Speech to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education forum


Simon Birmingham: Thanks [indistinct]. Thank you very much. I want to thank you all for the chance to be with you here at the National Press Club today. It’s nice to be at the National Press Club in friendlier surrounds than the National Press Club sometimes [indistinct] …

Can I acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra region, the Ngunnawal people, but also all of Australia’s Indigenous people, and in doing so as I often say as Education Minister, acknowledge the fact that in the nation we continue to learn much more about the knowledge of Indigenous peoples, from the knowledge of our Indigenous peoples, and build upon that knowledge [indistinct] country. 

I recognise Sue Trinidad, the director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, the members of the advisory board, and particularly Erin Watson-Lynn, who has recently been appointed as the new chair, and congratulations to Erin. Vice-Chancellors, experts, distinguished guests all, thank you so much for the chance to be here and to recognise the work of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, and the work that it undertakes to inform policy design and implementation, to ensure no matter the background or circumstances of an Australian that they are not excluded from participation in our higher education system, provided they have the capacity to succeed.

Today is an important opportunity to help translate research into innovative practice. The centre has an important role, not just to generate knowledge and understanding, but to transfer that knowledge across the sector and into the community. The 2017 Equity Fellows, who we will announce and celebrate shortly, will play a key role in doing so. Maintaining equity of access is an essential element, of course, of our Government’s policy objectives, our national ethos, and of my personal commitment as Minister for Education and Training. 

My own background is one of parents who were never tertiary educated, of attending a low SES high school, and of having an opportunity to access tertiary education, and of recognising that those educational opportunities made a significant difference in my life in a range of different ways. So that equity of access is a lynchpin of my values, a lot of my Government’s values, and I would say of the Australian expectation in relation to higher education policy. 

We’ve come a very long way in ensuring that as a nation we provide some of the best, most equitable access to higher education in the world. Our generous and world-leading student loans program, which ensures that there are no upfront barriers in terms of fees for participation, coupled with government assistance for financing tertiary study, such as Study Assist and Student Income Support Benefits, are helping to remove financial barriers to higher education. Of course, we always face challenges to make sure that they are working in the most optimal way and to ensure that they are actually delivering the type of equity of access we aspire to, and especially outside of the loans program and fee structure those aspects of barriers that relate to the cost, cost of living, cost of moving, access for especially rural and regional Australians, are issues that continue to be a focus and a pressure point for our Government, and a factor that we are looking closely at in terms of those policy settings. 

But pleasingly, in recent times our universities have hosted record numbers of students from low SES backgrounds, Indigenous Australians, people with disability, and those from regional and remote Australia. Since 2009, we’ve seen a 43 per cent increase in low socioeconomic undergraduate student enrolments. Over the same time, enrolments in domestic undergraduate students generally have increased by 31 per cent. So growing 43 per cent in that target equity group compared with 31 per cent in general. We know that having a higher education qualification is more likely to lead to positive employment outcomes, with unemployment rates for graduates still sitting at only 3.2 per cent, well below the general population unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent. These achievements are heartening. They give us great scope to have confidence that we are doing many things very well already.

But there’s still work to be done. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are still underrepresented at university. For instance, in 2015, 16.6 per cent of students at Australian universities were from low SES backgrounds, while of course 25 per cent of Australians comprise the bottom quarter of low SES populations. 14.4 per cent of Australia’s working-age population were identified as having a disability, but only 5.8 per cent of Australian students do. 1.6 per cent of university students identify as Indigenous, when Indigenous Australians represent 2.7 per cent of our working-age population. 

The success and retention rates of these groups are also consistently below those of the overall student population. This is despite $1 billion being invested through HEPPP initiatives to date, and with a further $550 million in the program in the forward estimates. We have to make sure that our policy settings, and the use of those dollars, addresses the many factors in terms of the progression of a potential student – ambition in home, school, and the community, expectations – before you get to questions of admission and enrolment, before you then worry about matters of progression and support, and ultimately hopefully getting to the point of completion and graduation. 

We of course don’t just want to funnel all people into tertiary education for the sake of it. The courses they undertake must pay dividends, not only for the individual, but for the economy as a whole. Institutions must be able to enrol students in courses that are appropriate to their aspirations and preparedness, to the needs of their local economies and communities, and which can allow for progression to other qualifications, or back into the workforce if desired. This is a challenge not just for our universities, but for other tertiary education providers, and indeed for our schools. We share a responsibility across the education system to ensure young Australians are prepared appropriately to make the best possible choices about their tertiary education options. 

In seeking to get our policy settings right, we are looking very closely at all aspects of higher education policy. We know that money for funding is important, but it’s not an end in itself; we have to ensure it is used to create the right incentives for optimal engagement by universities, other tertiary education providers, and to actually get the best possible outcomes. 

The current evaluation of HEPPP is considering whether we can more effectively support participation of students from more backgrounds. It’s received 136 written submissions, undertaken 121 university staff interviews, and 359 survey responses, 30 student interviews, and 3544 student survey responses. I’m looking forward to seeing the final report after it’s completed towards the end of this year, and we will consider the recommendations in the context of our overall higher education reforms in policy settings. Any changes to HEPPP wouldn’t begin before 2018, when we expect other higher education reforms to potentially start. They must work in an integrated way to create those optimal settings that actually do ensure we address issues of ambition, through to expectations that respond to the Higher Education Standards Panel report around admissions, through of course to those other factors of then progression and completion. 

The Standards Panel report, which I released to the Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit recently, is welcome. It provides advice on how we can improve transparency of admissions processes, how we can ensure that potential students, their families, their schools, their teachers, have a clear understanding of the type of expectations they must meet to be accorded with a university admission. The report confirmed that while the demand-driven system has enabled greater choice and access for students, that many potential students and their families struggle to decipher information on where and what to study. 

Within the next few weeks, we’ll provide an official response to the panel’s 14 recommendations. We want to ensure that students and their families are provided with the information they need, on an easily accessible and understood platform, in a format that is comparable and consistent across jurisdictions to ensure they make informed decisions about their future. I welcome the fact that many institutions have been moving in tandem, if not ahead of the work of the Standards Panel, and they’re striving to ensure that the sector addresses these issues upfront. But ultimately, we want to make sure that occurs across the board, across all institutions, across all admissions practices, so that students and those who advise them can have complete confidence in the future, and in their engagement with higher education. 

All of that brings me to, of course, the happy reason that we’re here today. The Australian Government has invested $1.54 million in the 2016 and 2017 Equity Fellows. I understand that earlier today you heard from those just completing their Equity Fellowships. And sadly, it sounds like I missed some outstanding presentations that demonstrated the benefit of these programs, and some great ideas, evidence-based thinking as to how we can improve outcome and participations in the future. The Equity Fellows who will begin their projects next year, I’m pleased to say, are Associate Professor James Smith from Charles Darwin University,  Matt Brett from La Trobe University, and Louise Pollard from the University of Western Australia. These fellows, leaders in equity research, will help to raise the profile of equity practice so that over time strategies to engage potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds will become business as usual in our universities.

James, I understand, will bring expertise from working with six remote Indigenous communities to his work. His aim is to strengthen evaluation and develop national principles for evaluation in Indigenous higher education. Matt’s aims are to generate an evidence-based equity performance and accountability framework, while Louise will analyse the factors impeding participation and success for remote students. She will define good practice for assisting such students, work which will nicely dovetail into analysis we have underway to look at how we better assist rural and regional students in particular.

In doing so, can I congratulate those who made their presentations this morning. You have added to our knowledge of what works or can work in this space. To Dr Nadine Zacharias, whose investigations in how universities have operationalized HEPP Program funding since it started, along with the findings of the HEPPP Evaluation will certainly help us to improve the HEPP Program or its successors.

Dr Erica Southgate has looked at what stops disadvantaged students enrolling in degrees like medicine, law, and engineering, work which will help us to better understand student choices and aspirations; while Dr Cathy Stone’s assessed the effectiveness of online learning in terms of access, retention, and academic success. People from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those in rural and regional Australia, are increasingly studying online so her findings on what causes attrition will be particularly useful as we seek to make sure that we make the best use of technology, take and seize the opportunities afforded by remote access, but also maintain the types of standards and quality and assistance we expect.

I congratulate all of those current fellows, previous fellows, and of course those who are about to commence their work. I want to close by thanking each and every one of you for your participation here today, a demonstration of your commitment and dedication to improving the participation of some of our most marginalised or disadvantaged people. We see around the world at present much discussion about how it is we can best ensure that all people in nations, advanced nations like Australia, are able to enjoy and reap the types of benefits that come from economic growth, from change across our economies. 

Your work is critical to ensuring that we do present not just a story but also have clear policy settings that help to ensure those who may otherwise feel marginalised, disadvantaged, or disgruntled, with not just their governments – though as a Government it’s important that we make sure people like us – but equally those who may seriously feel marginalised from our nation, from other Australians, from the benefits that they see some Australians enjoying, have the opportunity to see that they too can enjoy those benefits. That their children, that people in their communities should be aspiring to participate in those more diversified aspects of our economy which are challenges we face in future to keep diversifying, to keep growing, but of course to make sure the human capital is there to support that growth, and that human capital comes from across our nation, not just from a narrow basis or section of interest.

So, thank you so much for commitment and work in doing so. I wish you every success with the remainder of today’s discussions.