TOM CONNELL: Australia has steadily slid down the scale of international student rankings over the past two decades. Everybody agrees it's a problem. How's it going to be fixed. Well, Alan Tudge is the new Education Minister. He wants to make - or improve, the standard of teaching in Australia. He says this is the key element. So, how is that done? Does it have to start with higher teacher salaries? I spoke with him a short time ago.
ALAN TUDGE: Not necessarily. I've asked the expert panel to be innovative in their approaches. For example, how do we get mid-career people into the teaching profession who might have mathematics backgrounds, for example. I mean, we might be able to do this by having more attractive courses for them to do which are shorter in duration, rather than a minimum course of two years at the moment. So, they're the types of things that we want to look at.
Of course, teacher salary comes into this as well, which is not the domain of the Commonwealth, but is an important element to attracting high performing people into teaching as well.
TOM CONNELL: But, regarding the wages element, is that within the scope of the report? To make that sort of recommendation?
ALAN TUDGE: Listen, there may well be some recommendations in relation to this, and they would have to be taken up by the states and territories, or the Independent and Catholic school commissions respectively. But, we certainly do want to be attracting the best and brightest into teaching because, ultimately, it's one of the most important professions in Australia. And over the last 15 to 20 years we've actually seen a decline in the proportion of the top graduates coming out of school going into school teaching, and we want to reverse that decline. We want to get the very best and brightest going to teaching so that then they can go into the classroom and have an incredible impact on our kids.
TOM CONNELL: We've all had very good teachers, and we've all had really bad teachers as well, I think. Is there anything you can do about the latter part? Maybe weeding out some of the bad teachers?
ALAN TUDGE: The focus of this particular review is on initial teacher education - and two parts to that. How can we consistently attract high performing people to do teaching courses? And then secondly, can we ensure that people are being the best possibly prepared to go into the classroom.
And both of those areas we've got room for improvement, because we're not consistently attracting the best and brightest into teaching. And as I said, there's actually been a decline over the last 15 years, and we've certainly got real problems in terms of attracting people with mathematics skills. But secondly, in terms of how well people are prepared in those teacher education courses, I look at the data and teachers themselves say they're not nearly as prepared as what, say, the OECD average would suggest that they should be at. So, we've got further work to do on that front as well.
Now, this review will build on some great reforms which have already been put in place over the last five to 10 years, and that includes, for example, a literacy and numeracy test which is now part of initial teacher education; it includes an accreditation scheme. But, we can do more, and ultimately, the effectiveness of teachers is the most important determinant on school outcomes - and we certainly want to see our standards continue to improve.
TOM CONNELL: Most teachers are not graduates - they've been there for a few years. What about trying to tackle that element, professional development, if you like, and making that more affordable for teachers?
ALAN TUDGE: It won't be part of this review as such, although peripherally it may come up. That's equally important in terms of constant professional development for existing school teachers - they're typically very good at that. But I think, for example, that we can use technology much better in terms of assisting teachers in, for example, mathematics - they haven't got the maths skills. There's now some brilliant online courses and online programs which can supplement what occurs in the classroom to be able to have a more immediate effect as well.
TOM CONNELL: The vaccine timeline is set to be delayed. Will that also blow out a timeline for international students getting back to Australia in person?
ALAN TUDGE: I don't know the answer to that question. We've never set concrete deadlines for when large numbers of international students can come back. I'd said a few weeks ago, Tom, that I was increasingly hopeful that larger numbers would be able to come back for semester one of next year, and I'm still hopeful that that might be the case - but I certainly can't provide guarantees. We're always going to be guided by the expert medical advice.
In the short term though, we've been very clear to the states and territories, and to the universities themselves, that we will consider proposals for them which allow pilots of international students to come in if the quarantine beds for international students are above and beyond the quarantine beds which are there for returning Australians. And if their chief medical officers give us the assurance that that would be done in a very safe manner. But to date, we've received no such proposals for such pilots.
TOM CONNELL: Given that possibility, though, people stuck overseas right now, and perhaps in the future when students are coming, would say there's a possibility for us to get back - there's not just a will.
ALAN TUDGE: Well, our priority is on those Australians who are overseas - they're our
number one priority. And that's why we've been consistent in our view to the states and territories and to the university sector that if you want us to even consider a pilot, the quarantine beds must be above and beyond the beds which are set aside for returning Australians. Because returning Australians are our priority and always will be.
TOM CONNELL: Dan Tehan, the Trade Minister, said on the program that it could be that business trips and also international students could get priority over holiday makers. Is that something you're pushing for?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, they're things that we'll have to consider down the track. International students tend to come here; they tend to stay for a few years, they spend money here, and so they have been important for our economy and for our society. But we're just not in the position to be making concrete decisions in relation to these matters, Tom.
TOM CONNELL: Right. But could that mean international students get priority over holiday makers - whether they're coming to Australia or leaving Australia to go overseas?
ALAN TUDGE: Well again, we'll take advice from the expert medical panels on this - particularly in relation to the efficacy of the vaccines and whether or not if you have the vaccine…We've got quite good certainty that you won't get seriously ill, but there isn't the certainty yet as to whether or not you can still transmit the virus, and that still needs to be worked through.
TOM CONNELL: Education Minister, Alan Tudge, thanks for your time.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much, Tom.