SUBJECTS: International students and pilot programs, Support for universities, COVID-19 vaccine and teachers, Child care
Tom Connell: Thanks very much for your time on this Sunday morning. So, the prospect for overseas university students. How much was campus, perhaps campus quarantine looked into, why wasn’t it possible, and is it still on the table in the future?
Dan Tehan: Oh, well, we continue to explore options with state and territory governments. The way the process works, and we’ve been very clear about this and in our discussions with state and territory governments, they’re responsible for quarantine. So, what I would say to all those private sector providers of accommodation, go and see your state and territory governments, go and talk to the Chief Medical Officers, because what we’ve asked, from all state and territory governments, is plans, and how they can accommodate international students coming back into the country within their quarantine caps. And, obviously, making sure that the safety of Australians is our number one priority, so …
Connell: … So, sorry, when you say plans, though, have they submitted plans to do with campus quarantine that haven’t been up to scratch, for example, that haven’t been considered safe enough not to have outbreaks of COVID?
Tehan: No, what we’ve done is we’ve written to every state and territory government and said, asked them to submit plans by the end of the month. Obviously, our priority has been returning Australians, and that will continue to be the case, especially in the lead up to Christmas. But, we’ve asked state and territory governments to submit plans to us as to how they can bring international students back. They, obviously, have to be ticked off and signed by the state and territory Chief Medical Officers, so that we are absolutely 100 per cent sure that they will be COVID safe and meet all the relevant protocols. So, we’re working through that with state and territory governments at the moment. Obviously, we’ve got the pilots. There’s one with the NT and one with South Australia. And, then, we’ll continue to work with those governments to see what we can do, particularly, once we get those Australians home safely before Christmas.
Connell: Okay. So, just to clarify on that, though, you mentioned within the existing caps, is there still a prospect that you have the normal hotel quarantine with the caps we’re working out right now, and a separate program under campus quarantine to bring international students? So, it’s not one or the other. They’re two different streams, if you’d like.
Tehan: Well, ultimately, that would be up to state and territory governments. But, we, where …
Connell: … Will be okay with that as a Federal Government, if there are some Australians still waiting to get back in, there’s a separate campus quarantine program?
Tehan: No, what we’ve said, and made it very clear is, within the existing caps priority have to be given to returning Australians. That has to be our priority, and we’ve made that very clear to state and territory governments. But, any, once there is, obviously, room for international students, then, what we’ve been saying to state and territory governments is, work with the university sector, to see, well, what is the best way that we can bring international students in. But, remembering that all plans have to be signed off by state and territory Chief Medical Officers.
Connell: Sure. But, I mean, these pilot programs, are they not separate to the other Australians returning home? So, if they’re ramped up, don’t you create separate streams?
Tehan: No. They’re, they will be done within the existing caps of the Northern Territory and South Australia.
Connell: So, until the Australian backlog is cleared, essentially, we’re not going to see large numbers of international students coming to Australia?
Tehan: That’s right. And, but what the Australian Government is doing is making a priority of those returning Australians, and we’re doing everything we can to basically reduce that backlog …
Connell: … It seems to be growing in recent weeks.
Tehan: Well, as you know, with what’s happening with COVID-19 in other parts of the world, we’re almost becoming a victim of our own success here in Australia. We’re seeing more people wanting to, wanting to come back. So, and we have to make that a priority, because there are vulnerable Australians who, still wanting to return. So, we’re putting a real focus on that. My understanding is extra flights are being looked at. We really want to try and see that we can meet that demand. And, once that demand is met, you know, we understand how important the international student market is to Australia. A $40 billion export earner. So, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to get that, get that market back up and running. But, we’ve got to do it in a, obviously, a proper process, with a proper process.
Connell: So, as to the prospects of universities, though, what’s the hit to them? And, given this is a decision we’ve just learnt about in the past few days, are you looking at more compensation for universities, because of, say, semester ones not looking great for this huge stream of revenue next year?
Tehan: Well, you’ve got to remember what we’ve already done, Tom. So, we guaranteed $18 billion worth of funding this year, and, then, one of the biggest issues facing the sector was with regards to research, because there’d been a lot of cross-subsidisation of the international student dollars into research. So, the biggest one-off injection of funding into university research was announced in the budget last month – $1 billion. And, not only that, there was also a commitment of $6.8 million to look at what we can do to build a translation and commercialisation research fund for universities, and we continue to work with Vice- Chancellors. There’s a group of Vice-Chancellors being set up to advise me on how this fund should work. And, not only that, we’ve now brought industry into that equation. I announced a group of industry leaders who are also going to provide us with advice on that. So, we’re looking at ways, especially in the research area, that we can continue to provide support to the universities.
Connell: Sure. And, that’s plenty of money dished out, but this is a new hit, if you like. This announcement, just counting on what’s going to happen on international students, are you looking at more compensation, because of what’s just been announced?
Tehan: Well, we’ll continue to work with the sector. But, obviously, we, in the Budget when we made the announcement of the billion dollars into research, we knew that the pickup in international students was only going to be gradual into the first half of next year.
Connell: You were already budgeting for very few international students?
Tehan: Well, we’ve always taken very conservative estimates in the Budget in this area, because we understood that it was going to be difficult and very much dependent on what happened with COVID-19, especially internationally.
Connell: How many job losses have come in the sector, since COVID?
Tehan: So, what we’ve seen, and sadly there has been some job losses …
Connell: … Can we put a number on it, though?
Tehan: Well, there, at this stage, the estimates are around, around the 10 to 12,000 mark. But, if you look at, and take an assessment with comparable industries, it’s actually below the job losses we’ve seen in other industries, more broadly, across the nation. So, some of the …
Connell: … Is there a worry that the 10 to 12 is about to get a lot higher, because they’ve sort of, probably, done all the low hanging fruit, if you like. Next year’s going to be a bigger strain, isn’t it?
Tehan: Well, we will continue to work with the sector, as we are with all other sectors, to try and minimise job losses. And, one of the, the great things that we’ve seen, and especially through our ability to be able to deal with the pandemic, is we’re actually seeing job growth returning to the Australian economy. So, that’s a real positive. But, we will continue to work with the sector. And, obviously, through our Job-ready Graduates package, sector funding grows from $18 billion to $20 billion over the forward estimates. So, we’re putting an additional $2 billion into the sector over the coming four years.
Connell: I wanted to ask you about a COVID vaccine. Where would teachers sit in the line of priorities, be them university or primary school, high school teachers. Would they be a special group?
Tehan: Well, that will, ultimately, be something that we will take advice from the medical expert panel on, the AHPPC. Now, as you know, throughout the pandemic, especially when it’s come to schools, their consistent advice has been, when it comes to children there’s a lower risk, and, obviously, with proper precautions put in place, it’s safe for teachers to be in the classroom teaching. But, we would take the advice of the medical experts.
Connell: So, from what we know, then, perhaps teachers of older students. I mean, I take what you’re saying about risk, but at the same time, as soon as we see a school shutdown for COVID, you’ve got a lot of parents wondering what they’re going to do with that child. So, in an economic sense, it’d make some sense for teachers not to have that concern, right? And, it’s often the teachers spreading it through the school, but the whole school still shuts down.
Tehan: Absolutely. One of the things, I think, we’ve learned through COVID-19, and I think it’s one of the positives that we can take out, how much respect and, to the job that a teacher does, now. Once parents had to do that learning at home, rather than being able to provide the, take the kids to school for that face-to-face learning, I think there’s a newfound respect for teachers. But, we will take the advice of the medical experts, and if they said, especially for those children in the secondary schooling, that they needed, the teachers needed that, then, of course, we would do it.
Connell: But, there’s the health, there’s also, you could be pushing, for an economic sense, to make sure teachers will be able to keep teaching. Would that be part of the decision, as well? Is that something you’d push for?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, I think, we need to take the advice based on medical grounds. As soon as you start trying to play out, well, what profession provides greater economic benefit to another to the nation, I think, it becomes harder to judge. So, one of the things, I think, we would do is very much take the advice of the medical experts, and they, and then, obviously, seek to act on that advice.
Connell: But, all of COVID’s sort of been health and economy, and balancing them up, right? Wouldn’t that be the same with a vaccine?
Tehan: But, the success of what we’ve achieved here in Australia has very much been based on listening to that medical expert advice. That has been the thing that we’ve given the number one priority to, and that’s what we will continue to do. So, we’ll take their advice, and, of course, if they said teachers need to be, along with health workers, on the front line of a vaccine, that’s something we would act on, of course, in liaison with state and territory governments who employ teachers, and, obviously, run schools.
Connell: Alright. We’ll watch that space. Just final topic on child care. Labor’s Budget in reply featured this pretty heavily, obviously. Pretty tempting policy for parents – 97 per cent better off. High-income earners, the Government’s pointed out, but, also, the parents earning 60, $80,000. Is this a watching brief for you? I mean, I know a lot of money, extra’s been spent by the Government, but still a lot of people saying this is very expensive for our family.
Tehan: Yeah, so $9 billion, obviously, we’re providing in support to the child care sector. That will grow to $10 billion. But, our focus throughout this pandemic has been making sure that we’ve kept the sector open and viable – 99 per cent of child care providers have remained open and providing that needed support. And, can I just say to the sector, thank you for the extraordinary job you’ve done. Because, when it’s come to vulnerable children, when it’s come to essential service workers, the sector’s been open. We obviously provided an additional $900 million in support to the sector throughout the pandemic to get them through. So, at the moment, what we’re doing is making sure the sector can come out of the pandemic. In Victoria, we’ve been providing additional support, because, obviously, of the second wave. So, we want to make sure that the sector there comes out, as they’ve dealt with the second wave. So, we’ll continue to work …
Connell: … Yeah. I understand the short-term element, but just longer term, I mean, are you, look, if I go slightly more specific, are you confident all workers, all types of workers, can access child care that suits their needs?
Tehan: Well, what our reforms have led to is a 3.2 per cent decrease in the out-of-pocket expenses that parents are paying. So, we’ve made sure that our changes have put downward pressure on costs. One of the things that Labor’s proposal that they haven’t yet quite set out is a) How it’s going to be fully costed, the totality of it, and we think when you look at all their policies they’re baking in about $50 billion over the next decade in expenditure. And, also …
Connell: … That’s an election thing, though. You do costings then.
Tehan: Well, I mean, they’ve announced their policy in a Budget reply speech, so you could have costings if you wanted to be seen as a responsible economic manager. And, the last thing is, fees went up by over 50 per cent when they were, they were in office. So, you’re likely to see higher taxes, and we haven’t seen what they’ll do to stop fees going up.
Connell: So, let me ask you this, though, are you open to adding other forms of subsidy to the existing system to help people, such as shift workers, better access child care?
Tehan: Well, look, we, obviously, continue to look at the policy in totality, but our focus has been and will remain to be, to make sure, as we come out of this pandemic, that the sector’s there to provide that important service to, and that care to young children, as we come out of the pandemic.
Connell: Okay. But, is there a bit of a gap on shift workers?
Tehan: Look, there’s always, there will always be gaps for particular individual circumstances. But, what our policy, on the whole, has done, has seen a 3.2 per cent reduction in out-of-pocket expenses across the board. And, that’s something that people were really looking for two years ago when those reforms were brought in.
Connell: Education Minister Dan Tehan, appreciate your time. I’ll let you get back to your Sunday.
Tehan: Thanks Tom.