And then there’s about 75 big ideas in the report where they want feedback from the general community over the next couple of months. They’ll give us their final report at the end of the year. So the idea I just mentioned there is one of those 75. We’re keen to get people’s feedback on the whole report over the next few months so that we get a report at the end of the year that’s a real long-term plan to set us up for the future.
CLENNELL: All right. Now, there’s a couple of other changes here you’re introducing immediately, I think. I’ll mention them both together then I’ll play you something, just bear with me.
There’s a higher education continuity guarantee you want to expand and abolishing the 50 per cent pass rule. I’ll get you to explain that in a minute. But in relation to, this is what a former education minister, Dan Tehan, told us about earlier in the program. He said it would mean students would rack up greater HECS debts. Have a listen.
DAN TEHAN: We want to make sure that universities take students on who can complete courses and give them the support that they need to complete those courses, not give them a free pass when it comes to taking a multitude of students on in any areas, those students then fail and then they’re allowed to do more courses and fail again and build up a giant HECS debt.
CLENNELL: All right, Jason Clare – can you react to that and explain the changes?
CLARE: I can understand Dan’s position – he introduced that so he’s got to defend what he did. But the real-life impact that’s playing out right now. At Western Sydney University, we’ve seen 1,350 kids basically get forced out of university in the last few months, about 13,000 right across the country because of the way this rule works. And predominantly, overwhelmingly, these are kids from poorer backgrounds. They’re also kids from the regions going to regional universities.
CLENNELL: Well, how does it work?
CLARE: The way it works is if you fail more than half of the first eight units of your course – so more than half of your first year – then you’re no longer eligible for Commonwealth funding for that course. So they’re effectively forced to quit. Now what we should be doing is try to help those young people succeed and pass, not kicking them out of uni, not when we’ve got a report that says more people have got to go to uni to get the skills we need for the economy of the future and not when the report says that we need more people from poorer backgrounds and the bush going to uni.
What this report says is get rid of this rule but at the same time make sure that universities are using the funding that they’re given to help young people to pass the courses. Now, you touched on another recommendation about that funding guarantee. That’s exactly what that’s about – making sure that universities use that money to provide the academic and learning support for these young people who need a bit of extra help.
We know that if you’re from a poor background or from the bush you’re less likely to finish your uni degree than other students – about 60 per cent do rather than 70 per cent. So they need a bit of extra support at university to finish the course. Some of that might be because you’re not living at home. Some of it might be just because of the things that are happening at home. But universities have got to play a better role here in helping those bright young people finish their degree. And that’s what that’s about.
CLENNELL: Now, you came on the show a while back and said that you thought ever since it became clear the Voice wasn’t bipartisan it would be much tougher to win. And the polls have since proved you right. What did you make of what Jeff Kennett was saying there – separating the question?
CLARE: I point you back to what the Prime Minister said: this is something that Indigenous Australians have asked us to do and put it together. If there was a serious consideration by the Opposition to break this apart into two questions, then you’d think they would have proposed this as an amendment to the bill that went through the Parliament a couple of weeks ago. But there was none. In all of the conversations that Peter Dutton has had with Anthony Albanese, he hasn’t suggested an amendment. In all the debate that happened in Parliament, where if you wanted to go down this path and break it up, there was no amendment. So I don’t know that’s really a serious option being proposed.
CLENNELL: All right. What’s the way to win this and what happens if it fails?
CLARE: Look, I know it’s tough, but I do have faith. Aussies are the sort of people who don’t want to leave their mates behind, who want to look after their fellow Aussie. And there are a group of Australians who are behind at the moment.
If you’re a young Indigenous person today you’re more likely to die at birth than the rest of us, you’re more likely to fall behind at school than the rest of us, you’re more likely not to finish school than the rest of us, you’re more likely to go to jail than to university.
Now think about this, Andrew: the cost of putting someone in the clink for a year is 120 grand; the cost of putting someone through university, the Commonwealth contribution to that, is 11 grand a year. More than 10 times the amount to put somebody in jail, than to put somebody through university. That’s what we mean when we talk about if you listen to people, pick their brains, get better ideas, you get better use of taxpayers’ money and better outcomes.
CLENNELL: Jason Clare, Education Minister, thanks so much for your time this afternoon.
CLARE: No worries. Thanks, mate.