SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, School holidays, Reopening of state borders, Job-ready graduates, Regional reforms
Kieran Gilbert: Education Minister Dan Tehan, thanks very much for your time. We’ve seen two schools closed in Melbourne as part of this most recent spike. Are you comfortable that schools are still safe to be open now?
Dan Tehan: Yeah, absolutely, Kieran. The medical expert advice clearly says that schools are safe to be open, obviously with the right protocols in place, and, in particular, making sure that we’ve got the right protocols in place for our teachers. It’s very interesting when you look at the international experience. You take a country like Norway, where they closed their schools, they’re now saying that the one, well, their Chief Medical Officer is now saying, that the one thing she wished that hadn’t happened, as they dealt with the pandemic, was to close their schools. So, yes, right protocols in place, the medical experts still tell us that schools are safe to be open, and, obviously, that continuity of education for our children is, is absolutely vital that we keep that going while we’re dealing with the coronavirus.
Gilbert: So, if there’s a case like we’ve seen at Brunswick East Primary School in Moreland, or Keilor Views Primary School in Brimbank, that, the schools are shutdown, a deep clean happens, the kids go home, and then resume in a few weeks from now. That’s basically the scenario, wherever this happens, around the nation.
Tehan: That’s right. And, look, it’s, we’re approaching school holidays in Victoria. But, in some instances, schools have been closed down, the tracing’s been undertaken, the testing’s been undertaken, and, after the cleaning of the school, it can reopen in three or four days. So, it depends on the circumstances, but, obviously, in Victoria, we’re heading into school holidays. But, they’ll make sure that they do the appropriate testing, and do that, do that tracing, that’s also important, to make sure that they’ve got the virus under control, and then reopen the school.
Gilbert: What do you say to those who remain sceptical about schools being open? You’ve heard it yourself, a lot of criticism of it, that this will help foster an outbreak, a spike, like we’re seeing in Victoria.
Tehan: The medical experts are being very clear on this, and it’s a medical expert panel, which is made up of the Federal Chief Medical Officer, and all the state and territory chief medical officers. And, they’ve made it clear that schools are safe to remain open, as long as you get those protocols in place. And, as a matter of fact, in terms of the spread of the virus, it’s much more likely that it will be the adults in the school community, it’ll be teachers in the lunchroom, that are more likely to spread the virus amongst themselves, than the children in the schoolyards themselves. And, they continue to monitor that. They continue to look at the data from overseas. But, their guidance and advice to the Commonwealth, and to state and territories, is clear: it’s safe for schools to be open.
Gilbert: So, the Deputy Chief Health Officer in Victoria is saying, urging parents to limit their social interactions with families over the school holidays. Is that the Federal Government’s message, as well?
Tehan: Yeah, absolutely. What we need is adults, in particular, being very careful, because we know that’s predominantly where the virus spreads. It’s amongst gatherings of adults, and, especially, inside. So, we do need everyone to be following the advice of the chief medical officer’s right across the states and territories, and the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer. Because, right now, we need to step up our efforts, especially in Victoria, to make sure that we get back on top of the virus. We’ve done an incredible job in flattering the curve here in Australia, but we’ve got to make sure that we continue our efforts and listen to the advice about doing the things that we need to do to stop the continual spread of the virus.
Gilbert: This spike in Victoria is leading to other states to baulk now, on the reopening of their borders. Is it your concern, now, the Federal Government’s concern, that this will have a massive economic impact, in terms of the reopening of the nation?
Tehan: Well, as you know, Kieran, National Cabinet has never said that borders should be closed, and it’s never been the advice, from the National Cabinet. Now, each state and territory has taken decisions in that regard. But, obviously, we want to make sure that we’re doing two things as a Federal Government – continue to flatten the curve, but, also, to make sure that we are doing everything we can to grow our economy out of this, out of this virus. But, if we have to go back down into lockdown, that won’t help. So, we’ve got to make sure we continue to call on all Australians to do the right thing when it comes to the app, when it comes to social distancing, when it comes to that basic hygiene of cleaning your hands, using hand sanitiser – all that is as important now as it ever has been.
Gilbert: Now, the Chancellors of University of WA and the ANU, Robert French and Julie Bishop, have both warned today that your measures, in terms of increasing the cost of humanities subjects, could actually be an incentive for universities to enrol more students in those subjects, for financial reasons. Are you worried about that being a counterproductive measure?
Tehan: Well, there’s two things I would say to that. The first is, is the lived experience. And, we know what happened in 2008-9, when the, there was a reduction the student had to make when it came to science and maths. And, we saw a doubling of the number of students, from 13,000 to 26,000, taking up those science and maths subjects. So, when you do reduce the cost, the living experience is, that what you see is students deciding to make choices to go into those areas. The second thing is, with our short courses, which we announced on Easter Sunday, once again, we reduced the cost in the same areas that we’re reducing the cost, or we want to reduce the cost going forward. And, we’ve seen a huge uptake of those short courses in those national priority areas. So, we’re expecting nearly 20,000 students to have taken up short courses. Right across the board – 350 different offerings by 50 different higher education providers. So, we think that the evidence is there that we will see that behavioural shift.
Gilbert: But, isn’t there, also, an incentive for universities to take in more students studying commerce, law, humanities, because of, basically going to cost more? They can help fund other, other areas of university education.
Tehan: Well, ultimately, it will be up to the student choice. And, but, what we’ve seen is if, when it comes to student choice, if you put an incentive in there for, for students to go into a particular area, we’ve seen that’s what’s happened. And, remembering, what are we trying to do and achieve here. We want to lift the overall participation of students into the higher education sector. So, we want to see, ultimately, 100,000 new places created, 39,000 in the short-term. So, this is all about getting more students into higher ed, because we know that demand is coming into the system. So, 100,000 new places going into the system.
Gilbert: But, how do you get that 100,000, without an increase on funding, beyond inflation?
Tehan: So, what we need to understand is, that we will see an additional $2 billion dollars of funding go into the sector, up until 2024. So, the Government’s programmed spending for the sector continues to increase, and we’re going to be putting another $2 billion dollars in. So, this is a substantial amount of money. So, that is why we can get the new places. It’s why we’re able to put in the Tertiary Access Payment for regional and rural students, to help them be able to attend university. There’s the measures there for Indigenous students, for regional and remote areas – they’re guaranteed a place. There’s extra funding for regional universities for research. So, all this is because of that additional $2 billion dollars, that’s going in, that’s budgeted.
Gilbert: What do you say to the Academy of Humanities who argues that those that study an arts degree end up in all sorts of areas, whether it be, you know, professional public administration, sciences, it can be a good launch pad. You studied the arts.
Tehan: Absolutely. I did. I did. And, absolutely, it can be. But, what we want is students thinking about their job prospects when they undertake their degree. This is going to be the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. We have to understand the economic environment we’re operating in. So, we want those humanities students to be thinking, okay, if I do a language, if I do maths, if I do English, if I do IT, is that going to help my job prospects. And, ultimately, it, also, will lead to their degree costing less.
Gilbert: So, you’re not trying to discourage people doing humanities subjects?
Tehan: What we’re trying to do is say to those doing humanities, think about your job prospects when you finish. This is a very different economic environment to the one we’ve seen in the last 28 years. So, think about those subjects which will help your job prospects.
Gilbert: Education Minister Dan Tehan, appreciate your time.
Tehan: Thanks Kieran.