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Minister for Education Dan Tehan interview with Wendy Harmer and Robbie Buck, ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast

Ministers:

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: Job-ready Graduates package draft legislation and HELP debts, Universities and COVID-19

Wendy Harmer: I wonder if there’s anyone listening who just made an absolute hash of their first year at uni and failed a whole lot of subjects, but then did a pivot, or executed a pivot, and then went on to complete a successful degree or more, and has ended up in a really good paying job with a great career. Or, maybe it would have been just the thing that you needed to be told in that first year of uni – pull your socks up and succeed in your topics, or you’re out. Well, at least out from having financial support from the Government.

Robbie Buck: Of course, this announcement comes at a time when we’re seeing the university sector – higher education sector – really on its knees. Thousands of staff are being let go from the universities across the nation, and that includes 500 full-time staff from the University of New South Wales, around a similar number from the University of Technology. The University of Sydney is going to be cutting a similar number. But, they’re just the full-time jobs, and we know that it is a sector that is heavily staffed by casual workers, as well. Dan Tehan is the Federal Education Minister. Good morning to you.

Dan Tehan: Morning, Robbie. Morning, Wendy. How are you both?

Harmer: We are well, thank you, Minister. Tell us your reasoning behind this idea of, well, I suppose, are you talking about people who find themselves in university for all the wrong reasons, or people who slack off, or? Yeah, tell us the motivation for what you’ve come up with today.

Tehan: Well, what we don’t want is students enrolling in courses and then doing subjects which they’re clearly not prepared for, or don’t have the right attitude to complete, and they’re failing. And, what we’re finding is that about six per cent of university students failed every subject in their first year. So, we want universities to work with students if they’re failing subjects. To say to them, ‘Look, is this the right course for you? Do you need help and support to pass your courses? Or, is it better that you think about doing another course, which is more in line with where you want to go, what your skill sets are, your educational background, and therefore, you know, this is a much better option for you.’ Because, the last thing we want is students doing a course, not getting a qualification, but, then, being left with the debt to have to pay off that course.

Harmer: You are talking there, I guess, in some ways, about a carrot and stick approach. Some people might say that, well, you’re taking a stick to people that the Government doesn’t deem to have, as you just mentioned there, the right attitude. What do you mean when you talk about the right attitude?

Tehan: Well, if you enrol in a course, and then it’s clearly not where you want to go with your life, you’re not interested in the areas that you’re studying in, but you just keep engaging with no real interest, and because the university doesn’t approach you and say, ‘Well, this, we don’t think this course is the right one for you,’ you might just continue to let it go. You fail, and not quite realise that in doing that, all you’re left with is no advancement for that year, and you have to pay the cost of every unit of study that you’ve undertaken. And, when you do go onto work, you’ll have to repay that, and you will not have benefited from failing that course. And, we just think it’s a lot better if we can get the universities and the students working together, where a student clearly isn’t going to complete their degree, and say, ‘Well, is there a better option for you?’ And, the option, and it’s a clear option and you’ll get help and supported for it, is looking at an alternative degree.

Harmer: Well, I wonder there, though, you talk about those students who might fail those courses, or you talk about not having the right attitude, and, but I wonder how many of them might be students who are, you know, under some kind of pressure from family, or whatever it is, and then take up this uni place, and, you know, really want to do better, but can’t. I mean, and you say they’ll be offered, sort of, in a way, the kind of, the right support from unis. But, could it be seen as somehow harsh, as well, just to say, ‘No, you’re out’?

Tehan: Oh, no, look, we want to, this is about helping and supporting those students and making sure that universities engage with them. And, if there are special circumstances as to why they have failed, and they put forward those special circumstances, the universities have the right to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, look, we understand.’ You know, there might have been a serious illness in the family, you know, severe drought, other things that have impacted on your ability to be able to really apply yourself, and, therefore, they can give an exemption. So, this is about really getting students and universities engaging, to make sure the students have the right skill sets to start with, to take on a degree, and then make sure they’re managed through it.

Buck: Alright. Minister, I noticed that in the last week, you announced that there was going to be an inquiry into free speech on campuses. This morning, you’re announcing these changes to access to government funds for university students. But, aren’t these issues, really, peripheral issues, in amongst what is, essentially, the greatest existential threat to the higher education sector that Australia has potentially ever seen? I mean, we are looking at huge job losses here in Australia in the university sector. I mentioned those figures which were full-time job losses from just Sydney universities. But, if you look at the full workforce across the higher education sector, it is in the tens of thousands, particularly. And, there is, certainly, a lot, a lot of anger that your Government hasn’t been supporting a lot of those workers with JobKeeper. What do you say to that?

Tehan: Well, Robbie, a couple of things. One is, you’re right. This is a serious challenge that our university sector is facing at the moment, because they relied on income from international students, and, obviously, we cannot get international students into the country at the moment. So, this is a big challenge for the sector at the moment. Earlier in the year, we guaranteed $18 billion worth of funding for the sector. So, we said that that $18 billion is there. It doesn’t matter what happens to your student load. You can plan with that $18 billion. So, we guaranteed that. And, we also ...

Buck: … But, it’s obviously not enough, because we’re seeing all these job losses. So, there’s obviously a real, like I said, an existential crisis, going on for a lot of these universities.

Tehan: That’s right, and that’s why we continue to work with the sector. It’s why, as part of these reforms that we’ve proposed, is that that would guarantee them indexed growth when it comes to domestic places into the future, something they haven’t had. And, it’s why we’ve also set up a working group of Vice-Chancellors to look at what we need to do to make sure that we carry our research capability through the next six, 12, 18 months, until we can get the international student market up and running again – a market which creates 250,000 jobs locally for us, and $40 billion worth of income. So, that’s why we’re working very closely and constructively with the sector to help and support them through this, through these challenging six, 12, 18 months, that they’re going to face.

Harmer: Getting back to your initial policy that you announced there this morning. I have so many texts on the text line here this morning, Minister, saying that they didn’t do very well in their first year at uni. People saying that, well, they came from, maybe, a regional area, and they were in a, you know, a small school, and they got to uni and it was a big vast place, and they didn’t do very well at all in their first year, and, but they went on to have a great career. And, I’ve got texts here saying, well, I just flunked out of first year engineering, but I pulled my socks up in the second semester, or the second year, I did really well. Is there enough compassion here for people who might find themselves in those situations?

Tehan: Absolutely. And, we want universities to show common-sense in this regard. What we don’t want is those students, especially if they have to move, coming and doing a year of study where they fail every subject. They accrue a debt for those subjects. And, through no fault of their own, just because of circumstances, haven’t really understood that they should have gone to get support, got help, worked out, okay, well what unit should I be doing, should I move to part-time to help deal with the challenges that I’m facing? This is about helping the student understand that there’s support there, and that the way to go is just not to rack up a debt through failing subjects …

Harmer: … Okay. But will you be, will you be offering those universities extra in support, then, to advise those students?

Tehan: Well, universities, obviously, get money from the Government to teach these students, so we pay them the cost of a degree, of teaching that degree, we pay them that cost. So, what we want to make sure is that, as part of that, that they are teaching that student, and making sure that they’re saying to that student, ‘Alright, well, you’ve got to lift your, pull your socks up, or, maybe, there’s a better alternative for you and for your future.’

Buck: Alright. Dan Tehan is with us this morning. He’s the Federal Education Minister. Minister, can I just go back to, I guess, the broader picture, if you like. Do you think this crisis that we are seeing in our universities at the moment, is a crisis that has been a long-time coming? Has it been a fact that consecutive governments have been putting more and more reliance on universities to create their own income, and therefore they’ve been placing more and more effort on recruiting overseas students, that when we find ourselves in this situation, we get a much worse crisis in our universities than we would have otherwise? Is the system, as it has stood in the past, fundamentally broken?

Tehan: Look, I think that what we’ve seen from our universities is a real entrepreneurial spirit. And, what they’ve done is they’ve seen the opportunity of the international student market. They’ve embraced that. They’ve used the income that they’ve gained from that to invest in their infrastructure, in their research capabilities. Now, none of us saw what was coming with this pandemic. If you had have told me on the 1st of January that I would be in self-isolation in a room in Canberra, you know …

Buck: … Sure. But, if it wasn’t a pandemic, there was always a chance that China, for example, would stop their students coming to Australia. I mean, it was, I guess, a risky system to establish, as opposed to having a better funding model from an Australian Government. That’s the point I’m making.

Tehan: Yeah. Well, the Government has always said to the university sector, please understand that, that you need to plan sensibly, and not rely completely on the income that you’re gaining from the international student market. Make sure you’re investing some of it. Make sure that you’ve got diversified markets. So, we, all those conversations have been had by the Government, or successive governments, with the sector. But, I think, we’ve all got to understand that this pandemic has literally thrown the kitchen sink at everyone, including the university sector. And, that’s why we want to work very cooperatively with them and engage with them, to make sure that they come out of this pandemic stronger, more secure, and helping us, basically, drive our economy and our society out of COVID-19.

Harmer: What do you say, though, to those who are saying, well, you know, they think that the support for universities via JobKeeper has been undercooked? And, we, I’ve got a text line here which is flooded with people who are saying that they’ve lost their jobs, and that goes from everyone, from academics, right through to the cleaners in universities. What hope do you give those universities that your policy will put them back on their feet, and in a good place to come out of this pandemic?

Tehan: Look, the Government understands how important the sector is to the future growth of our economy and to our society. How important it is that the research that’s undertaken there, that, that we cannot only undertake that research, but develop it and commercialise it. That universities will pay, play a key role in the future of this nation, and we want to be there and support them and back them as they come out of this pandemic. And, we understand that they’ve been cut off at the knees by what’s happened to the international student market. But, we also understand that there is a lot of other businesses and a lot of other organisations that have also facing serious issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we want to work with the sector, as we do with other parts of our economy, to make sure that we get them through this.

Buck: Alright, Dan Tehan. We’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this morning.

Tehan: Thanks Wendy, thanks Robbie. It’s been a pleasure to join you both.

Harmer: Thank you.

Buck: Cheers. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.