Subjects: International students; Financial position of universities; Childcare Package.
TOM CONNELL: The future of international students in Australia, very uncertain. Alan Tudge the Education Minister joins me on this now for more. Thanks for your time. The COVID vaccine could mean students avoid quarantine, but you’ve said they’d need to link with digital passenger cards. It’s a huge industry; isn’t there a way to do this and confirm it without waiting for that link to happen?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, there’s a number of ifs associated with that proposition which I’ve said before. And that is, we need to make sure the vaccine works effectively and prevents transmissions. And then, of course, we’d need to be able to ensure that an individual who had been vaccinated abroad, had indeed been properly vaccinated and can authenticate that in a way that we can trust. But they’re down the track. It’s very difficult to predict at this stage when that might occur, but of course, that’s a possibility.
TOM CONNELL: So yeah, you point it needs to avoid transmission. How effective does it need to be at doing that? Eighty per cent? Ninety per cent?
ALAN TUDGE: We’ll get guided by the chief medical officer in relation to this. It's early days. I could foresee, at some stage, this occurring, but it's still such early days and I don't want to present false hope, given that we haven't got the full data yet on the vaccine as to whether or not it does prevent that,
TOM CONNELL: If there's a vaccine, though, that's used in Australia, AstraZeneca, for example, that's supposed to be inoculating our population, that would have to be good enough for other populations, wouldn’t it? Other people coming here?
ALAN TUDGE: There's still some question mark as to whether or not it will prevent you necessarily getting sick, but not necessarily transmitting the disease.
TOM CONNELL: So there’s a higher bar for international students in terms of transmission versus what we’d use here?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, all of this would be guided by the expert health advice. I mean, fundamentally, our priority time is still protecting the health of Australians and ensuring that Australians have the opportunity to come back from overseas and come into the country. They're our priorities. Of course, as the Education Minister, I want to see international students back. They have been great for Australia as an export industry. They've been great as a source of people, many of whom become great Australians later on. But obviously we have the borders closed, no international students are coming in at the moment and we're just working through this very steadily. Very difficult to predict, though, when we'll have significant numbers again.
TOM CONNELL: Sure. There hasn't been much help so far for uni’s. They didn’t get JobKeeper, for example. Is it a watching brief on their financial health, if you like? Because we can't afford for one of these big uni’s to go to the wall or get in real trouble and just have a reputational downfall?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, a couple of things on that. So when you actually look at the enrolment data on international students, as of the end of last year, the public universities were only down five per cent in terms of international student enrolments. And that's because we did enable students to enrol abroad and start their studies abroad in an online manner. So that's a really positive outcome. That’s at the end of last year.
TOM CONNELL: It might not continue, though.
ALAN TUDGE: It may not. We're keeping an eye on that. But…
TOM CONNELL: Because other countries are open up to students where we're not, right?
ALAN TUDGE: But- that is the case. But bear in mind that international students, they constitute, say, about 25 per cent of the public universities’ revenue. So if enrolments are down five per cent at the moment and that's 25 per cent of the revenue, it just means their revenue is only down 1.25 per cent on average. That may differ from university to university, but it's not a crisis if it's only down 1.25 per cent.
TOM CONNELL: But you’re keeping a watch on this?
ALAN TUDGE: Let's keep an eye on it for this academic year, of course.
TOM CONNELL: So you’re not ruling out an assistance package for uni’s if they really need it?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, the second thing I was going to say is that, of course, last year in our budget, we gave an additional $1b in research funding to the universities to help them through this transition. And, of course, with the JobReady package, there’s 30,000 additional places, domestic places as well, which, of course, helps them with their revenue as well.
TOM CONNELL: The Chinese Government, of course, gave this list of industries they could be targeting. Nearly all of them have come to pass - beef, barley, wine; international students was on it, but it hasn't happened. Are they next?
ALAN TUDGE: Who knows? I mean, the Chinese students have been terrific in terms of coming to Australia and studying here. And some go on and stay here permanently and become great Aussies. We've always said we wanted to diversify our international student market, by the way, in some respects we've had- and that's still going to be an ongoing ambition for us. But we hope that student market from China maintains.
TOM CONNELL: Suppose we'll see. Just wanted to talk about childcare as well. So the coalition made this a big priority in mid-2018, a new system, more money in it. By March 2020, childcare fees had gone up 6.1 per cent since that point, CPI had gone up 2.7 per cent. That fee relief is being eaten up at the moment, isn't it?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah. The key thing, though, is not the fees. The key thing is your out-of-pocket expenses. And when you look at the out-of-pocket expenses, they are still 1.8 per cent down from the peak in 2018 when we introduced that childcare package.
TOM CONNELL: I’ll go to that figure actually. So Dan Tehan spoke about out-of-pocket costs, down 11.8 per cent three months after. Great result, big saving. By October last year, 3.2 per cent. Again, that saving, the real money they spend, which you point out, it's disappearing.
ALAN TUDGE: Well they're still, they're still down from the 2018 figure and that's the most important thing.
TOM CONNELL: But it's gone from 11.8 to 3.2
ALAN TUDGE: Well, and bear in mind that our package and we've put a lot more money in. It’s about $10.3 billion this year, which is, say, about 75 per cent higher than what it was when we first came to government. And our package is geared towards those people who need it most. And so, hence, those lower income families get the most support. Those high income families cuts out of $350,000, don't get any support. It's interesting, actually, when you look at Labor's package and Anthony Albanese is under so much pressure at the moment, he said his signature policy is childcare. But the biggest winners out of his childcare policy are actually those who earn more than $350,000. Because under his policy, they're going to- they're going to get, if you've got a couple of kids in full time care, they'll get up to $50,000 in subsidies. And this is where their focus is. No wonder the Labor Party's in so much difficulty when that’s their signature policy.
TOM CONNELL: If you look at their chart, just about everybody’s better off. But just on your policy-
ALAN TUDGE: But the biggest winners are the very wealthy income earners. You know, one of the [audio skip] inside the Labor Party, Tom.
TOM CONNELL: Okay. You’ve just come to the portfolio, though. Are you looking at this, given those figures? As I said, 11.8, the savings have gone down to 3.2. They might disappear within a year. Parents won't be better off. Do you look at it again and do you look at doing something different?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, we put in a very significant package in 2018. I hear what you're saying, Tom. But the fact of the matter is those out-of-pocket expenses still are down compared to the peak in 2018.
TOM CONNELL: I'm sure we'll talk to you again. It's a portfolio I know you've covered a lot of experience in it. So we'll delve into more issues, a bit short today. But Alan Tudge, thanks for your time.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much, Tom.