LORNA DUNKLEY: Universities Australia represents Australia’s 39 public universities. The group’s chief executive, Catriona Jackson, joins us now from Parliament House in Canberra. Thanks very much, Catriona, for joining us. What do you make first of what it is expected that the Minister will say this lunchtime?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We are very pleased to see midway through this review, we have five immediate actions, these are all things that were called for, things that needed to be done right now, like the indigenous commitment for a place for every indigenous student. Also, the end of things like the punitive 50 per cent fail rule, but also some funding certainty with the continuation of the funding continuity guarantee. This is a very good day for universities and for students – for certainty. Halfway through a major review, it’s terrific to see the government’s heard and has made some announcements early on.
LORNA DUNKLEY: What’s been going wrong in the previous few years that we’ve got to this point where such significant changes need to be made?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Over a considerable period of time, policy and funding settings from universities have just been tweaked and tweaked and fiddled and fiddled, and what we desperately need is some continuity and some certainty. It is a very good time to be having a good hard look at universities, all the funding policies, how we can serve the nation better, and this is a review we’ve been deeply involved in. It’s great to see at the midpoint, the government’s responding and saying, “Yes, we hear you.” There are some things that need attention right now, halfway through the review, but a good amount of time to go on to have big discussions about further reform.
LORNA DUNKLEY: Why are the top, the richest, the highest-rating universities doing so badly when it comes to the uptake of Indigenous students?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think every single university, every single one of my members knows we have more work to do, but we can’t do that alone. We need to do that with government. We’ve made over the past decade some real strides in terms of Indigenous attainment. We need to do better and work harder. We need to make sure we have the right funding settings and policy settings to be able to achieve that. Today’s announcement about a demand-driven place for every Indigenous student, metropolitan as well as rural, is a terrific step in that direction.
LORNA DUNKLEY: I wonder how you consider this drop in the 50 per cent pass rate in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance, that continuing through the course, but it’s going to be dropped. Are you not then setting up some students for failure?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The aim of getting rid of this punitive measure is to do exactly the opposite, to support students who’ve got more barriers. We just found that excluding students from Commonwealth assistance, basically knocking them out of the system after one year in which they might’ve had a really terrible year for a whole lot of reasons, was hitting the least worst off the hardest. That’s exactly what we don’t want to do as universities. As government has articulated, what we need to do in the next couple of decades is have more people with a higher education, a tertiary education, than fewer. We cannot possibly do that unless we’re offering places to everyone, taking advantage of all our talent.
LORNA DUNKLEY: The interim report also mentions the governance of universities and particular aspects of that. What are you already addressing when it comes to the governance of universities?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’re entirely comfortable with that recommendation, Minister Clare going to his state counterparts to have discussions around various areas of university governance. We know there is work to do for universities in making sure that our enterprise agreements are fit for purpose, and there’s considerable work going on there. We also know we’ve had a long program of work on trying to make our campuses safer places for students to be, a long program of work on combating the terrible scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment. We want as much help as we can get, unity with government on doing that and doing that as well as we possibly can.
LORNA DUNKLEY: I wonder what you think of this interim report suggesting that 55 per cent of jobs could require a university degree by 2050, considerably higher than it currently is. What is that based on?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I haven’t read the entire report yet because it comes out at 12:30 today, so excuse me if I don’t have objective knowledge, but every piece of research we’ve seen indicates that the jobs of the future simply require more education, not less. We need to make sure that our sector is absolutely ready for this, ready to provide those levels of education for as many students as have the wisdom and the will to take part in university education.
LORNA DUNKLEY: When it comes to courses, there was a lot of discussion during the Morrison years about which courses people should be pushed towards. Is that something that should be included in, I know this is the interim report, but the overall picture here is that we should be focusing more about training students for the workforce, rather than the wider variety of courses that are available.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Both of those things are really important, but today’s report and the five actions in it, the extension of that continuity guarantee, gives us some breathing space to address some of the really diverse incentives under the Job-ready Graduates program, a program which did not achieve its policy intent and that we don’t think works. We don’t think it’s fair to students. It also doesn’t allow universities to have the resources we need to meet those challenges you’ve already outlined, more people educated with a high-quality Australian university education.
LORNA DUNKLEY: Catriona Jackson, thank you very much for joining us today.