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Address to 2023 Universities Australia Conference

Well, after a terrific dinner last night, it’s wonderful to join you this morning.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to elders past present and emerging. 
I also acknowledge chair John Dewar and the CEO Catriona Jackson and, like the minister last night, pay tribute to the outgoing Secretary of the Department of Education, Michele Bruniges, for her incredible service to education and to our nation.
I am absolutely delighted to address the Universities Australia annual conference as the very new Shadow Minister for Education.
It is day 11 in the job, I have a lot of learning and listening ahead of me, but I am absolutely honoured to be appointed by Peter Dutton to take on such an important portfolio responsibility.
I look forward to visiting your universities to better understand your needs, to champion your aspirations and to prosecute great ideas and innovations on your behalf.   
I also look forward to working with Minister Clare and the Albanese Government to find common ground and provide bipartisan support where possible, and to provide necessary unsolicited advice when the government heads in the wrong direction.
In taking over from Alan Tudge, I have big shoes to fill.  I acknowledge Alan’s exceptional work as the former Minister for Education – he is a great loss to our team.
Alan drove many important initiatives now being supported by the Albanese government.  These include the Coalition’s $2.2 billion research commercialisation agenda for the Australian universities sector including the $1.6 billion Accelerator Program … which the Business Council of Australia described as “crucial for our economic success for decades to come.”
The Coalition has a proud track record of delivery – record funding for early education and schools and a laser-like focus on lifting school standards including through strengthened teacher training and a stronger curriculum.
Over nine years, we increased funding to universities by 34 per cent to $19.5 billion, and increased the number of government supported university places by 11 per cent to 640,000.
We supported new research facilities and medical schools, delivered more student scholarships, and drove the take up of courses in areas of greater workforce need.
But as we know, in education, both the opportunities and the challenges are immense.
I bring to this portfolio diverse experience – as a former journalist, commercial lawyer, and small business owner; as a parent and university graduate; and as someone who believes in the transformational power of education … so critical to advancing our nation.
This was not a view shared by my first boss – the news director of Channel 7 Melbourne – who suggested to me as a 17 year old cadet reporter that if I wanted to make it in television, I should forget about my journalism course at RMIT and head to Bells Hotel in South Melbourne which would provide a better education, and more stories for the 6 o’clock news. 
The university of hard knocks held me in good stead until I decided to return to UTS some nine years later to study law, whilst working at the ABC, before transferring to Monash where I graduated.
That said, as a Geelong based member of parliament since 2013, I’ve probably spent more time at Deakin University than any other campus.  I am very proud of the many ways our government supported Deakin to become an engine room of job creation in the wake of some very dark days for Geelong when Ford announced an end to car manufacturing under the previous Labor government.  
Carbon Revolution, a global giant in the production of carbon fibre wheels based at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus, started life as a competition between Deakin students experimenting with lightweight wheels.
Underpinned by investments in university commercialisation through the Trailblazer and Economic Accelerator programs, the Coalition wants to see these incredible pockets of innovation in our universities become the norm.
There is no time to waste. 
While we welcome the various reviews being undertaken by the Albanese Government which provide the opportunity for the sector to be heard – the Productivity Commission Review into Early Childhood Education and Care, the review of the National School Reform Agreement, and of course the Universities Accord, there is also a danger of being caught in a review vortex. 
As a nation, we cannot slow the pace of reform required to provide greater access to early childhood education and care, to reverse declining standards in our schools and teacher workforce shortages, and to deliver the right skilled graduates to fuel our future workforce.
According to the Mitchell Institute, more than 9 million Australians live in a childcare desert which is defined as there being three children for a single childcare place. This is exacerbated in regional and remote areas and is the single greatest barrier for workforce participation, particularly for women.
In Kingston in South Australia, for example, there are more than 40 families without early childhood education and care, with the nearest service more than one hour away. No amount of childcare subsidy will benefit these families if they can’t access care.
Over the past two decades, despite a 60 per cent increase in real per student funding, our school performance has gone backwards in absolute terms and comparatively to other nations.  
Since 2000, Australia’s performance in the PISA test for 15 year olds in reading has declined by 26 points, or the equivalent of nine months of schooling. In maths, we have fallen 33 points and in science, we have fallen 24 points.
To lift student performance, we must focus on ensuring we have a strong curriculum, we are teaching phonics in every classroom and that we are using explicit teaching models to support engaged classrooms. 
The former Coalition Government proposed a three-pillar plan for our recovery, addressing what students are taught, how students are taught and the environment in which they are taught.
Deloitte analysis commissioned by the Department of Education shows that curriculum, teaching practice and classroom environment account for more than 75 per cent of the in-school influence on student performance.
It is imperative that the National School Reform Agreement funding is linked to targeted outcomes, particularly student performance and attendance. But it shouldn’t take another review and another 12 months which delays the additional schools funding Labor committed to deliver.  In what I believe constitutes another broken promise by the Albanese Government, even the Australian Education Union has accused Labor of betraying public schools by not delivering this funding in a timely manner.
The second substantial piece of work in the school system is the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan.
The federal education department has warned that the demand for secondary school teachers alone is projected to outstrip the number of graduate teachers by more than 4,000 over the next two years.
Enrolments for teaching courses are declining, with national enrolments down by up to 30 per cent in some states. Only around 50 per cent of students who commence their Initial Teacher Education studies complete their degrees. Let me say that figure again – 50 per cent – that’s absolutely not good enough.  For those that do enter the classroom, around 50 per cent of them leave within the first five years of their careers. Again, absolutely not good enough.
The Plan seeks to address the issues with recruiting, training and retaining teachers, and I am pleased that this builds on the work of the Coalition’s Initial Teacher Education Review. 
It is disappointing, however, that the Albanese Government has not endorsed a one-year postgraduate teaching pathway.
As many of you know, the graduate diploma in education was changed from a one-year course to a two-year course following the 2014 report by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, entitled Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.
Further studies have since provided little evidence that the current two-year masters degree is producing better outcomes than the previous one-year diploma.  Yet the masters has become a serious impediment for graduates in other disciplines or mid-career professionals wanting to switch to teaching.
Few professionals, particularly with the current cost-of living pressures, can afford to take two years off work halfway through their career to retrain as a teacher. If we are to attract the best and brightest towards a teaching career, we must remove barriers like these.

Last week in Senate Estimates – that was an initiation first week in the job – I reiterated that classrooms are for education not indoctrination. 
So many Australian parents share this view. There is no room for activism, campaigning, or personal agendas in Australian educational institutions.
I am concerned about reports that some states intend to teach only one side of the debate – the yes case – on an indigenous Voice to parliament.  This is not consistent with the national curriculum, including because it compromises the vital role that fostering curiosity and critical thinking plays in the development of every child.
I welcome comments by the Education Department Secretary that any such discussion should be balanced, along with her commitment to raise this matter with the states and territories.
For the same reasons, regardless of one’s personal views, it is right and proper that Universities Australia has not taken a position on whether to support the Voice. Whilst not stifling robust debate and the expression of strong and legitimately-held views, this position is entirely consistent with academic freedom.
While the Opposition welcomes the University Accord, we are disappointed that this represents delayed action by the Albanese Government until at least the 2024-25 Budget.
Labor had nine years to formulate a policy but I think it’s fair to say that they did not do a sufficient amount of work.  Now the proposal is to stall for another two years at the very least before the government presents a plan, let alone takes any action.
While sector consultation is vital, there are things that the government can do now to drive improved student retention and completion rates which tells a far greater story about the success of a university than enrolments.
Year 12 school students have a right to know, for instance, whether the course in which they are enrolled, or will be enrolled in, will be taught online, face to face or a mixture of both – the mode of course delivery has a profound impact on the student experience including of course on completion rates.
For instance, Education Department data for the 2020 year highlights a national student attrition rate of 18 per cent, as high as 25 per cent for some states.
In areas such as teaching, this problem is compounded by the low number of school leavers seeking to become teachers in the first place.  One school principal told me earlier this week that of the 170 Year 12 students enrolled in his school last year, only one student wanted to become a teacher.
It is also imperative that students can have their complaints properly heard and obtain refunds when courses are substandard.  There must be far greater transparency and accountability when universities fail to deliver as they should.
Access and opportunity is specified in the Accord’s terms of reference, but without first setting up Australian students with a functional education journey from the early years to schooling, university access based on disadvantage indicators will set students up to fail.
In October last year, this concern was raised by the Productivity Commission in its interim report, From Learning to Growth, and the Treasury in its analysis paper, Why the real wages of graduates with bachelor’s degrees have fallen.
Both reports highlight that the previous demand-driven system led to increased enrolments, including for disadvantaged groups. However, in the same period, there were lower completion rates and, consequently, many students were lumbered with HECS debts and no qualifications to help pay them off.
Students who gain entry to university through a disadvantage indicator and have lower academic preparedness must be adequately supported by government and universities to reach their full potential. Study supports, guides, tutoring are all fundamental to ensuring students are fully equipped with everything they need to graduate.
I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the higher education sector for the important role it plays in combating foreign interference and influence, and safeguarding our values in the face of increasing threats from others who want to do us harm.
While the government has said it will not approve new agreements for a Confucius Institute at an Australian university, I am concerned that the Foreign Minister has not used her powers under the Foreign Relations Act, introduced by the Coalition government, to cancel any of the existing agreements.  This conflicting position is difficult to reconcile.
I note the alarm bells rung by the Director General of ASIO, Mike Burgess, in his fourth annual threat assessment – who has called out public servants, academics and business identities who have asked for an ‘easing up’ on ASIO’s foreign interference and espionage operations at a time of unprecedented espionage and foreign interference activity in Australia.  
Clearly, there is still more work to be done.
Ladies and gentleman, universities have untold potential to drive the prosperity of our nation.  
I look forward to working with on that very special journey.   
Thank you.

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