Release type: Speech

Date:

Keynote Address Universities Australia Conference, Hotel Realm, Canberra

Ministers:

Senator the Hon Chris Evans
Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations

Good morning.

Thank you, Aunty Agnes Shea, for that welcome to country.

I pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on.

I would also like to thank Professor Peter Coaldrake and Universities Australia for the opportunity to speak today.

It is a tremendous honour to speak as the Minister for Tertiary Education in Julia Gillard’s Government.

As the second most important Welsh migrant in the Cabinet, I share the Prime Minister’s commitment to the transformative power of education.

Like many of his time, my father was destined for the coal mines of South Wales. It was his winning of an academic scholarship which saw him avoid going down the mines and gave him a career in teaching.

In turn, this opened up opportunities for his children when we migrated to Australia.

My father always acknowledged, as I do, how many of his friends never got the opportunity to access higher learning and fulfill their potential.

But that’s the sort of transformation that a university experience can deliver.

The landscape is changing

Universities throughout the world have been unlocking individuals’ potential and changing lives for centuries, with increasing numbers of students going to university.

Next year, we will take a landmark step for higher education in Australia further down that path.

For the first time in our history, public universities will be funded for undergraduate student places based on student demand.

We are moving away from a decades-old system of central planning in which, every year, universities negotiated student places with Canberra. The practice of universities annually negotiating places with the Government belongs in the past. We are throwing out a system that was inherently inefficient and embracing one that is intrinsically efficient.

For the first time, universities will be able to grow with confidence and diversify in response to student needs. Our universities have responded strongly to the opportunities this will bring.

Enrolments are up across the board – on average by more than 10 per cent above 2009 figures.

Our policies are geared for growth to attract a new generation of scholars.

Some will become the graduates that our industries and businesses need to compete in the global contest for skilled employees and innovators.

Some will pursue their studies beyond their bachelor degree to become the next generation of researchers to advance our knowledge of the world.

Beyond this room, the strategic significance of these changes for the shape of our higher education landscape is not widely appreciated.

This is far-reaching, fundamental economic reform.

It is a time of generational change in the Australian higher education sector.

At the turn of last century, fewer than one per cent of the Australian population had the opportunity to pursue higher studies at a handful of colonial universities.

By 2025, we will be in a position to reach the national target of 40 per cent of all 25 to 34 year olds holding a qualification at bachelor’s degree level or above.

To reach that target, universities will need to reach out more than ever before to a broader range of prospective students.

In this next generation of students, there will be many people who will be the first in their family to embrace the opportunities that a university education can offer, with the promise of a high skilled, high paid job when they graduate.

I’m sure you can all recount stories of students you have taught or known who have been the first members of their families to attend university.

And I’m sure those stories have a familiar theme of lives transformed as personal and work horizons are expanded.

Chatting to a staffer of mine who has recently taken a very senior job in the Australian public service brings this home to me.He is tremendously grateful for the opportunity he received.

His dad was a kitchen hand and his mum was a cleaner and no one in his family had ever been to university.

He got the chance to go to Edith Cowan University in Perth where he completed a bachelor’s degree and ended up working for me.

He is a tremendously skilled and able guy. He had an opportunity he may never have had in past generations to attend university. He really values that chance and has made the most of it.

And its stories like his which reaffirm the importance of the changes we are making.

He’s just one of many students moving into secure, higher paid jobs as a result of their university education.

Universities are our partners in this effort.

We’re supporting your efforts to improve your outreach and with more than $880 million in funding to improve participation until 2015.

And our reforms to student income support last year have already made it financially easier for young people to afford to study, particularly those from families with low incomes.

As a result of those reforms, more than 85,000 young people now receive the maximum rate of Youth Allowance, a higher rate of Youth Allowance or a payment of Youth Allowance for the first time. More than 190,000 additional students now receive scholarships towards their education costs.

We are in transition to a truly democratic level of opportunity for higher learning and universities are at the very centre of that profound demographic change.

Opportunity, flexibility and responsibility

This is a period of unprecedented opportunity for universities.

The past quarter century is testament to the fact that universities are both resilient and adaptable.

Through the structural changes which were the hallmark of the Dawkins reforms, the leanness of public funding that characterised the Howard years, and now as we enter a new era in which funding will follow the student, universities have adapted.

And so I am confident that you will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that lie in the period ahead.

The new demand-driven system will free up universities more to make the right strategic choices to better deliver on their unique goals and to better meet the needs of their student body.

For some, this could mean diversifying what they offer.

For some, it will mean greater specialisation.

The flexibility that universities have to make these decisions is inherent in the way in which the Commonwealth’s funding is delivered.

Some figures: this financial year, around 85 per cent of the Government’s support for teaching and learning is delivered through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and student contributions.

Around 15 per cent is delivered through other targeted programs, including those which support the Government’s objectives of greater participation and improved performance. The reality is that universities have considerable flexibility in how they spend taxpayers’ money to deliver good outcomes for students and expand student choice.

None of that will fundamentally change in the shift to a demand-driven system.

I believe that the future funding environment will be much more supportive of those universities who choose to play to their strengths.

I don’t see anything wrong with a university being known for the quality of its teaching and focusing its research on those areas in which it has strength and expertise.

The landscape of 21st century education is one that does not allow every university to excel in everything.

So, in the years ahead, each university will have the opportunity to make its own strategic choices.

As Minister, I take the principle of university autonomy seriously.

It’s up to you as to how to realise your university’s distinctive goals.

It’s up to you how fast you grow.

We support growth in higher education but I do caution that this growth must be sustainable.

That means maintaining an attention to quality and accepting that students have the right to make choices based on open, transparent information.

The new generation of students will be demanding and discriminating.

I expect that this year and in the years to come, many will ask themselves if they’re getting quality and value for money from their institution.

And, like students, I too will be asking questions about the value for money the Commonwealth is getting from the range of programs that we have in place to support higher education.

This Government has invested record amounts in university education – more than $37 billion in our first four years – but in return we expect universities to demonstrate that the investment the Government is making is being well spent.

The reality is that in a tight budget environment, higher education needs to compete for scarce resources against other public goods – whether that’s primary and secondary education, health, welfare or defence.

Quality

As we enter a period of more rapid growth in enrolments in higher education, we need to be confident that the quality of the education that students are receiving can be assured.

Recent experience with the provision of international education in Australia demonstrates what can happen when aggressive growth is not matched by an attention to quality assurance.

It’s for these reasons that the Government accepted the recommendation of the Bradley Review to establish a single national regulatory and quality assurance agency in higher education.

TEQSA will take a risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation and quality assurance.

Enshrined in its establishing legislation will be basic principles of regulation to which TEQSA must adhere.

Universities Australia has been one of a number of peak bodies which have contributed constructively to the design of the legislation.

I believe that we have a much stronger product as a result of those discussions.

Transparency is also an important part of the government’s quality agenda.

And informed student choice is particularly important as we move to a demand driven system.

It’s for this reason that theMy Universitywebsite will have information about courses, campus facilities and support services – and that, over time, we will seek to make more information available to students and prospective students in this way. Just as the recent publication of ERA scores has given many institutions cause to reassess their research strategies, I’m sure that in years to come the publication of comparative measures on the My University website will be an important mechanism to focus attention on measures of teaching and learning performance.

I can understand that the Government’s decision to close the Australian Learning and Teaching Council from 1 January 2012 has come as a disappointment.

It was a difficult decision for the Government to take, but one which I think should be considered in the context of the range of other quality initiatives that are in place to support quality improvements in the future.

I am confident that will be able to continue the good work of the ALTC when my Department assumes responsibility for administering its grant and awards programmes next year.

I also congratulate the Council for bringing to fruition its Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project, which will be drawn on by TEQSA in the development of new teaching and learning standards which will guide its quality assurance activities. Pathways

My goal as Minister is to build a joined up tertiary sector that responds to the realities of student and employer needs, but one that also maintains and values the specialist missions of each sector.

Universities are strengthening and making new connections with vocational education and training interests.

The old days when the TE score was the rigid and only way to go to uni are long gone.

The potential for these new pathways to university entry is enormous.

It’s why we have improved the Australian Qualifications Framework and other mechanisms to build connections between the two sectors.

I also welcome the connections that universities are developing with industry and business to turn out graduates who are work ready.

I was pleased to give my support earlier this week to the Work Integrated Learning project that the group of Innovative Research Universities is undertaking jointly with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It’s those sorts of initiatives which make a bachelor’s degree more attractive to the new generation of students who see a university education as a pathway into one of the higher paid, higher skilled jobs of the future.

Conclusion

Higher education contributes to economic development, productivity and the capacity of our country to innovate for the future.

The Australian economy today – and the Australian economy of the future – will require more Australians to be degree qualified.

The investments and reforms that we are making in higher education will drive improvements in productivity and improve Australia’s future economic competitiveness. The Government has made a commitment to the expansion of a high quality university sector, to educate the graduates needed by an economy based on knowledge, skills and innovation.

This approach is essential to enable Australia to participate fully in, and benefit from, the global knowledge economy.

The next few years will see transformations in our nation’s universities and open the doors of higher education to a new generation of Australians.

It’s an exciting time for the next generation of students, and I’m confident that we can work together to deliver the tremendous opportunities that this new era will bring.

Thank you.