Speech and Q&A at the American Chamber of Commerce South Australia Forum
It’s a thrill to be here. My apologies if I’ve kept anybody waiting. Today I’ve had the thrills, spills and joys just next door at the convention centre of the COAG Education Council, which is where I have the glory of sitting down with all of my state and territory education minister colleagues from around the country. It’s a ritual we go through, sometimes a few times a year. And they tell me that the Commonwealth’s not giving them as much money as they’d like to spend, and I tell them I think there are better ways that we could spend the money to ensure we get the best possible outcome. But occasionally we make some good progress, and today I’d like to think that we did make some good progress towards having a shared national ambition around school education in the future and how it is that we can manage to take the recommendations of David Gonski’s most recent report in education matters Through Growth To Achievement and ensure that those recommendations are translated into action – not sure which mike I’m speaking through here – that those recommendations are translated into action in terms of really extending the capability of each child in Australia to ensure that in their school education lives they reach their full potential.
Education is real corner stone of economic growth in Australia. We have a fabulously strong economy at present by many standards. We have growth rates that are ahead of G7 nations. We’ve seen growth rates that are currently at the last forecast ahead of budget projections. We’ve seen more than a million jobs created since the Turnbull Government was elected, and some of the fastest jobs creation in Australian history over the last 12 months. Workforce participation is at a record high, and indeed female workforce participation pleasingly stands at a record high – and that’s before we see some wonderful changes to our child care system take effect just in a couple of weeks’ time or a week and a half’s time which should further support workforce participation growth across Australia.
And it’s off the back of education itself now. Not just being an enabler for our economic growth, but also a key part itself of our economy that we come together today. But the transformation of the Australian economy in the period since the world- since the post-war period has been constant. Various cycles, but one of the most notable changes over the last decade or so has been the significant growth of international education as an economic contributor. We now have more than – in the first six months of this year – more than 500,000 international students who have studied in Australia just in that window. The contribution of international education is such that it’s our third largest export industry. Think about that for a second. We have agriculture. We have mining. But education is Australia’s third largest export industry. That, of course, is thanks to the work of many: the universities, vocational education providers, and others.
As a government we’re determined to make sure that the fundamentals right across our educational landscape, from the high chair through to higher education are supported. It’s why we’ve continued to support and build a focus around child care reforms and early childhood education access, around extending pre-school universal access, but importantly making sure we shift to what is the new challenge in relation to early childhood education. We’ve had great success in recent years of progressing early education and pre-school in terms of pre-school enrolments. Our battle now is to make sure we have pre-school attendance and participation, particularly from those most vulnerable student cohorts. What we see is that around 30 per cent of pre-schoolers aren’t attending frequently, but that(*) grows significantly if you look at areas of social educational disadvantage, and particularly if you then extend into Indigenous children. So those who could gain the most are those least likely to attend. The challenge that I’ve set for the states and territories in thinking about further extension of pre-school support is absolutely how we ensure we get that key attendance.
As I spoke before in terms of the COAG discussion we had today, looking in our school sector the focus is on growth. Growth to Achievement was the report that David Gonski most recently handed down. When you think about that message, it is about ensuring that each student is supported to grow to the best of their capabilities and to the maximum levels of achievement. Australian school education performance has seen the bell curve slip in the wrong direction in recent years. We have fewer high achievers than we used to. We ought to strive for more high achievers. We ought to strive to lift the performance of every child, and of course to have fewer low achievers, and that’s exactly the type of reforms that we’re pursuing.
And here, of course, we will focus, I suspect with Peter on the stage, especially about the tertiary sector and the opportunities in higher education. Of course, in this state we’ve seen the potential, the possibility, the significant structural change in terms of higher education in our local landscape in [indistinct]. Now, whether or not that occurs will depend on the evidence, and I’m really pleased that the two universities have agreed to talk, have agreed to analyse, have agreed to work to build the case and the evidence of whether [indistinct] merger should happen. The evidence may suggest that we’ve got it wrong already, and if that’s the case that’s the evidence that we should follow. But we should ultimately be informed by what will give South Australia the best opportunities for South Australians to meet their educational ambitions, to meet the needs of our local economy, to attract the greatest number of high-quality international students, and to ensure that our universities here are research powerhouses that are respected and regarded the world over. They’re already fabulous institutions, but can they be even more? Can they do even better across those sorts of benchmarks?
The examples that we see in terms of their contribution are diverse and incredibly wide ranging. Just the other day, I was thrilled to be able to announce Australian Research Council funding for an industrial transformation centre in innovative wine production with Peter and the University of Adelaide – topic close to the heart, of course, many of us. A topic that is a great example of how it is that our universities work at their best when they’re hand-in-glove with industry in terms of the growth prospects of our state. Industries- iconic industries like our wine sector have achieved so much because of the support they’ve received from outstanding research, outstanding investment and training of their people, and of course the opportunities beyond that. The state is on the cusp of great potential opportunity. This is where I’ll conclude my remarks so we can get into the Q&A. That great potential opportunity lies in the significant defence investment capability that is occurring here in this state over the coming decades. This is the biggest investment that any state or territory has seen in a dedicated sense from a federal government. It underpins the economy of South Australia in the future.
But we don’t just want to see South Australia’s economy underpinned. We want to see it excel, and it will only excel if we leverage the opportunities that are created by defence industry investment. By leveraging those opportunities we’re then ensuring that the high technology, advanced manufacturing opportunities that are created spin off in other directions. Now, we’ll only make a success at the baseline – baseline is delivering against the defence capability plans – by ensuring we have skilled workers across vocational education, across our higher education sector. But we’ll also only ensure we get the excelling by absolutely guaranteeing research and development helps those companies who are working on defence capability to actually expand their horizons in terms of the supply chains they contribute to, but also how the work they’re doing can be adapted and applied into other industry sectors and exported elsewhere.
So, I’m thrilled that all you in here today, obviously as change makers, as people who are focused on the future of our state and the opportunities that are provided for our future, and really delighted to have such great panel here in terms of outstanding university and Anthony in terms of representing one of the great examples of South Australian business that has absolutely been driven by innovation, by entrepreneurialism, and is a great example of the type of businesses we hope the investment in our defence industries will drive into the future.
Thanks very much.
Leigh McClusky: Minister, come and join us. If I could get you to push the chairs out a bit so we don’t feel like we’re all sitting at school [indistinct] so I can see everybody.
Well, welcome and thank you. Let’s cut to the chase. The talk of the town in education, certainly this week, has been the merger of the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia. Peter, is it a done deal?
Peter Rathjen: [Indistinct]
Leigh McClusky: Yeah, I know. Well, I just thought we, you know, could hurry it along.
Peter Rathjen: [Indistinct]. We are going to have a look at the evidence. What’s I think turned out to be very powerful, everyone’s known in South Australia that this is a conversation that needs to be [indistinct]. But it’s previously tended to be opportunistic or political. And what we’re saying is let’s bring it out into the light, let’s look at the evidence as the Minister said, let’s find out what it is we want at our universities, and then find out what we’ve got to [indistinct] whether there might a configuration we can establish. There is no preconceived notion in either university that this will be done.
Leigh McClusky: But for you to go public with it, there clearly must be a very strong consensus that you’re heading in the right direction, because otherwise why would you risk the front page speculation, the national speculation. So my gut would tell that while this is a bit of a soft launch, that you’re pretty committed to it.
Peter Rathjen: There’s been probably a couple of months’ pretty hard work, which makes it look as though there may be a strong case for putting these two institutions together. But there is nowhere near enough detail around there yet to know whether the risks are properly assessed or whether all the benefits are really there. That’s what the next six months is about. What we didn’t want was a conversation that’s held by three or four people from each university and then imposed on the universities and sold to the universities. We wanted a conversation with the university community generally and the state of South Australia about whether this was the right thing to be done. So we’ve deliberately gone public, and that is actually a key step.
Leigh McClusky: And I have to ask you: it’s not a new conversation, so why now? What’s prompted it, because clearly it seems to have taken students and staff a little by surprise?
Peter Rathjen: I don’t actually know the answer to that. As far as I know it’s been bubbling along for about 35 years. I used to work for John [indistinct]. He told me that when he announced the changes that he made to the higher education sector he thought that within a year Adelaide and Flinders would have merged. And 30 years later actually nothing had happened at all in South Australia. So it’s been going that long but it’s never really been the fact that someone has openly asked the question and then sought to answer it. It’s been a series of manipulations and posturings, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid this time.
Leigh McClusky: It’s a very territorial debate and I think it will unfold and I’ll be watching it with great interest…
Anthony Kittel: And Leigh, can I make one observation there, which is: I think it’s a great opportunity now to also put the issue to bed. At frequent junctures over the last 30 years this question has been asked. It was asked when Peter’s predecessor left, at least internally. Usually it’s been asked when you’ve had that sort of change in personnel at the top. What’s, I think, encouraging about this occasion is you’ve actually got two highly-skilled Vice-Chancellors with clear visions for their institutions as they currently stand. But they’ve also said: let’s come together and assess whether there is something even better that could be achieved. If it can’t, then we will have answered the question too.
Leigh McClusky: Absolutely. And Anthony, I’m not ignoring you. I just want to get a bit more of this while I can. Minister, are you potentially concerned that at least in the short term those rankings that foreign students in particular consider so highly could be damaged with the creation of this new entity, whatever it might be named? And it strikes me there’s a lot of prestige riding in this. And I think it was Christopher Pyne, University of Adelaide alumnus, who said back in 2015, not quite the sky is falling in, but it was a shocking idea and if you did it would take at least 10 years to recover. Do you agree with him and if not, why not?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t. I certainly don’t think the sky will fall in if it occurs. But as I said the other day, and it was repeated again today, let’s follow the evidence. Let’s make sure this is a thorough and rigorous assessment. Of course if a combined entity were to see their rankings, in terms of university local rankings, collapse, well that would be a problem and an impediment towards it occurring. Peter’s more of an expert, I suspect, than I am about precisely how such rankings are calculated, and he might wish to reflect on that. But from my thinking, benchmarks are of course firstly: what are the domestic considerations? Domestic considerations are: will South Australian students get the education and training that they need to meet our future economic capabilities and requirements…
Leigh McClusky: But also, with respect, there’s a hugely lucrative Chinese market that every university in the country is chasing and they look for those international rankings.
Simon Birmingham: Yeah, absolutely. And then secondly, we’ve got to put those domestic considerations first and foremost. But then secondly, absolutely, will this enhance South Australia’s position as research powerhouse and as an attractive destination for international students? And one of our most attractive attributes is the fact that we are a safe, healthy environmentally clean English-speaking country. That’s something that all Australian cities have in common. Then within Australia of course there’s that internal competition as to who is best placed. Adelaide has a lot of other natural assets, especially the scale and size of the two universities in question, within the CBD locality, and their locations in the city I think do make them even more attractive. But how that comes when they come together, where, yes, rankings are a consideration. But that’s one of the reasons why the universities are looking at this. Could the scale they get, not just of student load, but the scale of research activity, be such to actually propel them to a new level?
Leigh McClusky: Okay. So let’s- sorry, Peter, yeah.
Peter Rathjen: I just wonder if I could help you a little bit there, Leigh. We’re not silly at the two universities, and of course asked ourselves that question. We’ve probably had four independent groups have a look at what would happen with the rankings. If you look at the basket of rankings that people look at, there would be, from day one, a marginal improvement in the University of Adelaide’s ranking, and of course that’s a very large improvement in the University of South Australia’s ranking. That’s the way that the data actually look and I’ll be releasing that next week in a series of roadshows. There again, that can now be opened up for genuine consideration, other people can look at it, do they agree with it.
Leigh McClusky: I have to say to a lot of people it makes sense. So let me take the focus away from the future and come back to the present. Anthony, as the operator of a very successful business in South Australia and clearly you need that feeling that, Yes I’m getting what I need. Or are you getting graduates that are not job-ready? Is the education system fit for purpose in your eyes?
Anthony Kittel: I think if you break it down into the three levels, at a university level I couldn’t be more happier with the quality of the graduates that we get. In fact, I look at when I graduated and I look at the graduates coming out now, and I think: wow, it’s amazing. The confidence levels, the abilities, their skills, job-readiness, I think is extremely good. I think when we got into the vocational education sector I have some concerns and they’re predominantly around STEM. And I think that stems from high school and primary school. So I think as we go down I think it does get a little bit weaker.
Leigh McClusky: And obviously [indistinct]. So tell me about your concerns about STEM within the [indistinct] system.
Anthony Kittel: Well, I think what we’ve found is we need to coach and support people through vocational education a lot lot more. We need to hold their hand, we need to give them additional training that they’re not equipped with from high school, which I think is a sad situation that we need to do that. And I think the other side of it is that our apprenticeships and trainee numbers have gone from something like 30,000 to 13,000 roughly in the past four or five years.
Leigh McClusky: I was going to ask you, do you think that is part of the – and it’s a shocking word – but the de-glamourisation of trades? You know, we went through that generation where everybody wanted to push their kids off to uni and a trade was a bit of, not a dirty word, but it wasn’t your preferred option: look, if you don’t get into uni, well, then you can always be a sparkie or a chippy. Do you think we’re still suffering from the lag effect of that?
Anthony Kittel: I don’t think so. I would hate to believe that that’s the case because I think it’s definitely a valuable career option.
Leigh McClusky: Absolutely.
Anthony Kittel: I think what’s been disappointing has been the damage to TAFE. I think that’s been really bad for South Australia and bad for employers and bad for the students. But I think ultimately it’s just the quality of maybe trying to do too much with too little, perhaps, as the change has gone from pushing for more government to more semi-private.
Peter Rathjen: Just say, thank you for your comments about our graduates. We’re pretty proud of them too. I think there is an issue here. I talk a lot to headmasters and headmistresses about subject choice at school, and one of the things that we come across in university and they agree with, as best as I believe, en masse, is that far too many of our best young students are choosing their Year 11 and 12 subjects to maximise their ATARs and not in the interests of furthering their own education.
Leigh McClusky: And not the things they’re passionate about.
Peter Rathjen: And it’s STEM subjects in particular that they drop because they think they’re too hard, or they don’t get the marks for them. Now, for us this is an issue because we have to put in place extra training at the beginning of university. But for industry it’s a problem too. And I think we do have to ask some serious questions [indistinct]. It’s silly if students are deliberately taking subjects that aren’t to their own interest just so they can get a number when they’re 18 years old that everyone will for get in three years’ time anyway. We need them to be in a system that encourages them to plan for their own lives.
Leigh McClusky: Do you think, and this is slightly controversial, do you think that has changed because as we were talking about before, so many of these people are now looking at university choices, knowing there’s going to be an almighty bill at the end?
Peter Rathjen: No, not particularly. I think it’s just…
Leigh McClusky: Just their parents?
Peter Rathjen: From what we see from students the bill isn’t actually a major problem for them. The bill they don’t like is the bill for living away from home, for what it’s worth, if they’re from regional type areas. But they try to make the educational choices that they can make as best they possibly can. The issue that they’re actually not taking the right subjects is really quite serious. I believe we’re actually working with the schools to find out whether there are clever ways the university can change its own entrance prerequisites so that we move away from reliance on the ATAR and encourage students to study what it is they should be studying in the first place.
Leigh McClusky: Yeah. Minister, we’re talking about the cost of education and there’s no doubt it is expensive and quite rightly so, but you’ve made some changes, some education reforms, that obviously recognise how important education is to the country. Can you tell us a couple of those changes and, more importantly, what’s in the pipeline, what haven’t we heard about yet?
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Leigh. Firstly, on the topic we were just discussing, just about a week and a half ago the Australian National University announced a new approach to the admissions that they will apply in the future. It still requires a minimum ATAR. But as long as you reach the minimum ATAR then they’re looking at a range of other factors in terms of the capabilities those students bring, the experiences those students have. And they’ve also identified they’re going to expect a reintroduction of, essentially, maths or English as a prerequisite. Now, they’ve flagged that comes a few years down the track because you’ve got to cater for the current cohort of students coming through school. But in the end those sorts of basic signals and what they send back into the school system are incredibly important in terms of what people think and how the school systems structure themselves in terms of the education they provide.
Other states have looked at different approaches, particularly for students who may not be thinking about university – which is still a majority of students – as to whether for attaining a high school certificate we ought to at least have some minimal literacy and numeracy standards. So at present, of course, you can get to that point in your high school life, leave maths behind, and then go on and study the other subjects…
Leigh McClusky: Sorry, I’m old. How can you do that? How can you go through school without having to focus on maths and English? I just don’t get it, sorry. Somebody else might, but I don’t.
Simon Birmingham: And I think this is- maths and English have been presented as old-fashioned subjects, but they’re not old-fashioned they’re essential.
Leigh McClusky: They’re basic, aren’t they?
Simon Birmingham: As Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist said a while ago, maths is the language of science. So many aspects of science are underpinned by mathematical knowledge. Of course you then use that knowledge and apply it in other subject disciplines. But it is there as a fundamental, and of course it’s a basic in so many of the things that businesses like Anthony’s rely upon, particularly tech-intensive businesses apply. So what we’re seeking to do, to answer the other part of your initial question there, is work with the states around how do you guarantee those foundational building blocks are established really by age eight. It’s about Year 3 that you need to make sure basic literacy and basic numeracy is in place, or else those kids will really struggle to catch up thereafter. So the type of tools the latest Gonski report has recommended allow us to deploy more nationally consistent approaches, without undermining the autonomy of teachers and schools in terms of how and when they apply different assessment tools and the like. But give them evidence-based tools that also create more of a holistic feedback look. And what we’ll be seeking to do is create a new national evidence institute like the medical profession has that can also inform teaching practice in a way like we expect the medical profession to be informed, that we actually analyse what’s done in the classroom, how it works, and that informs clearly what teachers do, and then really lift the opportunities for professionals regarding outcomes there, from the early years but ultimately that will stretch right through.
Leigh McClusky: Anthony, can I ask you a question, I mean, obviously as we’ve discussed you need that flow of graduates. They have a certain skill set. What’s missing, for you, with those people that come through? What could make them better, not only for you but across the industry. Not necessarily just your sector.
Anthony Kittel: Obviously I’m very familiar with our sector but probably the one thing if I had to highlight something right at the moment is: the big buzzword in industry at the moment is Industry 4.0, and this is about connected products, connected machines, big data. I think the speed at which the education sector can move to take on some of these new technologies is probably one area that I’d like to see improved.
Leigh McClusky: That’s bloody big.
Anthony Kittel: Swinburne are doing a specialised Industry 4.0 program, where they take people from [indistinct] right through to the university-level. So something like that here in South Australia I think would be idea. But coming back to the graduate out of the three South Australian universities, communication skills, their knowledge I think is one of the best cities in the world.
Leigh McClusky: Absolutely, I have to say we are to be applauded.
Anthony Kittel: When I talk to our people, it’s about: we can’t compete with low-cost countries on our labour, but where we can punch above our weight is on our knowledge and we must be knowledge-intensified. If we’re going to be successful globally then it’s all about continuous lifelong learning and it starts at the top and must continue, people in the warehouse or whatever role their doing in the business.
Leigh McClusky: Peter, can I ask you, it must be a constant juggling act. You have your courses but the world is evolving. So how do you make the decision to try and plan for the jobs that don’t even exist at this point in time?
Peter Rathjen: And probably for us it’s easier than it is for TAFE because in the end we don’t really train people for jobs, we train them in skills, we train them in how to think and those sorts of things. But actually [indistinct] take a long term serious reconceptualization of our curriculum. [Indistinct] to say we’ve been teaching more or less the same thing for several decades now, the world has changed, what might we do better? At the foundation of that will be a better way of listening to what it is that’s [indistinct]. We need to actually hear more from industry, you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to hear. Maybe if you really get there you can understand what’s needed. And that can help inform what we want to do. There are a series of things that I think might come of that. One, and I’ve talked a lot with the Ministry about this: there’s been remarkably little innovation in Australian higher education. The three year bachelor’s program is the three year bachelor’s program, there’s a lot of TAFE courses, there’s very little that sits in between. But around the rest of the world that’s where the innovation comes. Because people realise that if you lose your job when you’re 35 years old and you need to upgrade your skills to get your next job, you’re not going to come in for three year fulltime study, leaving your family to starve as you do it. You need smaller courses that are matched to what you need and matched to what industry needs. I think we’ll find a whole lot of more flexible type of offerings there. Micro-credential is one of the words that we use, but there’s a lot of different things that can happen there. I think we will find that we’ve become a bit too captive to the professions and to the disciplines, that we try too hard to stuff our curriculum full of facts, that in fact what young people need is to prepare themselves for 30 years of uncertainty is a bit more breadth. We’d like to see more people taking languages, we’d like to see a bit more ethics in there, we’d like our scientists to know a bit about how to interact with other human beings, that’s the sort of thing that I think [indistinct]
Leigh McClusky: And I think also because we now have a generation where it’s not a job or a career for life. My kids might have three careers or four careers in their life. So how do we skill them for that?
Peter Rathjen: I was at Kings recently and they’ve banned all talk of careers because they don’t think young people believe there is such a thing any more, not for the last 35 years. They talk about jobs, they talk about work. The skills that are needed are transferrable. If you know how to think you’ll be employable, if you can be creative you’ll be employable, if you can work hard, these sorts of things, you’ll be employable.
The last thing I think we’ll be challenged with: there is a move to far more workforce participation as part of the degree, and I think that’s a good thing. It does help people to become more work-ready. Should all people go through that? I don’t know. Maybe they should. If they do, how do we organise such a thing? But what you do know is the students who get internships as part of their course generally go on to find jobs in those places they have internships, and that’s a good thing.
Leigh McClusky: So, Minister, is that something we could look towards not only in South Australia but nationally? A much more pragmatic approach, a bit more of a sleeves rolled up approach between industry, between higher education, between all levels of education?
Simon Birmingham: Collaboration is absolutely fundamental to success, it’s fundamental to success in research undertaken by universities in terms of how it is unis ensure the research they’re doing is relevant, or it’s successful, that it’s then able to be translated into entrepreneurial activities, that it’s commercially focused, or service delivery if it’s about healthcare or the like. It’s fundamental in terms of training students as well and educating students too. And we absolutely thing that the work-integrated learning aspects of higher education study or vocational education and training are central. In both cases, in a sense, whether it’s research or whether it’s education and training, we do have to drive the message that it’s a two-way street. Often times, and sometimes politicians can be guilty of this too, the commentary and the debate falls on the shoulders of the educational institutions: why don’t you do more to engage with industry?
Leigh McClusky: Yeah.
Simon Birmingham: Industry needs to be a really strong partner. I know that part of Anthony’s success in a business like his is absolutely the fact- we already heard him talk about the fact that his employees are actively engaged in apprenticeships, in training, in education, while they’re there. And it is providing opportunities for people to be essentially in two streams at once: work and education and training. The same applies in terms of research. It is really critical that in a growing industry centred in this state we make sure those businesses – and [indistinct] is a good example of one – invest in the defence industry, doing some great partnerships with universities as well. How do we make sure each of those big businesses as well take on their responsibility.
Leigh McClusky: A question for all of you, and I’m interested in the answer. I think we’re doing very well in South Australia but it’s never perfect and we always strive to do better. When each of you look around the world is there a country where you look at their higher education system in particular, or their education system, and their integration with the workforce, is there somewhere you go: Yeah, they’ve got it right, and we need to do more a bit like that. Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Many people cite Germany to me as a country where there’s a greater equivalence in the sense of streaming and choices coming out of school in terms of people potentially pursuing a vocational pathway, potentially pursuing a higher education pathway, doing a vocational pathway and then streaming into a higher educational pathway, that the silos that sometimes exist too much in our system seem to be a little better broken down in terms of the crossover that can occur, and indeed the respect and regard that exists for apprenticeship pathways and vocational pathways. I think at least there are attitudes there, whether the system is one that can be picked up and transferred, that’s harder to tell. But I think also if you think about just what Peter was talking about before around different types of courses that might be considered, there’s already increasing overlap between certain areas of high-level vocational schools and shorter courses at universities or more vocational oriented courses at universities. Yes, unis teach people how to think but they also teach a whole stream of students to become qualified for a particular job. Far more so than they did a couple of decades ago. So actually thinking about that convergence and how we respond to it is critical.
Leigh McClusky: Anthony, anything where you look around the world?
Anthony Kittel: I’ll be guilty and say Germany. But I think what the Minister’s said about the streaming of the [indistinct] into the universities is critical. I’ve got a couple of young engineers who started traineeships, apprenticeships, and then worked their way through an associated degree and then still studying. One gentleman started at uni and couldn’t afford it and was driving pizza deliveries all hours of the night, and of course his study suffered, went into a trade and now he’s an engineer and one of the most successful engineers. So I think the easier we can make that process I think the better. I guess if I was to be provocative and if the Uni of Adelaide and Uni of SA merger happened, then I’d say why not merge TAFE and Flinders? Then we have one strength in VET through to university and one strength in specialised university courses.
Leigh McClusky: You’ve got a whole new career, you know, as I said, politics. Peter, what about for you? Is Germany the prime example, and if it is what do you see as the potential difficulty in translating that style of thought and operation to an Australian scenario?
Peter Rathjen: The German system is actually very different from the Australian system. It wouldn’t be at all easy to map it onto the Australian system. Where Germany excels is at this trades training, they’ve got brilliant interfaces between technical skills which then finish up with people in PhDs and the like. The whole world looks at it and thinks that’s just fantastic, particularly the links with their higher technology industries are [indistinct].
I do want to just make a call out here though for the strength of the Australian university system. I think it’s just remarkably strong. On any of the rankings there’s always six Australian universities in the top 100 in the world. In the one I look at most there are five Australian universities in the top 65 in the world. That’s really quite remarkable for a small country like this. There’s one country that I think does it better, we don’t talk about it enough, it’s Canada. They have wonderful universities. Their top university, Toronto, is better than any of ours. They have incredibly good links between academia, research and industry need. They have an integrity and a cohesion to their system that we don’t see in Australia. I think more Australians should be looking at Canada and asking: how is it that they actually do, with a country about our size that looks a bit like us, even better than we do?
Leigh McClusky: Just a question for you, Peter, and this might seem a bit odd but, how difficult is it not only to an education system but a business? You need bums on seats to make the business tick and to be able to balance what you offer to that which is likely to entice students to your school and not others. It must be a very interesting juggling act.
Peter Rathjen: Yeah, actually, Leigh, it’s a lot harder than that. You brought up the education side and some of the other sides, but the research side’s actually really different in terms of the philosophy of it, in terms of the kind of people that are good at it, in terms of what it is that they need to thrive. And then there’s another part that people don’t really understand. We know we celebrate this success that Australia’s had in attracting international students. That genuinely is an international market. There aren’t students in China that say: am I going to go to Victoria or South Australia? They say: am I going to go to Canada or England or to Australia? So there’s a genuinely global dimension to it as well. And of course here’s the thing, Leigh, is we’re a highly evolved organisation, we hire brilliant people. The key thing is to give them some sense of where they’re headed and get out of their way and let them get there.
Leigh McClusky: So, if we would look forward in the next five years – and I do have to have to come back to the mooter question, which looks like it’s going to go ahead – so I just figure if you seed it early it will come. I’ll be intrigued to know because, for most people I think there is a reasonable amount of duplication amongst many of our organisations and that is not sustainable one wouldn’t think in a significant business model. Should this debate continue – no not this debate, this discussion continue – about a possible suggested merger? What sort of time frame do you think we’re looking at?
Peter Rathjen: Well I [indistinct] tell you because we talked about this [indistinct] University of South Australia. Can I also just say something which I feel passionately and it’s not terribly [indistinct], I have to say. It has been quite a surprise coming back to this state and to realise that the three universities here have tended to [indistinct] by competition with each other for the South Australian marketplace. And that is not what the rest of the world looks like. Universities are [indistinct] global competition. They want to connect with the rest of the world. [Indistinct]. That wasn’t what we were worried about. We thought about the country and we wondered about what Harvard was up to and what [indistinct] and those sorts of things. We do need to change. [Indistinct], because the internal competition is not actually useful. It doesn’t improve the market. It just leads to inefficiencies. We want [indistinct] South Australia. In terms of time frame, the Deputy Chancellor is sitting here in the front so I better be careful what I say. We’ve committed to a six-month process to find out simply whether we think this should go ahead or not. If we decide that it should go ahead, then we think there’s a further two years before we even pull the switch and say: right, we’re merging as of now. This is a long term project which, if it went ahead, would require you to merge two very complex organisations …
Leigh McClusky: And a delicate one.
Peter Rathjen: And a delicate one, that’s exactly right, with infinite numbers of stakeholders, all of them are set in their own institutions. That’s what we have to do. We’ve looked into only one other successful example of it in the world and that’s Manchester University. Manchester used to be a fairly standard British university. They merged [indistinct] institutions. They’re now one of the six significant British Universities. That took just under two years for that to [indistinct].
Leigh McClusky: Okay. Minister, I’ll ask you to sit this one out if you like because I’m getting the wind-up. Anthony, I have to ask you. You are, fabulously, you’ve just been appointed as the Federal Education Minister for the next five years; an unfettered term. What would you do?
Anthony Kittel: What would I do? One thing I guess is stay out of the way. It’s up to these institutions to stand on their own two feet and for the economics to signal what the future is. But what else would I do? I’d definitely be passionate about how I can have our eight-year-olds, ten-year-olds, twelve-year-olds embrace STEM much more strongly than they do at the moment and I’d also agree with Peter and that’s probably limit some of the choices at the upper end of year eleven and year twelve. You know, as much as I know my kids hate when I say: when I was at high school, but I was an engineer and I had to study maths 1, maths 2, English, physics and chemistry. That’s what you did. But unfortunately you can take – not unfortunately – fortunately, I guess now there is a lot of choice. You can still get to the end goal but I think it’s too much.
Leigh McClusky: Okay, and Peter, we’ve just appointed you Federal Education Minister for the next five years.
Peter Rathjen: There’s only one thing that needs [indistinct] in this country, Leigh, and these two have both got [indistinct] stay out of our universities because their autonomy is what keeps them strong. They can focus on quality. The Minister knows that for universities like ours the big deal in Australia is that we don’t fully fund research. We’re continually using student fees to subsidise the research and information. And that distorts what we do. In many parts of the world it’s actually illegal to do that. It’s felt that student pay fees for their own education. And the research is…
Leigh McClusky: Well there you go. That’s the next act.
Peter Rathjen: So that would be what I would do. It won’t surprise the Minister one second that I said that.
Leigh McClusky: Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately time is against us. Would you please thank them now.