Jason Clare has described an Australian Universities Accord as a new opportunity to build a long-term plan for the nation’s higher education sector, also announcing a review of the ARC to overhaul the government’s relationship with universities.
“Our future will be shaped more by what we do here, in education, than almost anything else. And that includes what we do next with international education,” Clare told an audience at the Universities Australia gala dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night.
“I am very conscious [of] what an incredible national asset this is. I know you employ more people than [in] mining or agriculture. That you’re our biggest export, that we don’t dig or drill out the ground. And that this brings with it more than just dollars.”
Regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the minister said Australia’s prolonged border closures to outside countries had damaged Australia’s reputation among international students. The minister added he was focused on repairing that perception in partnership with universities.
“COVID has smashed international education. Being told to go home or being left to rely on the kindness of charity also hasn’t helped. I want to work with you to help rebuild,” Clare said.
To this end, Education secretary Michele Bruniges has been tasked to work alongside Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo in working through the backlog of student visas to process more ahead of the second 2022 university semester.
“In the last few weeks Home Affairs has brought on more than 100 new staff to assist with the backlog,” Clare said.
“And if we are serious about diversification [of qualification offerings], we have to diversify what we offer. In particular, online and offshore. Degrees going to students, not the other way around.”
The minister confirmed an independent review of the role and function of the Australian Research Council (ARC) would be undertaken, following a tense period between the higher research world under the former government earlier this year.
“It is important that all future grants rounds are delivered on time, to a predetermined time frame,” Clare said.
“It’s my job to make sure the ARC has competent leadership and is functioning well, that its objectives are clear and that its processes are rigorous and transparent.
The review will set out to examine the ARC’s governance framework and reporting mechanisms, with the council already commencing an internal review of its own administrative processes.
Clare said he would appoint a small group of eminent Australians to lead the development of a new partnership blueprint known as the Australian Universities Accord. The goal of the bipartisan work would be to suggest reforms for higher education that would last longer than four-year election cycles, the minister added.
“[It will] draw on the advice of the leadership in this room, your staff, unions, business, students, parents, and all political parties.
“Looking at everything from funding and access to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions and also how universities and TAFEs and other higher education and vocational education providers and training institutions work together,” he said.
Clare said his motivation for implementing a new accord with Australia’s higher education sector recognised that the milestones of his own learning journey — having been the first in his family to finish year 10, complete high school and pursue tertiary studies — was a feature of the past.
“At school, I was surrounded by kids who told me stories about boats and pirates and rough seas,” Clare said.
“They weren’t figments of their imaginations. They were refugees. I’m still friends with a lot of those kids. And I can tell you today they are partners in law firms, they are pharmacists, multi-million dollar start-up business owners, and lots more. That’s the power of education,” he said.
In recognising that a pathway to university was more commonplace in Australia than ever before, Clare said more needed to be done to ensure students from low socio-economic backgrounds improved NAPLAN reading and maths skills. He also wanted to see more students from remote and regional Australia finish year 12 and take up university study.
“I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin,” Clare said.
“Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are Indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university.”
Clare also canvassed themes of how more students could access higher education and be retained in their programs of study — but much work needed to be done to overcome some of the intergenerational barriers some Australian students faced getting there.
“If most of the new jobs in the world in front of us require a VET qualification or a university degree, we need to make sure that more of us have got them: rich, poor, city, bush, back, white,” he said.
The government has already committed $20.5 million over four years for a National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education based out of Curtin University to track and monitor Australia’s access to education more closely.
According to a 2021 intergenerational report published by the National Skills Commission, Australia will need another 600,000 extra bachelor-qualified jobs over the next five years.
Earlier this week, Universities Australia chair professor John Dewar called for the federal government to think seriously about revising the number of supported university placements to meet this need.
“We estimate that even if you only take account of the impact of projected population growth in that 17-19 [years] cohort, the university system will still be short in 2027 by an estimate of 19,000 places. And that’s before we even consider that daunting figure of 600,000 new jobs requiring university graduates,” Dewar said.
The minister noted universities and Australia’s research community were indispensable. He used his speech to praise the personal higher education journeys of professor Julie Leask, who helped in the global research effort to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and professor Eddie Holmes, who was part of the team to analyse the genomic sequence of the COVID-19 virus. It was their stories that defined the personal and social ROI of a good university education and research career, he said.
“We want to harness that same spirit and the same extraordinary set of skills and talents to help us tackle all of the other great challenges and opportunities we face.
“Everything from climate change to nuclear subs. From how we educate our youngest to how we care for our oldest. From the future of work to how we make our cities work better, and so much more,” Clare said.
“Everything you have to offer, from Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences to STEM.”
In September the new Labor government will host a Jobs Summit, which will consider what the Australian higher education sector must prioritise to help produce more skilled job-ready graduates to meet areas of existing and future demand.
“I know how important the research our universities do is, and how highly regarded it is around the world. I get how the research you do today helps build the country that we will live and work in, in the next decade and the one after that,” Clare said.
“And I think there is more we can do together here to turn Australian ideas and discoveries into Australian jobs. Collaboration is key.”