SUBJECTS: Universities and domestic students, International students, China, Karm Gilespie, Australian Curriculum, Travel expenses
Fran Kelly: Thousands of Australians could miss out on a place at university. This is despite the huge drop in overseas student numbers due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions. Tertiary admission centres are reporting increases of up to 88 per cent in the number of applications, but unis don’t have extra places to offer, after the Federal Government abandoned the demand driven system three years ago. Government funded domestic university places are now capped. The surge in domestic demand comes as plans are being drawn up to start flying international students back to Australia under a so-called safe corridor strategy, which involves a two-week quarantine period. Dan Tehan is the Federal Education Minister. He’s in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Fran.
Kelly: Now, the data, so far, on applications, shows that unis will have to turn away tens of thousands of young Australians who want to study, because finding a job, obviously, is going to be so difficult next year, and the year after that. Will the Federal Government subsidise more places to meet the surging demand?
Tehan: Well, this is something we’re in discussions with the universities about. There is a countercyclical nature to demand, and, sadly, we are going to see a rise in forecast unemployment, as a result of COVID-19. Now, the Federal Government put in place performance-based funding, which lifted the amount of money and the amount of places that we were putting into the system. But, this is something that we will continue to discuss with the university sector, because, sadly, one of the impacts of COVID-19 will be, we will see more demand come into the higher education system. And, we’ve got to look at how we can cater with that. I would say, that we’ve already demonstrated, through what we did with our short courses initiative when we announced our rescue package for the university sector, that we are willing to sit down and discuss with the university sector how we can meet this demand. And, the overwhelming success of those short courses, I think, points a way to how we can work together, to make sure that we can deal with this extra demand.
Kelly: Now, Minister, you said then, ‘Sadly, it means more demand.’ But, it’s not a sad thing. It’s a great thing, isn’t it? I mean, skills, we know, is one of the key drivers of productivity, and a priority, as Australia tries to map its way out of this downturn. If skills is a priority, then, tens of thousands of young Australians wanting to study is the answer, isn’t it? It’s a godsend.
Tehan: Well, it’s sad when people face unemployment, Fran. That’s what I was referring to. No one wants to see their lives turned upside down, and to face unemployment. But, you’re right. What we do need to do, as a result of COVID-19, is reskill those who have lost work, and we also have to make sure that we can provide the skills to those coming out of the school system, so that they will be able to take those jobs that we generate as we regrow our economy. And …
Kelly: … So, this is a good thing, isn’t it? This surge in demand?
Tehan: Well, it’s a good thing if it’s there, and we are providing for people to be able to reskill to go into work, or we’re taking young Australians and making sure that they’ve got the skills so they can take the jobs for the future. Absolutely. That’s what our higher education system’s there for. That’s what our vocational education system’s there for. But, there will be young Australians, also, who had their hearts set on taking a job when they left school, and, unfortunately, those jobs might not be there for them. So, we’ve got these challenges that we face as a result of COVID-19. And, the key thing is, as, from a Federal Government point of view, we want to work with the higher education sector, to make sure that we can address them.
Kelly: Okay. One of the challenges is funding. Your direction to the uni over the weekend was, the number one priority must be the education of Australian students. But, the unis can only offer as many places as the Government is willing to pay for. So, how, will you commit to paying for as many Australian students as want to study in our universities?
Tehan: Well, we put in place the performance-based system, and that put more money in for more places. We’ve also put the short courses initiative in, which is generating places, as well …
Kelly: … So, we’ve got the surge on applications now. So, it looks as though there’s going to be more applications than there are funded places. Will the Government lift the cap?
Tehan: Yeah. And, look, this is something that we’re working with the sector on at the moment. We’ve been in discussions on this, and we’re looking at ways that we can make sure that we can meet this increase in demand. And, that’s something we’ll continue …
Kelly: … So, that means more money though, doesn’t it? As a Government preparing for more money to support the university sector? Because, they won’t be able to do it without it. The loss of student, international student income. The unis are bracing for a $16 billion hit over four years.
Tehan: Well, obviously, we guaranteed them over $18 billion worth of funding as part of our COVID-19 package, and we’ll continue to talk with the sector about increases in demand, how we best can meet those. As I’ve said, we put in place our short course initiative, which, I think, points the way as to the type of direction that we can go, because we’ve seen the success of that initiative, has been overwhelming. We’ve seen most universities come on board, and we’ve seen over 350 courses now being offered in these national priority areas. So, we’ll continue to work with the sector to make sure that this demand can be met. Understanding, of course, that there are, there are huge, huge demands on the Budget at the moment, and we’ve got to make sure that everything we do is done in a very sustainable way.
Kelly: Meanwhile, the Government has endorsed plans for a pilot program to start bringing a small number of 120,000 international students, who were stranded off shore, back to Australia to study. The PM says it would be in a very controlled setting. How many would be allowed to come in, initially? And, how would it work? Would they need to quarantine when they get here? For how long? And, who would pay for that?
Tehan: Yeah. So, obviously, we are looking at pilots, and we’re looking at pilots, initially, with South Australia and the ACT. We’re still going through the planning on that. Everything has to be done according to the health guidelines, according to the medical expert panel. And, they’re looking at that, and fine tuning those guidelines. There would be, at a minimum, two weeks’ quarantine involved here in Australia. Now, we’ll continue to have those discussions. I’ve spoken to the Premier of South Australia. I’ve spoken to the leader of the ACT. I was actually speaking to the higher education minister from the ACT yesterday. So, we want to make sure that the planning is right, all the details are right. But, we have to remember, that the international education sector provides 250,000 jobs to this nation, and we want those jobs back as we grow our economy, as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic. And, we also understand, from 2019, the latest data that we’ve got, that international students brought in $40 billion of export revenue. So, we want to make sure we get this right, and that’s why we’re embarking on these pilots.
Kelly: And, just briefly, who’d pay for the quarantine period?
Tehan: Look, that’s being worked through. But, you know, we would expect, at this stage, it would be the universities who would be looking at carrying the expense of this, and state and territory governments would also be carrying the expense of the quarantining. But, all these details are being sorted through at the moment.
Kelly: You’re listening to RN Breakfast. Dan Tehan is the Federal Education Minister. China doesn’t see us as a safe destination. Chinese students, obviously, are a huge cohort of the international students that study in Australia. Will they come after that warning from China’s Ministry of Education not to study here, due to what it claims were, quote, ‘racist incidents targeting Asia’? Have you tried calling your Chinese counterpart, to counter this argument?
Tehan: No, I haven’t. Obviously, the Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister have been dealing with that. What I’ve been focused on is making sure that we can get these pilots in place. Obviously, in discussions with the sector about how we meet growing domestic demand. And, that’s been, that’s been my focus. But, obviously, I’ve been in close contact with the Trade Minister and the Foreign Minister as they work through these issues with China.
Kelly: And, Minister, you know, we’re talking there about these warning to students not to come from China. We’ve had the beef and barley bans. Now, a lot more seriously, if it is connected, the death penalty handed down to an Australian man called Karm Gilespie, in China. Do we know what is being done by the Government to try and help Karm Gilespie? And, do you think this is part of the tensions, the rising tensions between our two countries? Is he a pawn in that?
Tehan: Well, I’m not going to speculate whether it’s a part of those tensions, given the seriousness of this issue. But, you can be rest assured that all the consular assistance is being provided to him at this time, and that will continue to be the case.
Kelly: On another issue, Minister. The debate over pulling down statues has also led to calls for school students to learn more about the atrocities committed against the First Australians during the colonisation of Australia. As the Federal Education Minister, do you think we need to understand more about our own history?
Tehan: Of course we do. We have to understand more about our own history. And, one of the things that I did as Education Minister, when it came to education in our university sector, was a specific research grant to make sure that we study more, and there’s more focus on Australian and Indigenous history. And, I think, that’s something that we also want to make sure is there in our school curriculum, as well. We already …
Kelly: … And, is it there? Is it there enough, at the moment? Have you had a close look?
Tehan: It is there at the moment, and, I think, we need to make sure that it continues to be there, because knowing your own history is just so important. So, I think, through our school system, through our university system, understanding Indigenous history, Australian history, is going to be something that we want to continue to focus on. And, I must say, you know, there’s been a lot of division, I think, unfortunately, around recent debates. But, I think, one of the good things about it has been that, I think, everyone now realises we do need to focus more on our own history. And, I think that’s one of the real positives to come out of this.
Kelly: And, Minister, The Guardian today is reporting that you are one of several Cabinet Ministers who charged taxpayers more than $4,500 dollars for flights and accommodation to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser in Sydney last year. I understand you visited a school and Western Sydney Uni, while you were in Sydney. Were those engagements added after you accepted an invitation to the fundraiser? To justify using taxpayers’ funds?
Tehan: Well, Fran, everything that I’ve done has been consistent with the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority. And, that will continue …
Kelly: … Yes. But, did you add those to justify travelling to Sydney for the fundraiser?
Tehan: Fran, everything that I do is consistent with the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority. It will continue to be so. That’s why that authority is there. My office always checks with that authority, to make sure that everything that I’m doing is consistent with the rules and regulations with govern, which govern MPs. I travel around this nation constantly. I can tell you, on that night there would have, nothing would have made me happier than being at home with my family. But, obviously, part of the job is that we have to travel. We have to do a wide variety of things. And, one of the things that I always check and make sure is, that we’ve checked with the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, that everything we’re doing is within those rules and guidelines.
Kelly: Dan Tehan, thanks very much for joining us.
Tehan: Thank you, Fran.