Release type: Speech


Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities Conference 2014


The Hon Senator Scott Ryan
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

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It is a pleasure to join you for this Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Science and Humanities conference and represent the Commonwealth and the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Minister for Education.

He sends his best wishes to all for the conference, which I am sure will be a stimulating two days.

Let me say at the outset that I am a strong proponent of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

As a BA Hons graduate and former tutor at the University of Melbourne, I saw it from all angles, including serving a stint on the Arts Faculty Board.

Earlier this week I attended the Sir Robert Menzies Oration on higher education in Melbourne. And while it was delivered by a scientist, it covered the important links between science and humanities and it highlighted the importance of the humanities supporting scientific discovery.

I also had the unexpected opportunity to see my first year history lecturer awarded the title of professor emeritus and we then reacquainted ourselves over dinner.

I outlined that I was actually currently re-reading one of his assigned texts, as I found it insightful in analysing certain trends today.

He was, unsurprisingly as any teacher or educator would be, a little chuffed, but then it was also a great reminder of what a strong foundation in the humanities can provide.

My father was a mechanic who left school at 15 to work out at the Tangalooma Whaling Station, and while he supported me in what appeared to be an almost endless BA, he never quite understood what job I was studying for.

You see, the humanities don’t prepare you for a specific job, but they do prepare you for a huge variety of roles and opportunities.

They teach one to think deeply, to construct arcs of thought and challenge assumptions and, particularly importantly in this day, how to express them.

My studies in political science, economic history and history inform my work daily – in the material I cover, in the very way I think, in dealing with challenges unimaginable when I was an undergraduate two decades ago.

I outline this because I think the role of humanities, arts and social sciences occasionally needs to be defended – sometimes even against themselves.

You, or we, are not always our own best advocates or advertisements.

But that is a conversation for another time.

This Government is strongly committed to supporting the arts, social sciences and humanities.

This Minister in particular, joined by many others, has spoken about his admiration for former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies and his efforts that laid the foundations for the university system we have today.

Menzies believed that universities should provide their students with a broad education, developing in them broad knowledge, general skills and a strong sense of values, ethics and civic engagement.

The Prime Minister has also outlined his support for the broad range of education and research that universities foster. He said last year:

Almost everything that distinguishes today from times past – much higher population, much greater material abundance, much improved technical capacity, even perhaps somewhat deeper moral insight – depends upon the understandings of the natural and human world that universities have fostered.

As teachers, researchers, professionals and practitioners in in arts, social sciences and humanities you have a significant role to play in deepening that understanding, and in the future of our country and the world.  Valuing impact is therefore an appropriate theme for this conference.

As I am sure you know, about 33 per cent of Australian university students or 160 000 equivalent full-time students study your disciplines.

The Government provided over one and a half billion dollars for these students through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme in 2013.

In late 2013, Minister Pyne announced the results of Australian Research Council’s major grant schemes.

The success rate for the humanities and creative arts for Discovery Projects in 2014 was almost 22 per cent - the highest success rate of all the disciplines - and social, behavioural and economic sciences had the third highest success rate at almost 20 per cent.

I am very pleased that tonight you have asked me to speak about the Government’s higher education reform package. It is the product of a great deal of thought and work, led by the Minister.

The Government has adopted a highly consultative approach to developing and refining the details of its reforms and I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the valuable contribution members of DASSH and contributors to this conference have made.

Professor Peter Shergold, who is presenting tomorrow on the thought-provoking topic on the influence of arts, social sciences and humanities research on public policy, chaired the Quality, Deregulation and Information Working Group, Professor John Dewar, Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University, also provided valuable leadership of the Legislation and Financing Working Group.

The proposed reforms will improve our higher education system for students across all disciplines, increasing opportunity to even more Australian students.

It will provide Australian higher education institutions with greater autonomy.

It will open up exciting opportunities for institutions, faculties and university leaders and teachers to engage more deeply with students and to more effectively meet students’ needs.

Institutions will be able to make choices about the courses they offer, the students they take, the teaching methods they utilise, the scholarships they provide, the fees they set and the support services they offer.

This will have far-reaching benefits for students, the success of institutions and Australia’s international standing in higher education.

The Government’s higher education reforms will ensure Australia is not left behind by increasing global competition.

They are driven by optimism - these reforms can lead to Australia having the best higher education system in the world and you all have a part to play in this.

The package will see costs shared fairly between students and taxpayers – but, importantly, maintaining no upfront costs for students.

If the Government’s higher education package does not pass through the Senate, we will be condemning Australian students, taxpayers and citizens to an unaffordable, uncompetitive and outdated future that will simply not withstand international competition.

Just over a century ago, Australia faced a similar choice and we made the wrong decision.

We vainly sought to regulate industries and build barriers to attempt to shelter us from international competition.

It failed then, and we cannot condemn our higher education sector to that same mistake today.

Standing before this audience, I hope it isn’t necessary to say that we must learn from history so as not to repeat it.

Through our higher education reforms, any Australian who enrols in an undergraduate course at any registered higher education institution will have tuition directly subsidised by the Australian Government.

This includes higher education students at public and private universities, TAFEs and private education colleges.

It also includes all accredited higher education diplomas and advanced diplomas, as well as associate degrees and bachelor degrees.

The reforms will expand options and pathways for students less well prepared for university, while funding a wider range of qualifications that lead straight into jobs.  This is set to benefit an additional 80 000 students each year by 2018.

I am sure that there is potential for the arts, social sciences, and humanities to expand offerings through such courses, as well as in bachelor degrees, in the demand-driven system, which the Government is, of course, maintaining.

Regional students and regional higher education institutions will benefit significantly.

Universities, TAFEs and private providers will have new incentives and opportunities to develop innovative partnerships, particularly in outer metropolitan and regional areas, where they can work together to offer the skills and knowledge that local employers want in their employees.

Institutions will be free to pursue their own missions, including working with international education institutions, businesses and other organisations to identify and facilitate mobility opportunities for their students.

The Australian Government is committed to supporting these efforts though its flagship initiative - the New Colombo Plan. The plan will provide opportunities for Australian undergraduate students to study and work as interns and receive mentoring in Asia-Pacific countries.

The 2014 pilot phase has been very successful and is supporting around 1 300 students and 40 scholarship holders to study in the four pilot locations – Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Students have come from a range of disciplines such as business, law, health, education, language, culture, science and engineering.

I would like to acknowledge the important contribution that Professor Krishna Sen, past DASSH president, has played in the development and implementation of the New Colombo Plan, through her role on the New Colombo Plan Reference Group and through serving on the New Colombo Plan Steering Group.

Under the Government’s reforms, students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have access to the new Commonwealth Scholarship scheme. Higher education institutions will be required to allocate one dollar in every five dollars of additional revenue they raise from student contributions to this new scheme.

Institutions can use these scholarships to provide individual, tailored support to students.  This may include costs of living, as well as fee exemptions; mentoring, tutorial support and other assistance at critical points in their study.

This support will allow Australian students to access a world-class education no matter what their background or where they are from.

The Commonwealth Scholarship scheme will complement the streamlined Higher Education Participation Programme, which provides funding to universities to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter and succeed at higher education.

Universities can package their scholarships and other support for students, including accommodation, in innovative ways to attract their unique student cohort.

Importantly, Australia’s world-class student loans system will stay, so students will not have to pay a cent up front and they will not have to pay a cent until they are earning a decent income – more than $50 000.

The reforms will see higher education institutions compete to attract students. This will result in students having more choice.

Higher education institutions will need to put more effort into meeting the needs of students. They will need to become more innovative and continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer in order to attract students.

Through the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, there will be new, clear information for students and families about the quality of courses and institutions they are considering.

There will be better information about how successful previous graduates have been at finding jobs and what other students and employers think of the course.

This information will help students in their choices of course and higher education institution; it will also enable Australian institutions to evaluate their own performance against other countries.

A new website presenting this and other information is being developed.

Currently Australia’s universities have limited prospects of competing with the best in Europe and North America and the fast developing universities of Asia.

New technology is driving the expansion of online education and the employment market is changing - according to recent research, 45 per cent of today’s jobs will not exist in 20 years’ time.

Australia’s higher education institutions must be able to meet the demands of the 21st Century in order for them to remain internationally competitive.

Young people studying in Australia need to know that they are as well educated as graduates anywhere in the world, and that their degree can take them anywhere.

As you would be aware there is a lot of so-called information in the public arena about the fees universities may charge under the new arrangements.

Much of this so-called information is in fact misinformation and some of the predictions are simply outrageous.

Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor at the Australian National University, predicts a three-year degree may increase from $40 000 to $50 000.

Vicki Thomson, executive director of the Australian Technology Network said:

The university sector is not looking to introduce standard $100 000 degrees and deregulation won’t deliver them…

A far more realistic estimate of how high fees might rise for a standard degree in a deregulated market is $12 000 to $14 000 a year.

Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University Professor John Dewar announced that some students will receive a guarantee that their fees will not increase by more than 10 per cent.

Professor Dewar stressed that he expected all universities to take a sensible and responsible approach to fee setting.

Prospective students should not be concerned by the opposition’s scare-mongering.

Higher education is the best investment a person will ever make in themselves.

It is crucial that no one is deterred from this life-changing opportunity through exaggerated and misleading scare campaigns.

A crucially important and integral part of the Government’s higher education package is our on-going investment in essential research programmes.

As you are aware, world-class research requires high-quality facilities and talented researchers. Yet the previous Government left us with a situation where there was no funding set aside for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy beyond 30 June next year. And no provision for any new awards for the Future Fellowships programme.

This Government is providing $150 million in 2015-16 for the continuation of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and will undertake a positive review of national research infrastructure provision and needs.

The Government will also fund 100 outstanding mid-career researchers every year through the Future Fellowships Scheme. These researchers will each receive funding for four years to undertake their vital research.

The previous Government provided nothing in the forward estimates for further rounds of Future Fellows. Under the Government’s higher education reform package, the Future Fellowships Scheme will be an ongoing programme and $139.5 million has been provided for this over the next four years.

In the most recent round of Future Fellowships awarded and announced by the Minister for Education for funding commencing in 2014, 30% of the Fellowships awarded went to projects in the humanities, arts and social science fields of research.

In 2014 the Australian Government awarded almost $360 000 to the Australian Academy of the Humanities under the Australian Research Council’s Learned Academies Special Projects scheme. Also this year, the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language was funded under the 2014 cohort of Centres of Excellence for $28 million over seven years.

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which the Australian Government is supporting important and high quality research in the fields of arts, social sciences and humanities.

We are at the crossroads of higher education policy reform. The Government’s higher education reform package opens up opportunities and challenges for university leaders in the arts, humanities and social sciences to innovate, respond to and lead change, build on strengths, collaborate with others and - above all - think about how to provide better opportunities for their students.

Those of you that take up the opportunities and challenges will thrive in the new environment.

I wish you well as you continue the conference tomorrow and discuss how the arts, social sciences and humanities can make the most valuable impact at this exciting time in higher education.