Release type: Speech


Universities Australia Conference


The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Can I also acknowledge the work that our higher education sector has done on indigenous attainment, which is one of our success stories. I also acknowledging there is more work we can do.

From the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, our Government has made the health, welfare and safety of Australians our number one priority.

We are receiving new information all the time and every action we have taken has been guided by the expert medical advice.

On 20 February, the Prime Minister announced the continuation of the strict travel restrictions that commenced on 1 February.

This was on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the situation will be reviewed again towards the end of the week.

On the weekend, the Government announced a strict pathway for Year 11 and Year 12 students who are completing their senior secondary schooling into Australia to resume their studies.

This was a small, important step, based on medical advice, towards the normal operation of our international education system.

There are 189,000 Chinese students across our education sector; about half are still offshore; and 90% of those students are university students.

The Federal Government continues to work to minimise disruption to international students and universities.

I would like to place on the record today my thanks to everyone in the sector for the constructive way you have worked with the government to find solutions.

It is at times of great adversity that we see the best of Australians, and I am proud to say that together we have done everything that we can to minimise the impact of the virus on our sector.

One lesson that we can all take away from this experience is that the student must always be at the heart of what drives us in higher education.

It is a message that has been front and centre of my many conversations with vice chancellors and the peak bodies.

Across the board, there has been genuine concern for the welfare of our students, both domestic and international.

Australia wants the world to know that our students are not just numbers; our students are our friends, our classmates, our colleagues and members of our community.

One day, and I hope that day comes very soon, our higher education sector will resume normal operations; the travel ban on China will be lifted and the remaining China-based students will arrive to begin studies for the year.

Until such time we all must continue to work together on innovative solutions to our shared problems.

To this end, the Government has directed the education regulators to offer maximum flexibility to providers.

Our top scientists are leading the race to develop a vaccine that will save thousands upon thousands of lives.

Researchers at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne were the first in the world to grow the virus from a cell culture outside China.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations at the University of Queensland was one of the first centres in the world to test a possible vaccine.

And the Morrison Government is backing our sector to make a breakthrough.

We are fast tracking $2 million in funding to support Australia’s best researchers as they work to understand and respond to COVID-19.

As I said earlier, my hope is that sooner rather than later, the sector will overcome this challenge, and rather than talk about a virus, we will be talking again about our students.

And we know from the data that we need to be aware of the challenges faced by students from regional and rural Australia.

As the Productivity Commission research paper: The Demand Driven University System reported last year, our efforts thus far have led to mixed results.

The Commission found that school students who live more than 40 kilometres from a university campus are considerably less likely to go to university than school students who live in closer proximity; and this gap widened since the introduction of the demand driven system, even for high achieving students.

That is why our Government is putting regional and rural students at the centre of our focus by advancing the recommendations made by Denis Napthine in the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy.

The report has been positively welcomed by the sector, with Professor Helen Bartlett, Chair of the Regional Universities Network and Vice-Chancellor of Federation University, saying the Napthine Review “provides a vision for tertiary education in regional, rural and remote Australia, with practical and focussed actions to implement the strategy. Regional, rural and remote students, communities and tertiary education providers will benefit from the proposed, place-based strategy”.

The recommendations of the review will strengthen the work our Government has already done to improve outcomes for students outside the capital cities, through:

•        the expansion of Regional University Centres,

•        the establishment of the Destination Australia Program,

•        the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, and

•        the Rural and Regional Enterprise Scholarships.

In the 2018–19 Budget, the Government announced an additional $28.2 million in funding to expand the availability of sub-bachelor (including enabling) places for rural and regional students. Around 500 additional commencing sub-bachelor and enabling Commonwealth supported places were provided in 2019, growing to 671 in 2020.

Putting students at the heart of the system must also mean considering their needs before they enter higher education and after they graduate.

We know that 90% of the future jobs will require a qualification and half of those will require Bachelor degrees.  We also know that the primary reason Australians are happy to support universities and the dominant reason people attend university is to find good employment outcomes for themselves and their families. 

I have made it a priority to bring universities and industry together to focus on the student experience.

We need to ask: what do employers want from a graduate? How can business better utilise what students are currently learning?

Preparation for future careers needs to be embedded in courses from the start.

As we have seen with the 2019 Employer Satisfaction Survey, employers are very satisfied with the graduates they employ.

Nine out of ten employers are satisfied with their general literacy, numeracy, communication skills, technical skills and professional knowledge.

Later this year, Professor Peter Shergold will provide his review of senior secondary pathways.

Professor Shergold is considering how to better capture and reflect the breadth of a student’s skills and capabilities as they transition from school into work, further education or training.

This review will also look at improving career guidance and improving vocational education and training delivered to secondary students.

By considering the needs of future tertiary students while they are still in school we will better prepare them to succeed and gain the qualifications that they will need to achieve their own ambitions.

We also need to focus on driving greater collaboration between universities and business.

Australia has world-leading universities that are home to some of the smartest minds on the planet and our Government wants to better utilise that talent to grow businesses, create jobs and deliver productivity gains.

That is why we are funding four projects to enhance collaboration between universities and business.

It’s why I have been meeting with business leaders and university leaders. It goes to why it’s so important that the government and the sector are working together.

This year there will be more opportunity to work together as we bed down the reforms that we began implementing last year.

This will be an incremental process.

As the African proverb says: when you eat an elephant do it one bite at a time.

And that is what we are doing: attacking an enormous transformative agenda one bite at a time.

Today I want to share with you the next phase of our government’s reshaping of the higher education architecture.

This reshaping is taking place through the adoption and implementation of three reviews handed down last year:

•        The Noonan Review into Australia’s Qualifications Framework;

•        The Coaldrake Review into Australia’s Higher Education Provider Category Standards; and

•        The French Review into Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers.

The Noonan Review recommended a total rethink about how we view students and learning across vocational and higher education.

Noonan recommends that we focus on the characteristics of the qualification rather than where the qualification is earned.

It will provide us with greater flexibility, allowing students to earn qualifications across VET and higher education based on their learning requirements that better reflects the value that both streams of education provide.

The recognition of micro-credentials will encourage more innovative and timely responses to student demand for courses, and employer demand for certain skills.

Professor Peter Coaldrake was asked to review the different categories of higher education providers in Australia, and the requirements expected of them for registration.

He made ten recommendations in his review, and the Government has accepted all of them, including a new “university college” category.

His report recommended clear definitions of what a university does, as well as minimum benchmarks for research activities.

It will ensure Australia’s higher education providers can continue to be innovative and aspirational in their outlook with a focus on delivering high-quality educational services to students.”

Rounding out the summary of reviews is an update on the implementation of the French Model Code for free speech.

All members of UA have now provided an update regarding their implementation of the Model Code into their own institutional policies.

The Government’s goal is to have 100 per cent adoption of the Model Code by universities by the end of this year.

Can I acknowledge two universities that are setting the benchmark in terms of their response to the French Review: the University of Sydney and La Trobe University.

The University of Sydney conducted extensive consultation with students and staff on the issue, and in December the University Senate agreed to adopt the recommendations of the French Review.

As vice chancellor Michael Spence said at the time: “My hope is that this Charter will provide excellent guidance for the University community and decision-makers for decades to come.”

La Trobe also adopted the model code in December. As its vice chancellor John Dewar said in a letter to me, for more than 50 years, “La Trobe has remained open minded, respectful and tolerant of differences in opinion. Our adoption of the Model Code underlines the University's position on these matters”.

I have no doubt that every academic at every Australian university shares our commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

It is up to university leaders, including chancellors, to demonstrate to their student body what the freedom means.

It means tolerating the opinions of others, especially when those opinions are anathema to our own.

In the marketplace of ideas, no one should have the power to “cancel” the people whose views they don’t like.

That is why our Government wants to understand if all students feel their views are tolerated on campus – and not just those views that are popular.

To do this, we will add a question about freedom of expression to the Student Experience Survey.

When it comes to a commitment to work together, our Government has backed our words with actions.

We are working together with the sector to reshape the higher education architecture in Australia and we are making progress.

Now I want to work with the sector to address how the Australian public financially supports its universities. 

The Performance Based Funding model developed with you explicitly rewards the things that taxpayers expect their university system to deliver:  student experience, student success and student employment.

It moves back from a so-called uncapped system where growth for growth’s sake was the only driver and puts students at the centre.

Under the system there are four metrics used to assess the performance of universities: graduate employment outcomes, student success, student experience and participation of Indigenous, low socio-economic status, and regional and remote students.

Of the four metrics, graduate employment outcomes is weighted more heavily in recognition of the important role universities have to produce job-ready graduates.

Our Government understands the importance of maintaining higher education participation levels as the population grows.

We want universities to improve their focus on producing job-ready graduates with the skills to succeed in the modern economy.

The productivity gains from improving graduate employment outcomes and lifting completion rates will be worth an estimated $3.1 billion a year by 2030.

Further improving the job readiness of university graduates will help the Morrison Government achieve its goal of creating another 1.25 million jobs over the next five years, including 250,000 new jobs for young Australians.

Performance-based funding will grow in line with the population growth of 18 to 64 year olds, an increase of around $80 million next year.

We want to work more closely with the sector to wring every last dollar from our current funding by cutting red tape and improving productivity.

If we are going to ask the Australian people for more support, it is first incumbent upon us to maximise the value of what we already receive.  Look at designated places for example: the Government cut red tape and gave you more autonomy to maximise the distribution of your places, and this includes to trade places amongst yourselves.

I want to cut more red tape and give you that same autonomy when it comes to non-designated places.

We expect this will allow you to drive your institutions in distinctive ways that fit your particular missions.

These financial fine tunings squeeze greater productivity out of the existing funding giving more value for money to Australian taxpayers. It also builds in demographic growth matched with the longer term population trend of 1.3%.

Our Government will provide universities more than $17 billion this year, to ask for more from the tax payer will require us all to demonstrate our value to the tax payer.

I worry that over the 30 years since the Dawkins reform the connection between the public-private benefit and cost of education has decoupled through various policy approaches. At the very least, we need to be able to much better articulate that benefit and cost with the broad Australian community and be willing to adjust it to 21st century values and conditions. 

If we are going to present a case to the Australian public then we are going to have to work together to build that case.