Federal Education Minister Jason Clare has pledged a “reset” of government-university relations, and promised more efforts to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, in a great discourse on higher education.
He is also speeding up visa processing to help rebuild Australia’s education export industry and wants Labor’s September jobs summit to discuss how to retain overseas students after graduation, to expand Australia’s skilled workforce.
In her speech, titled Reset, Rebuild and Reform, at an Australian Universities Dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night, Clare announced an independent inquiry into the role and function of the Australian Research Council, which administers the national grants scheme of research.
The higher education sector had a strained relationship with the former government, which refused to include universities in the JobKeeper program during the pandemic.
Clare said that in the coming months he would appoint a group of eminent Australians to lead the Labor Party’s planned ‘Australian Universities Accord’.
The agreement would draw on university staff, unions, businesses, students, parents and all political parties, and examine “everything from funding and access to affordability, transparency, regulation , [and] conditions of employment”.
It would also look at how universities, TAFEs and other providers worked together.
Stressing the importance of more action on equity, Clare said that in 2008, when the Bradley study on higher education was published, 29% of 25-34 year olds had a bachelor’s degree . The review set a target of 40% by 2020.
Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Jason Clare on education challenges in Australia
This goal was achieved – the figure was now over 43%. But Bradley’s other goal – that 20% of enrollment by 2020 be students from lower socio-economic backgrounds – has not been met.
“At the time, it was around 15%. And he barely moved,” Clare said.
“Where you live is also important,” he said. In capital cities over 48% of 25-34 year olds had a degree, but in regional Australia it was just over 20%, and in more remote areas around 16%.
“And it’s even worse than that for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. This figure is less than 10%.
“Where you live, your parents’ income, whether you’re Indigenous or not, remains a major factor in whether you’re a student or graduate of an Australian university.”
Clare said just over 70% of students who enter a university come out with a degree. But the figure was lower for those from poor families, even lower for those from regional or remote areas, and even lower for Aboriginal people.
He announced $20.5 million over four years to expand the work of the National Center for Student Equity in Higher Education based at Curtin University.
Clare said rebuilding the international education sector “starts with sending a clear message to students around the world that we want you to study with us.”
A visit next month by India’s education minister would be an important opportunity for reconstruction, and “we need to do this with other countries in the region as well.”
The backlog in processing student visas was a problem, and he had asked his department secretary to work directly with the Secretary of the Interior on this.
“I also think we can do more to ensure that more of the students we teach and train stay on after they graduate and help us fill some of the chronic skills gaps in our economy.”
“Only 16% of our international students do so at the moment. In some of the countries we compete with for talent, it’s a lot more than that. It’s something I’d like to see discussed at the jobs summit in September.”
Clare said delays and political interference in the operation of competitive grants must end.
“It damages our international reputation. It also makes it harder for you to recruit and retain staff,” he told his college audience.
“I get it. You work with the industry. We want you to work with the industry. The industry wants certainty. Time is money. They want to keep going. So do you.”
Following a March Senate committee recommendation, he would set up an independent review of the role and function of the CRA, with “a particular focus on the governance framework and reporting mechanisms”.