Release type: Transcript


Minister for Education Dan Tehan interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast


The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: Job-ready Graduates legislation, Year 12 students, Thousand Talents Plan, COVID-19 and Victoria

Fran Kelly: Legislation for the biggest overhaul of university funding in decades will be introduced into the Parliament today, after some last-minute changes have been made to appease the National Party. The reform package will see the cost of humanity degrees more than double, while the fees for courses regarded as more job relevant, including teaching and nursing, will fall. Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek says the revamp will put university beyond the reach of many deserving young people.


Tanya Plibersek: It’s extraordinary at a time when youth unemployment is going through the roof, that the Government is making it harder and more expensive to go to university. Surely, it would be better to have unemployed young people studying at university or training at TAFE, rather than sitting on the dole queue.

[End of excerpt]

Kelly: That’s Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. She says the Government’s cutting billions from universities. Dan Tehan is the Federal Education Minister. He joins us in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Dan Tehan: Morning, Fran. Great to be with you again.

Kelly: Tanya Plibersek’s right, isn’t she? It’s better to have young people studying at uni, than sitting on the dole queue. With youth unemployment so high, because of the pandemic, why would we make it more expensive for young people to choose uni?

Tehan: Well, what we’re doing, Fran, is creating 100,000 new places, so more students can go to university. Sixty per cent of courses will either be cheaper or stay at the same level. We’re putting an extra $2 billion into the sector over the next four years. We understand that there is a countercyclical nature between unemployment and demand in the higher education system, and that’s why we’re making these changes. We want more people to be able to go to university, and we want more young Australians to be able to go to university, and that’s why we’re making these changes.

Kelly: But, you don’t want kids who want to study humanities? That might be your bent, you know, that might be your talent. You know, you’re not encouraging them to do it. I mean, some kids aren’t going to be teachers or nurses.

Tehan: No. We are encouraging everyone who wants to study and go to university to do just that. What we’re saying …

Kelly: … No, you’re not. You’re doubling the price of a humanities course.

Tehan: But, we’re also cutting the price of, if you want to be a teacher, if you want to be a nurse, if you want to do IT, if you want to be a scientist, if you want to be an engineer, if you want to do languages. And, what we’re saying for those people who want to study humanities, study humanities, but think about being able to get a job at the end of your degree. So, mix and match the units. Take some of those units which will help you to be able to get a job at the end of your degree. This is the biggest economic contraction this nation has seen since the Great Depression. We want students to be going to university, but we want them to be coming out of university with the skills that they will need to be able to get a job, and in those areas where we know there will be job demand. And, that’s what this package is all about.

Kelly: Yeah. But, you know, arts degrees can make you job-ready. You’re a perfect case in point. Would you have dumped your arts degree to pursue a case in IT, science, mathematics, or nursing?

Tehan: Well, Fran, one of the things that, in hindsight, I would have loved to have done and should have done, was a language, because that nearly cost me being able to …

Kelly: … But, language is in humanities.

Tehan: No, no. Language is actually in the discounted areas. So, remember, what we’ve done is being done at the unit level. So, languages are down in the discounted area, and we want people to be able to study languages, so they’ve got the skills to be able to get jobs. Because, we know they’re the types of skills that enable you to get jobs once you come out of university. That’s why, when it comes to nursing, teaching, when it comes to IT, when it comes to engineering, these are all the areas that we know we’re going to have skill shortages, that we know we’re going to need people to be able to grow the economy. So, that’s why we’re focusing there. We’re not saying to people don’t do the humanities, but mix and match to make sure that you’ve got the skills when you finish your degree to be able to get a job.

Kelly: With, I think I’ve got these figures right. Overall, this package would see about 40 per cent of students paying more than twice as much for their degrees. Humanities subjects will rocket to $14,500 a year. That’s a lot of money. And, overall, the Government’s contribution to degrees is falling from 58 per cent to 52 per cent. So, more of the burden under this shake-up falls onto students, doesn’t it?

Tehan: So, under this shake-up, the Government is putting an extra $2 billion into the sector over the next four years …

Kelly: … Yes. But overall, of the extra 100,000 places, the overall funding, the Government’s contribution to the price of a degree goes from 58 per cent to 52 per cent. So, more of the fee is paid by some of the students. Is that correct?

Tehan: Well, what we’re doing is, depending on how students mix and match, where the demand goes, the Government will still be paying over 50 per cent of a student’s degree costs …

Kelly: … Yes. But, less than you were paying.

Tehan: Well, as, we’re also increasing 100,000 extra places. So, once we see where demand ends up …

Kelly: … Sure. More places but less money?

Tehan: Once we see where the demand ends up, we’ll get a better idea. But, we will still be paying over 50 per cent of the cost of a student’s degree. We’ll be still creating over 100,000 extra new places for students, and 60 per cent of students will pay less or no more for their degree.

Kelly: And, 40 per cent will pay significantly more. This is a very significant shake-up of university funding, probably the most in a generation. This sector – and, we’ve discussed this before with you on the program – is already in crisis mode, because of the loss of foreign students. Is this really the best time to impose a huge change like this, and a stress like this, on universities?

Tehan: Well, we’ve been working very closely with the sector. As you know, we, one of the first things we did when COVID-19 struck was guarantee funding of $18 billion to the sector. So, we put a ballast underneath the sector, to help them get through COVID-19. We’re now working with them when it comes to how we can help them support our research capability through the pandemic. And, that’s incredibly important, because when it comes to the international student market, one of the things which was very clear was that the international students were helping to cross-subsidise our research effort. When it comes to domestic students, what these reforms are all about is making sure that our universities understand the importance of us investing in our domestic student market, in investing in young Australians, and making sure that they’re getting the skills that they need to be able to get into the job market once they finish their degrees. So, we’re continuing to work with the sector on research. But, this is very much about making sure that the number one focus of our university sector is on making sure young Australians have the skills they need to be able to get a job when they finish their degrees.

Kelly: And, I just wonder, again, we’ve spoken before about the stress on Year 12 students, at the moment. I mean, this will be a big stress for some students who are already under enormous stress. You know, students have got to Year 12, perhaps without taking maths or sciences, and now we’re asking them to either pay a lot more for the degree they were dreaming of doing, or do something different.

Tehan: So, first of all, can I just say to all those Year 12 students who are studying at the moment, and especially to those in Victoria, we want to be doing everything we can to help and support you get through this year, to get your ATAR. It’s why all education ministers, across the nation, have agreed that every student will get an ATAR this year. We also want to make sure that there’s a place there at university for you, and especially for those regional and rural students ...

Kelly: … Yeah, but what if you’ve been studying for an arts degree?

Tehan: I’ll just finish, Fran. Especially for those regional and rural students, where we know, half of those students, because of where they’ve been born, will not access higher education. Whereas, those who are born in the city, will have double the chance of being able to do it. For Indigenous students who are in rural and remote areas, we know they’re even less likely to do that. That is why we’re putting more focus, more money, and more effort into making sure that those students will be able to get access to higher education. We want everyone to be able to get access to higher education. We want to make sure that everyone ...

Kelly: … Okay. That wasn’t my question, but we have to move on because we’re almost out of time, and I really do need to ask you about this story that’s been running this week. Concern being raised about international collaboration through programs like the Thousand Talents Program, which is a Chinese research program that’s done with academics around the world. China sponsors them. ASIO has warned universities, apparently, of a national security risk, if intellectual property’s handed over to Chinese universities under this plan, and others. The Chair of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Andrew Hastie wants to hold an urgent inquiry into this plan. Do you support that?

Tehan: Well, what, I’ve spoken with Andrew, and the first step we’re going to take is that education officials and, obviously, intelligence officials, will present before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, and outline everything the Government is doing. So, I’ve agreed with Andrew that we’ll present to his committee on this. I think it’s incredibly important. The Government has put in place best practice guidelines for our universities. They were, they were designed in collaboration with our intelligence agencies. This is a matter we’ve been taking incredibly seriously. Obviously, there are some matters which are being looked at, which we need to provide in camera evidence to the Committee on, so we will do that. If we think there’s more, as a Government, that more needs to be done, we’ll do that.

Kelly: And, can I just ask you finally, Minister. You’re a Victorian. The corona pandemic in your home state of Victoria. Do you support the bid by the Andrews Government to extend its state of emergency powers by twelve months, which the Premier says is an insurance policy? It would, I mean, what it does is enable public health directions like making mask wearing mandatory, and social distancing. Do you support the Government having that capacity to fight, every weapon, really, available, to fight the pandemic?

Tehan: Oh, look, I think these measures need to be seriously explained by the Victorian Labor Government. A twelve-month extension, I think, is extraordinary. The powers that it gives to the Government, I think, are extraordinary, and the will of the Parliament is taken away by these laws. I think there’s a huge amount of explaining that needs to be done about an extension for this period of time for that ...

Kelly: … So, do you support an extension for a shorter period of time? Because, the truth is, these powers don’t automatically, you know, mean anything. It just means that the Chief Health Officer can bring in urgent public measures as I say, like social distancing, don’t they? Other states have them in place.

Tehan: They’re extraordinary powers, and to ask for them to be extended for a period of time of twelve months, I think, needs to be fully explained as to why you would want to do that. They take away liberties. They take away the functioning of democracy in the state of Victoria. It needs to be explained why ...

Kelly: … Well, do they? Do they take them away?

Tehan: Yeah, because ...

Kelly: I mean, the emergency powers themselves, or just the fact you’re having it there for twelve months? Is that what you’re saying?

Tehan: Well, because, if you put in place measures, then you can restrict or limit, through those health measures, the ability of people to be able to attend the Parliament. So, you know, we’ve just seen Victorians here, and, you know, rightly, because we want to be here, and especially those ministers, so that we’re accountable. We’re part of the executive ...

Kelly: … But, Victorian Parliament is sitting now.

Tehan: Yeah, but not all members are able to go and get access to it. These laws need to be explained, Fran. They, the twelve-month extension of them needs to be explained. Victorians need to be given good reasons as to why they’re doing this.

Kelly: Thank you very much for joining us again, Minister. Dan Tehan is the Federal Education Minister.