National Press Club

Speech
  • Minister for Education

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Thank-you Sabra.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

When William Charles Wentworth proposed Australia’s first university in 1850 he imagined, "the opportunity for the child of every class to become great and useful in the destinies of this country".

169 years later, the world would be unrecognisable to William Wentworth and yet the central mission of the 41 universities now operating in Australia remain tied to his sentiment – that a university education should provide the means for everybody to fulfil their talent and make a contribution to our country.

It is a sentiment shared by our Government.

We want everyone to have the opportunity to make a contribution.

We want every Australian to achieve more from what they learn.

One of the best ways to do this is through meaningful employment, because a job is more than a vehicle to earn money.

It provides a sense of self and a means to contribute to your family, your community and the nation.

It’s why the Morrison Government is working to deliver jobs. We want another 1.25 million jobs created over the next five years, including 250,000 new jobs for young Australians.

Not only do we want more jobs, we want Australians to earn more from what they’re doing.

More jobs, more productivity and more money in people’s pockets.

In the coming years, universities will be front and centre of job creation, job growth, and productivity improvements in this nation.

Occupations requiring a Bachelor Degree are expected to see the largest growth over the next five years.

These graduates will need to be much better prepared to work in highly dynamic environments where skills that a machine doesn’t possess will be the greatest asset.

The productive capacity of our nation into the future will rely on educated workers, able to access innovation and research, to drive growth and opportunity.

If we get this right, the productivity improvements the sector can deliver will be worth $2.7 billion to GDP per annum, according to preliminary analysis from consultants Ernst and Young.

Driving these productivity gains will be vital for the future of our nation.

It is also vital that this opportunity is extended to every Australian, no matter where they live.

I have been a passionate advocate for improving the educational opportunities for Australians living in rural, regional and remote Australia a long time before I became Education Minister.

We can’t accept a situation where young Australians living in our major cities are twice as likely to have a university degree compared to young Australians living in our regional areas.

That is why, I am pleased today to release Dr Denis Napthine’s National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy.

Dr Napthine is in the audience today, and can I thank him and his advisory group for the work on the strategy.

The Napthine Review makes seven key recommendations:

  • One. Improve access to tertiary study options for students in regional, rural and remote areas.
  • Two. Improve access to financial support, to support greater fairness and more equal opportunity.
  • Three. Improve the quality and range of student support services for regional, rural and remote students to address the challenges of transition and higher rates of attrition.
  • Four. Build aspiration, improve career advice and strengthen regional, rural and remote schools to better prepare students for success.
  • Five. Improve participation and outcomes for regional, rural and remote students from equity groups including low SES students, Indigenous students, students with disability and remote students.
  • Six. Strengthen the role of tertiary education providers in regional development and grow Australia’s regions.  
  • And Seven. Establish mechanisms to coordinate the implementation effort and support monitoring of the Strategy.

Dr Napthine and the Morrison Government both accept that more work has to be done to bridge the divide between regional and metropolitan Australians going to university.

Our Government has already made considerable investments to level the playing field through initiatives consistent with the Napthine recommendations.

Since 2016, our Government has invested more than $500 million in additional new funding to improve support for regional and remote education.

This investment includes more university places at regional universities, scholarships for regional students to attend university and opening more Regional University Centres – formerly known as Regional Study Hubs.

Our Government accepts the aims of the seven key recommendations, and will be consulting on the 33 specific actions before responding in due course.

We also acknowledge Dr Napthine’s recommendation that delivering the strategy is a ten-year blueprint.

Many of the actions involve a different approach to current policy settings, they require a resetting of the relationship with the higher education sector, reshaping our higher education architecture and renewing our commitment to work together.

These actions also require engagement with state and territory governments and different portfolio areas.

Addressing educational opportunities for rural, regional and remote Australia will require the Government working closely with the higher education sector.

I am committed to doing this.

Our Government has made participation of regional and rural Australians in the higher education system a key metric of our performance-based funding model.

The introduction of performance-based funding from next year will be a transformational moment for higher education in this country, giving explicit voice to how universities can fulfil the vision of Wentworth and provide "the opportunity for the child of every class to become great and useful".

The model was designed by an expert panel chaired by Professor Paul Wellings, who is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong, and followed months of extensive consultations with the sector.

Crucially, it was developed by the sector.

The four key performance metrics are:

  • graduate employment outcomes (which will be vital to the future productivity of our nation);
  • student success;
  • student experience; and
  • participation of Indigenous, low socio-economic status, and regional and remote students.

From next year, we will begin increasing funding in line with population growth – and by 2023, universities will receive around $230 million in performance-based funding.

Performance-based funding will incentivise universities to focus on their core business: producing job-ready graduates with the skills to succeed in the modern economy.

Let me quote Professor Iain Martin, the Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University:

"Given the investment the Federal Government makes in our universities and the underpinning social contract it is appropriate there are some clear expectations of university performance."

Performance-based funding will help the university sector lead the way in driving productivity growth across the nation over the next decade.

The focus of performance-based funding on producing job-ready graduates will be a key driver.

As I have said, if we get this right preliminary analysis by Ernst and Young shows a potential boost to national productivity of $2.7 billion per annum by 2030.

If we combine this with better student outcomes, which can save $408 million in economic resources by the same timeframe, we are looking at a total of $3.1 billion per annum productivity improvement delivered by the sector based on the performance-based funding model.

This is a uniquely Australian model that will reward achievement and offer incentives to improve performance.

I have been impressed by the constructive manner in which the sector has engaged with this process.

It demonstrates the benefits of Government and the sector working together.

Working together is an approach I have applied across every portfolio I have held as a Minister, whether it be finalising the national school funding agreements, negotiating the introduction of the National Redress Scheme, implementing Veteran Centric Reform or driving adoption of the Government’s Cyber Security Strategy.

This is the approach I want to take when rolling out the comprehensive agenda our Government has for the higher education sector.

It is an agenda that includes implementing reviews that will reshape the architecture of higher education in this country. They are:

  • The Napthine and Wellings Reviews, which I have already addressed.
  • A review of the Australian Qualifications Framework by Professor Peter Noonan that sets out how qualifications are recognised and plays an important role in the quality assurance of Australia’s tertiary education system.
  • A review of the Provider Category Standards by Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake that is investigating if our systems focus too much on differences between types of universities and ignores the diversity of non-university providers by lumping them into one category.
  • A review by Professor Peter Shergold that will provide recommendations to improve how senior secondary students decide what to study and what is the most optimal stream of tertiary education for them.
  • A review into freedom of speech and academic freedom by Justice Robert French that I will have more to say on shortly.
  • And, the development of guidelines for universities to address cyber security and foreign interference that is being led by Universities Australia, with the Group of Eight, which I will also be addressing today.

Much of this work will complement what the Government is doing to implement the recommendations of the Joyce Review – a key component of our economic plan to ensure our system supports people to get the training they need, and supporting employers to put people into jobs and grow their businesses.

Returning to the words of William Wentworth, if our universities are to provide the opportunities for every Australian to become "great and useful" we must also strengthen the link between research and outcomes.

The research done by our universities can lead to the development of new products and innovations that drive job growth, business opportunities and productivity gains.

That is why our Government is making a significant investment in Australia’s leading-edge research infrastructure network.

Our Government will invest $572 million in 24 existing facilities and support eight scoping studies for new capabilities.

This network blends national and institutional interest that means world-class research is being conducted using cutting-edge infrastructure.

The economic contribution of Australian university research has been valued at $160 billion.

Collaborations between Australian businesses and universities are estimated to generate more than $10 billion a year in additional revenue for the businesses involved.

Despite this, business collaboration on innovation is generally low in Australia when compared to other OECD countries.

We must get better at commercialising our research; better at turning ideas into jobs, productivity gains and growth.

As I said earlier, the sector is capable of producing productivity gains worth $3.1 billion to the economy if we get it right.

That is why our Government is strategically investing in partnerships between universities, industry and government to drive the commercialisation of research.

The Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence program was introduced in 2001 by the Howard Government.

Since then we have established 21 Centres of Excellence at universities around Australia to undertake highly innovative and transformational research.

These centres bring together experts from universities, business, government and research organisations to lift capabilities across the board and break down silos.

Having visited some of these centres as Minister, can I say that the more we tell the Australian public about the work our universities are doing the better, because it is truly outstanding.

As Education Minister, I want to celebrate the contribution our universities are making to our country.

In April, the Morrison Government provided $5 million to build a physics research laboratory one kilometre below ground at the Stawell Gold Mine in western Victoria.

It turns out that Stawell, population 6,000, was the ideal location to build this laboratory, that is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Because it is built so deep underground, the lab will allow researchers to conduct experiments that rely on precise measurements using some of the world’s most sensitive scientific equipment.

It will also keep the research conducted there away from unwanted radiation sources, such as solar particles, which can distort results.

When opened next year, the facility will attract researchers from around the world, and grow Australia’s reputation as a world-class research destination.

This lab is also transforming the local community, creating jobs during the construction and fit-out stage as well as full-time roles operating the facility.

And it’s not just making a difference to Stawell.

That is why I am pleased to have in the room Professor Elisabetta Barberio because today I am proud to announce that Professor Barberio and her team will receive $35 million from the Morrison Government to use the Stawell underground laboratory to further investigate the nature of dark matter.

The work done by Professor Barberio and her team at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics has the potential to make one of the biggest discoveries in science: what is the universe made of.

This project involves the intersection of particle, nuclear, and quantum physics to pursue the discovery of dark matter particles.

The discovery of dark matter will create a completely new branch of physics and astronomy. It is the equivalent of discovering a parallel universe.

That is just one amazing example of the work our university sector is doing.

We have to get better at telling these stories and making it relevant for every Australian.

When I introduced a national interest test as part of the funding application for ARC grants it was met with scepticism from some in the sector.

But the principle was important: If you’re asking the Australian taxpayer to fund your research you should be able to articulate how that research will advance the national interest.

The ability to present a clear case to the community about the value of the investment we make in higher education as a nation is crucial.

It should be embraced not dismissed.

Taxpayers, the majority of whom have never attended university, still fund the majority of university fees and costs – around 54 per cent of the cost on average, as well as significantly subsidising the student loan scheme.

Our universities need to connect with the Australian people who fund them. We need to address the perception that academics work in ivory towers, far away from the worries of the rest of society.

Universities must continue to demonstrate the value they provide to the nation.

Universities can be elite without being elitist.

Universities must also act to protect the valuable information they hold where it is in the national interest to do so.

On cyber security and foreign interference, the sector has responded in a way that demonstrates it is taking the issue very seriously, in line with community concerns.

The Federal Government is working with the university sector to develop best-practice guidelines for dealing with foreign interference.

We are doing this together because it is in everyone’s best interest to do so.

According to the latest advice from the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the targeting of Australian universities continues to increase.

This advice says:

"Universities are an attractive target given their research across a range of fields and the intellectual property this research generates.

"Additionally, state-sponsored cyber adversaries may use university networks as infrastructure due to their reliability and high and varied traffic, thus allowing adversaries to ‘hide in the noise’."

When it comes to foreign interference, we are providing clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration and a university’s autonomy.

I thank everyone from the higher education sector who has worked constructively on this matter.

Everybody wants a considered, methodical approach to deal with this issue.

One that strikes a balance between our national interest and giving universities the freedom to pursue research and collaboration that expands our knowledge and leads to life-improving innovations.

We must get the balance right.

This week the universities, working with our government agencies, produced a road map for the development of the guidelines.

This continues the collaborative approach agreed earlier this month when I met with VCs in Wollongong.

We are aiming to finalise the guidelines by November. Importantly, the sector, working with government agencies, has developed guiding principles that will inform the development of these guidelines.

The five overarching principles are:

  • One. Security must safeguard academic freedom, values and research collaboration;
  • Two. Research, collaboration and education activities must take into account the national interest;
  • Three. Security is a collective responsibility with individual accountability;
  • Four. Security should be proportionate to organisational risk; and
  • Five. The safety of our university community is paramount.

Today I can announce that as part of this work, we will establish a University Foreign Interference Taskforce comprised of representatives from universities, national security organisations and the Department of Education.

Its work will focus on four key strategic areas:

  • One. A cyber security working group that will ensure our ecosystem is resilient to unauthorised access, manipulation, disruption or damage; and to better manage and protect our networks, as well as detect and respond to cyber security incidents should they occur.
  • Two. A research and intellectual property working group that will protect against deception, undue influence, unauthorised disclosure or disruption to our research, intellectual property and research community, while also protecting academic freedom.
  • Three. A foreign collaboration working group that will ensure collaboration with foreign entities will be transparent and in a manner that avoids harm to Australia’s interests.
  • Four. A culture and communication working group that will foster a positive security culture through engagement with government and the broader community to educate, increase awareness and improve research and cyber resilience.

The taskforce will be comprised of fifty per cent from the university sector and fifty per cent from government agencies, providing a perspective from the sector’s unique position partnered with frank advice from our Government.

This process will complement work currently underway by the group involving Defence, other relevant agencies, universities and industry to develop practical, risk-based legislative proposals to address identified gaps in the Defence Trade Controls Act.

The Act is designed to prevent the transfer of defence and dual-use technology to those who may use it contrary to Australia’s interests.

The work we are doing together on foreign interference forms part of the broader picture, where the Federal Government is also working with the sector to guarantee freedom of speech on campus and academic freedom.

Last November, I asked the former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, who is chancellor at the University of Western Australia, to review the rules and regulations protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses.

It should come as no surprise that a former Chief Justice of the High Court produced a report that was meticulously researched and intellectually robust.

Some have pointed to the reviews’ conclusion that there was no free speech crisis as evidence that it was unnecessary, however, as Justice French observed:

"even a limited number of incidents seen as affecting freedom of speech may have an adverse impact on public perception of the higher education sector".

With regard to an issue as important as this for our free society, perception matters a great deal.

To fully protect free speech and academic freedom, Justice French produced a voluntary Model Code for universities that set out a framework to ensure three things:

  • One, that freedom of speech is a paramount value of Australian universities;
  • Two, that academic freedom remains their defining value;
  • And three, that universities retain their institutional autonomy.

As with the Wellings Report, I am pleased to say the review has been well received by the sector.

I believe this is because the intent of the project was to work with the sector, and it was produced by a respected authority from within the sector following months of extensive consultations.

Now, when I say the Model Code has been well received I do not mean to suggest it has been universally welcomed.

There have been critics of the Code, some making useful contributions by pointing out potential unintended consequences.

I welcome that feedback.

As any academic will know, you can only tell the true value of an idea when it has been tested.

A good idea that can’t withstand scrutiny wasn’t a good idea to start with.

The Government welcomes the contribution of the University Chancellors Council to the debate.

The UCC endorsed the Code in-principle and commissioned Chancellors Evans, Varghese and Justice French to work on further refining the Code.

Based on their work, some further refinements have been made.

I welcome feedback from the sector that all universities will adopt the model Code by next year in a way consistent with their individual legislative framework.

The Government will benchmark all responses against the Model Code.

I am committed to working with the sector to achieve 100 per cent adoption of the Code by next year.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a rallying cry to the public service.

He made the point that, "a commitment to diversity should encompass diversity of viewpoints" because "this helps teams find answers to complex problems by bringing together people who approach questions from different points of view".

It is a rallying cry that I extend today to the university sector and it starts with a series of questions:

Does the culture at my university truly encourage diversity of opinion?

Is my institution a place where people are willing to offer opinions that run counter to the popular point of view?

Is this something that I personally take pride from?

What is the value in freedom of speech if people are too afraid to say what they think?

From my conversations with VCs, these are questions they view as very important.

The sense that some students and staff at universities are self-censoring out of fear they’ll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas, should concern us all.

For every Australian, and this includes our universities and their staff and students, the test of our commitment to free speech, is whether we are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom we most disagree.

We must foster the ability to listen to other viewpoints and encourage an environment where disagreement does not involve verbal attacks or threats.

As the Prime Minister has said, we must disagree better.

Universities are at their strongest and most relevant when they provide a platform to a diversity of views and provide freedom from the pernicious threat of groupthink.

That is why, today, I am announcing the Morrison Government will work with the sector to update the QILT survey to include questions about freedom of expression on campus.

The QILT – or Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching – is a suite of survey data that includes student feedback on higher education.

I will work with the sector on what questions to ask to measure diversity of opinion on campus and whether students feel empowered to voice non-conformist opinions.

I ask the sector to also seek the views of their staff on this matter, and I will work with the sector to develop a set of uniform questions to ask.

I believe universities want to know if students and staff are afraid to discuss certain topics.

It is only through diversity of thinking, perspective and intellectual style that we get innovation and problem solving.

This is the kind of thinking that universities are there to encourage.

In conclusion, when William Wentworth outlined his vision for our first university he could not have foreseen a nation that would need to address the disparity between the country and the city when it comes to accessing higher education.

He could not have foreseen the key role the university sector will play in driving productivity gains and job creation.

He could not have foreseen that Australia would be on the cutting-edge of scientific research like discovering dark matter.

He could not have foreseen the issues the higher education sector faces around cyber security, foreign interference or freedom of speech.

Like William Wentworth in 1850, we must address the world as we find it.

That means bridging the divide between the country and the city.

It means driving outcomes that will deliver productivity growth and new jobs for the next decade.

It means connecting the research done at universities to outcomes that benefit Australians.

It means protecting our institutions from foreign interference, and ensuring freedom of speech.

In short, Government and the higher education sector need to:

  • Reset the relationship to a true partnership;
  • Renew our commitment to driving national prosperity; and
  • Reshape the higher education architecture.

Doing this is in the interests of every Australian child who could be great and useful in the destinies of this country.

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