Release type: Speech


‘The future of Australia’s higher education sector’ address, CEDA


The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

Dan Tehan: Thanks for your sponsorship of this event, and can I also acknowledge Catriona, Margaret and Atilla. And, it’s great to be joining you today for the panel discussion, which will follow after our presentations.

Can I just start by saying that the future is bright for the Australian higher education system. There are currently challenges, and they’re large challenges, but the foundations on which the sector is built on are very, very solid, and I think the sector has a very, very bright future. This year has been a year like no other. It was, I think, about seven and a half months ago, when I was in a paddock in Lexton in the northern part of my electorate, with the head of the International Student Association repairing fences, so that we could send a message out to the broader international student community saying that, even though we’d had devastating bushfires in Australia, Australia was a safe place to come and study. And, as a matter of fact, you could come and study in Australia, and help the nation repair the damage that had been brought by the bushfires. And, doing that work, I received a phone call summonsing me to go to Melbourne, because there was an important Cabinet meeting which was taking place that afternoon. And, for the first time, we realised the potential impact that COVID-19 was going to, was potentially could have on the globe, and on our nation. And, that, obviously, has presented, since then, an enormous amount of challenges across many sectors, but including the higher education sector. And, in large part, it has led to us responding to ensure that we will have a very successful higher education system into the future.

So, what did the Government do to ensure that we put ballast into the sector this year? Well, the first thing we did was underpin our funding for domestic students, by guaranteeing $18 billion to the sector this year, and by making it very clear it wouldn’t matter what happened with regards to domestic student load – that the sector would be guaranteed that $18 billion of funding. We also sought to move quickly on reforms that we’d been looking at, by introducing microcredential courses – short courses – and we now have 55 providers providing courses in 300, 400 different areas in microcredentials, or short courses. It’s in the Australian Qualifications Framework now until the end of 2021, and the Government’s aim is to cement microcredentials, or short courses, into the AQF forever, given the success that we’ve already seen from the sector in taking up those microcredentials. And, what we also saw from the sector itself is its professionalism, its ability to innovate, and its ability to meet a challenge. The way it was able to move seamlessly to conducting courses online, tutorials online, and making sure that the day-to-day practices that were required from a university was still able to continue through COVID-19, I think, really did show how much of a world-leading sector we have here in Australia in our higher education sector.

But, it just wasn’t on the domestic front that we saw the challenges. We were able to – through working very closely with our border officials – ensure that we got over 80 per cent of our international students in this year. And, that was incredibly important. And, a lot of time and effort went into that, because there is a real understanding of the importance of the international student market makes to our nation. For every three international students that come in, one job is created domestically – 250,000 jobs all up are there as a result of our international student market. $40 billion in national income in 2019 as a result of our international student market. So, we were able to get 80 per cent of the international students into Australia this year. But, the challenge as COVID-19 has continued, and, particularly, we’ve seen the second wave in Victoria, is what will the international student market look like next year, and the year after? National Cabinet has agreed that we will try and get pilots up and running as soon as possible. But, obviously, with internal border restrictions, and with caps on returning Australians coming back to the nation, we have to work through some of those issues before we can commence those pilots. But, South Australia, the Northern Territory, are very keen to work with the Commonwealth Government to get those pilots going as quickly as possible.

But, without those international students, what we’ve also learned is the cross-subsidisation that was going on from that international student market into our research capability, has been struck at a real blow, and one that will require us to ensure that we can continue to underpin research in this nation. And, that’s why the Government has set-up a joint working group with a group of Vice-Chancellors to see how we can do this, understanding that research will very much lead us on our economic recovery out of COVID-19. It’s played a key role in helping us deal with the pandemic, in helping us be able to provide both medical expert advice but also modelling in other areas, for us to be able to deal with COVID-19, and continue to deal with COVID-19. But, also, we know, in terms of creating new industries, new technologies, and driving the nation out of the pandemic, research is going to be absolutely vital.

So, that is why, at the moment, from the Government’s point of view, we have very much a two-pronged approach to the future of the higher education sector. One is, we now know, sadly, that youth unemployment is going to grow, and is growing as a result of the pandemic. And, that means that we need to open up more places when it comes to higher education. That’s why our Job-ready Graduates legislation, which is before the Parliament at the moment, will create an additional, up to 20,000 places next year, and over 100,000 additional places in the years to come. It will also create stronger linkages between universities and industry, something else that we see as absolutely vital to ensuring we grow our economy out of this pandemic. And, it’s also why we are looking at what we need to do to, to ensure that we have the investments that are required to help our research sector, while we wait for the international student market to recover.

So, it’s been quite a challenging year. I don’t think any of us expected to be confronting what we did in the higher education space. But, my view is, by putting more domestic places into the sector, by creating stronger linkages between industry, and making sure that we have that ballast in our research, then, capability, then we will be able to ensure that the sector will be one of the drivers as we come out of this COVID-19 pandemic. And, it needs to be one of the drivers, because the future of our nation, given the shape of our economy, the reliance we have on services to drive economic growth, having a higher education system which can produce the students that we need, the technology that we need, and the know-how that we need is going to be absolutely vital.

So, I’ll leave it there Tim, and happy to take questions after we hear from the rest of the panellists.