Topics: Education Reform

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much Martin. Happily they are the green bells, and even more happily apparently I have a pair, briefly, to be able to with you here tonight, so even through red ones I will be staying put. Can I too acknowledge the Indigenous owners of the Canberra Region, the Ngunnawal people, and in doing so as I often do as Australian Education Minister acknowledge that we as a nation need to learn much more of Indigenous knowledge, culture and history, and learn much more from Indigenous culture and history, and of course to build upon it together as a nation.

In acknowledging country, and can I say the ATN would probably be my favourite of the [indistinct] – my favourite of these groups if it wasn’t for David Lloyd …


… who manages to deliver a welcome to country in the best Irish-accented Kaurna language of anybody that I know. In fact, he probably rivals the Prime Minister for being able to have learnt sufficient language, Indigenous language. Not quite as a good as the PM, I’ve got to say David, but David does somewhat put me to shame. I can usually get a [Indistinct] hello, how are you, but Dave can do an entire proper welcome and acknowledgement. To his credit, but that of course also leaves me as a fellow South Australian also having the Kaurna region, feeling somewhat inadequate so therefore ATN does not [indistinct].


Seriously, Martin, David, Peter, other distinguished leaders of the five universities of the ATN it is a pleasure to be here with you. And after what I know has been a long day of discussions and deliberations that you’ve heard from the new head of the ARC, Sue, you’ve heard from my departmental secretary Michelle. You’ve heard from fellow politicians in Arthur and Tanya, and so you’ve had a very fully engaging day as well, and that’s was of course before a panel of VCs or all the other things on the agenda today. But I will make a few remarks, and I think there’s time for us to fire one or two questions as well albeit in cocktail format and possible rather than questions, informally engaging with each other.

Last week I gave a fairly comprehensive, and some would say direct or even blunt speech, about the higher education reforms put before the parliament. And I don’t really know if I want to go over all of that ground again. More than happy to take questions, you know a number of those issues. It is an important reform though, of course, and I should at least acknowledge it and some of the pointers that led up to it. Higher education policy is essential to our nation’s future. Higher education sector is essential to Australia’s future. And in no way do we embark upon changing higher education lightly or without significant consideration about what it is that we seek to do and then what it is we seek to build upon or sustain for the future. My firm view is the fundamentals of the Australian higher education sector are very good, are very sound, are very positive and are something that you – particularly the ATN – can be very proud of what you’re contributing within the services, across most of our institutions showing that they’re well matched. Records broken with the number of both domestic and international students over a sustained period of time, demonstrating the ability to expand, cooperate at scale – to of course in the international space, particularly to appeal – but domestically as well, to demonstrate to students continuing development in pursuit of higher learning, of higher education and the benefits that accrue from that. Strong global recognition, positive world-rankings for our institutions and of course a research output to be very proud of. These are all very positive fundamentals that we want to make sure we maintain well into the future.

The reforms that we’ve brought forward seek to do a number of things. They seek to expand the student-centred approach that’s implicit in the demand driven culture. Of course, at present you enjoy that autonomy; to be able to enrol as many undergraduate students they want in any discipline you choose. And in consultations we under took over the last year or so, there was one factor that came up time and time again from all but one or two of the universities was we want to maintain the fundamentals of the demand driven system under a model, we want that autonomy. So we sought to preserve that autonomy, but also to expand the student-centred approach that underpins it. Yes, university have autonomy there but students enjoy an opportunity to be able to choose; choose the institution. And know that as long as they meet the minimum threshold of that institution there won’t be an arbitrary cap, there won’t be a limit, away they’ll be able to go.

That’s why we’re seeking to expand that into the sub-bachelor world with some qualifications there so that we take, in a sense, cautious steps to guarantee the qualifications that we do make demands of in the sub-bach are also linked to industry but allowing a greater diversity of the offering that is made to students, so that there doesn’t have to be a [indistinct] bachelor degree. It can be various other courses that will be more innovative in design. I have absolutely no doubt that the ATN universities will be at the forefront of looking at opportunities there, of one or two year associate degree and employment courses.

In the post-graduate space, I know there are concerns and reservations but again, trying to liberate student choice at the heart of what we’re seeking to do there. So that students who earn a Commonwealth supported place should be able to take that to the institution that best suits their ambition, their dreams, rather than being arbitrary cap set at some point in the past under a bunch of historical deals that were kind of second only, while school funding will still apply, until we fixed that earlier this year. So a student centred approach [indistinct]. But it would be lovely if we could afford it as a nation, to say, in the post graduate space, we will uncap that as well and make that demand driven, of course, that’s just not feasible. What we have sought to do is put in place a proposal that we think meets that criteria of consistency of student admissions across the board being about student choice but of course commits that we will work with the sector around what a post graduate scholarship model looks like and that is a latter part of the Innovation Agenda around our reforms.

We also listened when it came to things you said were important about equity, about the role of fairness, about participation of regional students and are seeking to embed it within the legislative arrangements; to guarantee it as a demand driven system itself and the per student loading that flows with it, therefore providing a real incentive, guaranteed support for institutions when they’re enrolling students from different equity categories.

Expansion in relation to regional support, particularly with the concept of the new regional pass which again we see as being very important but also complementary to reforms such as the expansion of sub-bachelor which are also highly likely of course to appeal to regional students, to equity groups, to provide an opportunity to expand participation there. But yes then there’s the fact that in trying to guarantee the future, some of those fundamentals, like the demand driven system and like a system of income contingent loans that guarantee no upfront payments, we’ve made some difficult budget decisions along the way as well. Our belief is that they will ensure the fundamentals of the current system are preserved; that they’ll make them financially sustainable for the future. That they can be absorbed by the system with some work but that ultimately they are also the fairest way for us to guarantee continued growth is funded just at a slightly slower rate at that profit.

And I note that across teaching and learning, funding and taxpayer support to universities will still see on average some 23 per cent growth should our legislation pass. So I think it’s clear that what we’ve sought to do is present something that we believe we got more out of. We believe though preserves the fundamental, builds on it and creates a stronger system for the future. And I think deep down many in the sector acknowledge that the pressures that are there, the budget pressures that are there, some of the historical policy inconsistencies like the post-graduate model, all of those things have had reason to be addressed at different junctures, indeed our political opponents, just before they left office in 2013, sought to address a number of the financial pressures at that time.

But even vice-chancellors, I know, in the Crossroads Report, have said they acknowledged certain realities. One is quoted as saying I’ve never ever heard a vice-chancellor talk about trying to reduce the cost of education in Australia, ever. Now, ultimately we want of course, as you do, to make sure the system can be as efficient as possible, ultimately for you to use your autonomy to reinvest into student services, student learning, research outcomes, et cetera. Another vice-chancellor in the same report said and I quote: ‘I see a continuation of resource scarcity and therefore the need to drive solutions that are not totally reliant on public investment in the manner that we have been and as we have wanted to expect.’ And there I think the sector has a positive story as to the extent to which we have diversified, you are diversifying in terms of your income streams and that there is much more hopefully through our international education strategy, through the types of ways in which we’re encouraging collaboration of industry and we’ll be helping to continue to do that into the future.

The reforms will live or die in this parliament of course but we’re committed to continuing to work with– we undertook a long consultative process in developing them and for those that pass through, particularly those that are more complex, such as the post-graduate scholarship model, such as the proposed performance payments, we’ve indicated a longer implementation timeframe. And there will in the coming days and weeks, be discussions paper, the proper processes set out a thorough engagement of collaboration with the sector to ensure the design of those things leads to ambition, and does so in a way without any unforeseen consequences for the Ministry et cetera.

Of course, they’re just one part of what is happening. There’s the Innovation Agenda, research work elsewhere that is continuing apace. And I am very pleased at the way in which the ATN has been at the forefront of engagement everywhere, including in the research landscape. You appreciate that in 2016, despite having only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, Australia contributed some 3.4 per cent of the world’s total research publication output, some 6.2 per cent of the top one per cent of the most highly cited publications, placing us seventh in the OECD. That’s incredible, and thank you for the work in your universities and you do the hard yards in terms of research. But as again, we know and it’s something to tackle industry research collaboration in Australia is a measure of what was conferred throughout the reforms. That’s why a number of the reforms has been applied both before and as a result of the Innovation Agenda have been to try increase incentives in funding, industry collaboration in research block grants.

From January this year, the previous six research block grant programs were replaced with the two streamlined programs, which I’m sure you gave the feedback to Sue on today but I certainly have been pleased with the way in which universities appear to have embraced those changes. The new research block grant arrangements also give universities greater autonomy and flexibility of using their research training funding and they’re a key part of our response to the review of Australia’s research training system. As part of NISA the government is taking on a number of steps to improve impact in application of research, including the introduction of the first national assessment engagement and impact measure. Again, I’m sure that you have been collaborating and I know a number of you have been working with the ARC in their work around the development of that measure. We wanted to see embedded a holistic approach to research assessment that recognises that innovation starts but doesn’t end with high quality research. It has to be involved the whole way through in terms of that research being applied, developed, commercialised and utilised where appropriate.

And ATN of course has so often led the sector on working with industry on adopting, adapting, and embracing the challenge. And here I want to pay some particular tribute to all of you as I finish up. As I look at the ATN partnership with the AI Group, which produced five key actions in their Collaborate, Innovate and Prosper Report in 2015, nearly all of which have been acted upon in different ways, by sector and by government as we’ve sought to sharpen up the way research funding, support and activity is done. The ATN developed a standard approach to IP in April 2016 which I was pleased to be able to launch at the time. An approach with the seven principals set out to seek to make it easier for industry to work and collaborate with university research by reducing barriers and complexities involved in the process of commercialising research.

Important leadership in that space, important leadership but again it’s very much ahead of the curve in terms of some of the reforms that were under way to make sure that ATN Universities are driving that sort of collaboration with industry. As a consortium ATN is collaborating with some of the world’s leading organisations and businesses to provide opportunities for students across all five of the universities to gain real world experience during their studies.

With Huawei in the telco sector providing students with the opportunity to embark on unique learning experiences at their global research and development centres in Shenzen. With the Commbank and Stockland pioneering technology innovation and research into artificial intelligence, through a leading corporate academic partnership in social robotics. With Cisco offering students in IT and engineering related disciplines more opportunities to enhance their learning. These are all measures and initiatives that you know and appreciate more than I possibly can but I recognise that they keep you at the forefront in terms of engagement and activity.

Individually as institutions as well you’ve shown enormous capability. QUT’s creation of a new wave of agile adaptable robots to help small or medium sized businesses make high value products; UTS’ Hatchery program, nurturing entrepreneurial culture; UniSA’s bioresearch flotation model which is one of the most significant advancements in minerals processing worldwide; RMIT’s work in weather forecasting and bush fire safety, so critical for so much of Australia. Curtin is working to develop noise reducing headphones while allowing communication, enhancing particular worker safety.

There is much to celebrate, much that has been achieved and much that I know you are achieving and will continue to achieve for the future. We are determined to be cooperative partners, to be a supportive government, to do all we can to work with you. Yes we have to, as a government, work within our means, deal with our budgetary pressures, do all of those other difficult things that competing priorities are made upon ministers at various stages. But know the strength of our resolved to utilise, to leverage, to build upon the wonderful accomplishments of higher education particular at the ATN Universities, that your work is leading fields of knowledge and research, innovation, as leaders in our international affairs through your outreach through international education and with students from around the world and of course as people providing transformation for lives of individual students and Australian communities through the placement of [indistinct] students. All of that is critical. All of that we support. And I thank you very much for the work that you do in this space. Great to be with you tonight.