SUBJECTS: COVID-19 and schools in Victoria, Additional child care support, COVID-19 and universities, International students, University research
Norman Swan: For more, I’m joined by the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan from Canberra. Welcome back to Breakfast, Minister Tehan.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Norman.
Swan: So, under this roadmap, most students in Melbourne will learn from home until late October. I mean, should you, what’s your view? Should they be allowed to return to classes sooner, given Victorians have done so well at suppressing the virus and it’s so difficult for families?
Tehan: Well, if Victoria can continue to get the public health response right and get those measures in place that we know are so important, like contact tracing, then if we could get the students back to school earlier that would be a great achievement, and something that I think the Victorian State Government should be aiming to do. They have brought forward the start for those students in regional Victoria. That’s welcome. So, they will now commence at the beginning of term four. If they can get in a position to do the same in Melbourne, I know for many, many students, and their parents, that would come as a very welcome relief, and, obviously, incredibly important for those children’s education. Because, it’s one of the things that the children, especially in Melbourne, have missed out on through this pandemic.
Swan: It does create a bit of a disparity between regional areas and kids in the city.
Tehan: It does. But, what we’ve got to do is aim to get all students back to that face-to-face learning as quickly as we can. We can’t hold some students back just because the public health response still needs work. We’ve got to make sure that all students who we can get back into the classroom and get that face-to-face learning happening, we need to. Because, as we know, in every other state and territory, that’s been occurring for some time now.
Swan: You announced yesterday more support for child care operators in Victoria, which will be in place for most of January. So, obviously, Victoria’s taken an economic hit, but we also hear that child care operators are finding it tough in tourist areas in Australia, so it’s not just Victoria. Why aren’t these provisions being made available in other states, even in a targeted fashion?
Tehan: Yeah, look, it’s a good question, and there are some measures which we are keeping in place for the rest of Australia, and we also have other support mechanisms for those child care centres that we can target on a case by case basis, and that’s what we will be doing. So, for all those providers who might be in areas hard hit, such as tourism areas, we can provide case by case support to those facilities as well. So, the package yesterday, predominantly for Victoria, obviously they’ve been very hard hit by this second Victorian wave, but, case by case, there are support mechanisms there for other providers around the nation.
Swan: But, what we’ve been told by the sector is that it can be eye wateringly complex, and some child care centres are just giving up on applications for funds. How can you simplify it?
Tehan: Look, so, one of the things that we’ve obviously been very successful at through this pandemic is keeping 99 per cent of our child care providers operational, and providing that important care to young children. Now, with these additional measures, we are looking to make sure, for those centres who need support and relief, that we will be simplifying those measures, and, obviously, we will continue to work with the sector and engage with them to make sure that those application processes are as seamless as possible and as quick as possible. But, one of the things that we have been able to do, unlike many other countries, is keep the sector up, operational and viable, and I take my hat off, in particular, to all those early childhood educators who, right through this pandemic, have provided that really important care to young Australians.
Swan: Do you think parents understand the activity test? I tried to read about it last and I thought, I just, I don’t understand that, if I was a parent.
Tehan: Look, what the activity test is, in simple terms, is what we want you to do is either, through work or volunteering, is to be contributing, and, in return, what the Government does is provide you with subsidised child care. Now, the way it works is rather complex, but what, that’s why we’ve now extended the activity test, or exemptions from the activity test, for all families, right through till, to April. This is something that the sector asked for us to do nationally. It’s something that we’ve done nationally, because, most importantly, what it will enable is those families who have lost work or lost working hours to be able to get additional support.
Swan: Let’s move to universities now. The ANU, University of New South Wales, RMIT, all announced very large cuts in jobs. The unions estimate the losses at around 12,000 since the pandemic first struck. This could be your legacy. It’s on your watch. How worried are you about the cumulative effect on our tertiary education system of these losses?
Tehan: Look, it’s an incredibly difficult time for the higher education sector, no doubt about that …
Swan: … But, aren’t you making it worse with changes to, you know, how the universities are funded and research and so on?
Tehan: Well, we’re putting more financial support in through the changes that we’re making, and which are before the Parliament at the moment. We obviously guaranteed $18 billion worth of funding on Easter Sunday to make sure that that certainty was there for the sector this year. We managed to get 80 per cent of our international students here this year, but, obviously, with the international student market now looking like it will be severely diminished next year, that’s going to have a very big impact on the sector. The international student market is a $40 billion national income earner for our nation. It provides 250,000 jobs. So, we’re working with the sector to see what we can do to help and support when it comes to research and research jobs. But, this is a huge impact that we’re seeing as a result of a lack of international students, and, similar to what our tourism industry is facing as a result of no international tourists being able to come to Australia.
Swan: But, we could, we could bring back these students, couldn’t we? It’s not beyond [inaudible]. We could do rapid testing, we could put them into quarantine facilities, on universities or elsewhere. Twenty universities in the UK are chartering their own flights to get thousands of Chinese students back. I mean, there’s lots of things happening, which could lock us out of this international market for a long time. Surely, we could be innovative.
Tehan: So, that’s one of the things that we’re looking at. Obviously, we’ve been working with the South Australian Government, the Northern Territory Government, doing pilots, where we would be bringing international students in and quarantining. What’s being holding that up, though, is that we’ve got to make sure, first of all, that we’re getting Australian residents back into the country and getting them properly quarantined, so they can return home. And, also, we’ve got to make sure that when it comes to state borders, that we can get free movement of domestic students, so that they can go to university, whether it be in Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne. We want to get that movement going, as well. So, we’re working through all these things. It’s obviously complicated, especially with what happened in Victoria with the quarantine system there. That’s put a huge hole in our ability to be able to bring people into Australia and quarantine them. So, if we can get the public health response right again in Victoria, that will help as well.
Swan: Why haven’t you revealed what’s in the research funding package? ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said on this program last week, the sector would be in real trouble unless the Government revealed what was in that package. When will universities see what’s on the table for research? I mean, this is our research future we’re talking about here.
Tehan: So, I’ve been working very cooperatively with the sector on what we need to do to put ballast into our research sector, as a result of the declining international students. We’ve got the Budget coming up in less than three weeks now. I think it’s two weeks. So, what we will be doing is we will be continuing to work with the sector, and we’ll have more to say in the Budget about it.
Swan: Your Government’s trying to get Senate support for your new funding package. It’s understood that Rex Patrick will vote against the reforms. So, that leaves you with the South Australian Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff and Tasmanian Independent Jacqui Lambie. What are these crossbenchers saying to you?
Tehan: Look, all crossbenchers have been entering in very good dialogue with me, and are happy to discuss it, even Rex Patrick I was talking to last week. Now, obviously, he’s said that he’s got some concerns, but I continue to talk with all the other crossbenchers, as well. We’ll continue to have those discussions. Obviously, we had the Senate inquiry take place last week. The Senate inquiry will hand down its findings, I think, later this week. So, I’ll continue those discussions with the crossbenchers, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to get that legislation through, because it’ll provide, we think, nearly 20,000 additional places next year for students, and know the demand will be there, and 100,000 additional places over time. So, we see it as incredibly important, at this time, that we get this legislation though.
Swan: Dan Tehan, thanks for joining us.
Tehan: Thanks Norman.
Swan: Dan Tehan, who’s the Federal Education Minister.