CATRIONA JACKSON: We’re very pleased with the announcements made today for the release of the interim report – five actions for action now. Clearly the government and the Accord panel have been listening to universities who have said there were some things that couldn’t wait. Demand-driven places for Indigenous students – really important. The end of the punitive 50 per cent rule, which was knocking out disadvantaged students at every single one of our universities. Very important funding certainty, through the extension of the continuity guarantee for universities – just giving us a bit of breathing space so that the Accord panel, the government and universities together can work out how to untangle the serious problem that is Job-ready Graduates, so we can make sure that there’s a fairer system for students and a more sustainable model for universities. So, all five of those things are terrific.
Also been made very clear today is that there are lots of ideas – 144 pages and 70-odd ideas. We are looking forward very much in the next five, six months, to really grappling with those ideas – working with government and the Accord panel to work out which areas of reform fall in the really strong priority at the start, medium priorities and the things that are longer-term commitments.
One area we’d like to really emphasise for discussion with government is the research circumstance. We know we are well behind the OECD, well behind the average performance of the OECD, and we need not to be average. As Australians, we need not to be average so that we can do our job for productivity and for the jobs.
DAVID LLOYD: I think it’s really important that we thank the parliament for what they’ve done so far. I think it’s really heartening that when you look at something that’s looking at the 2035, that’s looking for the future of a higher education and tertiary education sector, it really is heartening for us to see that so many of the suggestions that have been made by the sector today have been taken on board, and that some of those near-term steps have been taken straight away. I think the most interesting piece that’ll flow from this, is the next six months on how you distil 70-odd recommendations or ideas into something which is going to be workable in the near term and then in the future for the foundation of the sector going forward.
JOURNALIST: Just on one of the ideas that’s gotten a lot of attention, the levy, obviously the Minister today said governments can’t fund everything, very much looking at this as an idea of getting some of that funding, maybe that actually could be used for research, as you say, under that OECD average. Do you think a levy is a good idea?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’re really keen, because we universities, to have a full-throated discussion with government about this. There will be a range of views on whether the levy is the right kind of approach. We think that international students are enormously valuable to not just the Australian economy, but Australian culture and Australian society. And universities have taken very seriously over the last 50, 60 years, this project. So, it’s a serious question. We certainly do need a more sustainable model for funding research, whether this is it, that’s a matter for debate.
JOURNALIST: Do you share concerns that it could impact our international reputation? A levy on international students, that could change how we’re seen?
DAVID LLOYD: I think it’s really important that we’re careful about the language we use. This has been floated as an idea. Until an idea is investigated, and I suppose exposed and interrogated, it is only an idea. I think the notion that we would just instigate a kind of quick-fix solution to what is a kind of fundamental ongoing vulnerability in the funding of research, is something that the sector’s going to have to look at very carefully.
JOURNALIST: On Job-ready Graduates, obviously there’s the sense that the program as it was designed didn’t work and doesn’t work. Do you think we still need disincentives and incentives to be used in this way, so we’re getting students to study where there’s demand or do you think we need to scrap that idea to try to influence their behaviour in that way at all?
DAVID LLOYD: I could not be more fulsome in my criticism of the Job-ready Graduate scheme. It just didn’t work. It doesn’t do what it was supposed to do, and we’ve known all along, there are no market signals that are going to drive demand. Students should study what they’re interested in studying, things that they want to be passionate about and follow the careers that those studies lead to.
JOURNALIST: We know what’s going to happen immediately. Is it your understanding, then, that any substantial change to the Job-ready Graduate structure won’t come until after 2025? Does that mean that students are going to be locked into that structure of differentiated degree prices until 2025? And given that the government has now acknowledged that it is a very unfair program, is it fair that students who enrol at university and humanities degrees for the next couple of years are going to be saddled with extra fees and extra debt?
DAVID LLOYD: I think it’s really important to recognise that the Commonwealth guarantee scheme, which has been extended, kind of signals that there’s going to be a transition from the existing structure of funding to a future funding structure. We won’t have any insight as to how that’s going to be managed by the department, or even if there’s a commission established as part of the Accord process. But what we do know is that it’s going to transition from something which is fundamentally unfair to students, to something which is a lot more equitable. That’s what we’re going to be working to try and describe.
JOURNALIST: Regarding what’s fair and unfair to students, something that I’ve been trying to think about today is this idea of means testing. If you’re a student of disadvantaged background, should you be paying the same for a degree as someone from an affluent background? Do you have any thoughts on that idea?
DAVID LLOYD: Means testing is not actually floated in here in terms of, there’s talk about the provision of equity of funding and supporting students on a needs basis, whether that means means testing or not, is a different debate. I reckon that in other jurisdictions where means testing is applied, you can see equity and inequity in the way in which is it’s actually rolled out. So, like everything in this, it’s one of those ideas where we have to sit down and look at both sides of the equation. Ultimately it should be a fair go for all Australian students.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Just on that point, we should keep in mind that the higher education contribution scheme already has a mechanism which deals with your ability to pay. If you don’t ever earn enough money, you don’t pay it back. So, there is an equity measure built into that scheme. So, it’s very important not to think we’re talking from ground zero here. We have a scheme that is the envy of the world in terms of the equity it provides.
I think the Minister was right on when he said today the problems we are facing right now are cost-of-living problems. Our submission to the Accord made it really clear, we think the higher education contribution scheme or HELP as it’s known now, is gold standard, but it’s been tweaked and tweaked and tweaked, and conditions have changed. Cost-of-living is a big deal for everyone these days, including students. We need to have a good look at that and the way it interacts with everything else, including the welfare system, including all sorts of other things, to make sure it’s doing what it’s meant to do, and that is remove barriers to higher education for people from poor backgrounds.
JOURNALIST: How often is that, given that we’re in cost-of-living crisis now? It wasn’t one of the things that was announced by the government today, but it is something that’s really biting people today. Do you think that needs to be expedited?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think it’s pretty clear from what the Minister said today that it’s been taken very seriously and it’s seen as a matter of urgency, but it’s not a simple fix. So, it’s really important to get it right.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of the idea of students being able to take a loan for their cost-of-living needs or to make ends meet?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think that falls into the basket of you’ve got to consider all these things together, because students already take out a loan to pay for their degree. So, you want to make sure that you’re not considering things in isolation. That’s very important to again, get right, and to make sure you’re considering it with all the other financial imposts. We know that students are under real cost-of-living pressure, like everyone else, but students particularly because they need to be studying rather than working too much. So, these are all really important issues. I got the feeling very much from today, that they were being taken very seriously by government.
JOURNALIST: One of the things that the Minister said was that the potential international student income levy could be used toward things like student accommodation and cost-of-living issues. Do you think that’s fair to redirect money from international students to help domestic students?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think we’ve made our position on that clear. I think the idea of any levy needs to be very carefully thought about, and it is in the section that is ideas to be debated. That’s the spirit in which we’ll be taking it, working out whether it does serve the interest of domestic students and international students, and as David’s already pointed out, language around that is really important. Because the last thing we want to do, is send destructive messages to students who are enormously valuable Australians.
JOURNALIST: And that’s a risk, that if we don’t get the language right, that’s a risk. Do you agree?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think we just need to be very careful.
JOURNALIST: Just on sexual assaults on campus, I understand it’s not a massive focus in this interim report, but it is within the terms of the process, is there anything that you guys see that can be done in the short term to improve things in that space?
DAVID LLOYD: We’re working very closely with our watch to make sure that we’re trying to implement best practice across all of the university campuses. I think there is a signpost towards this in the report, in the governance section, one of the top five. It talks about staff and student safety, and I think that does go to some ways making sure that people take the responsibilities. We all do take our responsibilities extremely seriously, but actually we’re working to best measures to reduce and minimise any harm to any of our students.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Since 2015 there’s been a really serious commitment from Australian universities, a really solid leadership position taken, because we know that you are more likely to be raped and harassed between the ages of 18 and 24 than any other time. That means universities have a special responsibility here, and we’ve taken that responsibility and taken it really seriously. We commissioned the Change the Course report conducted by the Human Rights Commission. We commissioned the National Student Safety Survey. There are hundreds of actions taken across university campuses. The commitment is as strong today as it was in 2015, and it continues.
JOURNALIST: One of the other suggestions that we’ve heard today, was potentially establishing a second national university, particularly focusing perhaps on regional Australia. What message does this send to other universities that are currently servicing those cohorts of students?
DAVID LLOYD: Yeah, I think, again, that was floated as an idea. It was about the idea of a national university which could be modelled in some way, aligned to the University of California system. There’s no detail beyond that in the report, and we haven’t had the opportunity to read it in any great regard. I think regional institutions are going to be looking at that with interest, and I think that there’s a lot of cooperation between the regional universities already. I think one of the clear signals that we sent today, is that we can expect to see a different system, and that the different system will have probably more universities in it than we do today.
JOURNALIST: The universal learning entitlement – this recommendation that we need this universal learning entitlement. Do you have any thoughts about that particular principle as something that was put out today?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think we need to see more detail on that, Sarah. On first blush, it seems like a reasonable suggestion, but at the same time we want to look and see how that interacts with all the other ways students are funded. Certainly, a student-centered approach is a good thing. It’s quite clear that we are looking at more education rather than less. All the stats cited in the report today indicate that we need more university education, more vocational education than we currently have, if we’re to have any chance to serve the needs of the Australian economy and society.
On that regional piece, on that particular suggestion, much more needs to be thought about and discussed and debated. But we all know that there’s a real gulf between regional attainment and city attainment in Australia. It’s not just that 60 per cent of kids in cities have a degree and 15 per cent, I think in some places in South Australia it’s seven. So, there’s a huge gap. We’ve done a number of things to try and bridge that gap. We need to work harder and do more in collaboration with government to make sure everyone has the opportunity of university education.
JOURNALIST: Dozens of huge ideas – you’ve also talked about research funding being important. What is the level of investment we’re going to need to see this milestone overhaul? Do you envisage multi-billions, tens of billions? I think a lot of people outside the university sector might not really have their heads around just how much money is going to be needed. Might come from a levy, might come from government. But what is the scale of the investment that you envisage?
DAVID LLOYD: In terms of research activity in universities, you’re talking about a $7 billion activity. That’s just the universities. We as drivers of probably the majority of the basic fundamental research, which is then catalysed into ideas. If we’re going to have a step change in the way in which research is supported, the order of magnitude is going to be of that region. In approaching that, we have to think not just beyond the current budget, but looking forward to generations of budgets where we have to transition from the level of investment today, which is at as lowest as it’s ever been in Australia’s history, to something which is comparable to something in the OECD average. That’s if we aspire to be average, and I don’t know if aspiring to be average is actually where we want to get to.
JOURNALIST: In principle, the idea of floating the report that private company employers or state government employers of nurses and teachers should have a greater role in the funding mix, is that something that you welcome, or you think is necessary to bring in an extra stream of income?
CATRIONA JACKSON: You’ve read further into the report than we’d have your opportunity to. Literally, we had it handed to us less than half an hour ago.
DAVID LLOYD: If it’s going to provide support for students, I welcome that.
JOURNALIST: You were talking about the debate that’s going to play out over the levy. Your members would come from different sides of that debate. What are they telling you and how do you see that conversation playing out, based on what you know?
DAVID LLOYD: We see a real will to have a constructive discussion, as we’ve been having over the last three, four or five months, in relation to this. This is the biggest opportunity for reform that Australian universities have had in decades, and we relish the opportunity to be so closely engaged in the discussion.