Skip to content

Address to 2024 Universities Australia Solutions Summit

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, and pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging.

I acknowledge the Chair of Universities Australia, Professor David Lloyd, and new CEO Luke Sheehy. Congratulations on your appointment Luke. You did a terrific job at ATN, and that will no doubt continue at UA.

I would like to acknowledge the chancellors, vice chancellors, education leaders and of course Professor Mary O’Kane AC and other members of the Accord panel.

I salute each and every one of you – for your hard work, your commitment, and your dedication to the higher education of Australians.

There is nothing more important than the transformational power of a great education.

It gives our lives meaning.

It creates enormous opportunities.

It fuels innovation, drives careers, and builds extraordinary businesses.

Australian universities play a critical role in ensuring we have the skills and workforce and enterprise to power our nation – now and into the future – underpinned by world class research and the pursuit of excellence.

At last night’s gala dinner which was a terrific event, the Shaping Australia awards – co-sponsored with the Australian Newspaper – shone a light on some of the incredible work happening at Australian universities.

  • • The revolutionary biosensor for the treatment of diabetes developed by Paul Dastoor from the University of Newcastle
  • • The paint which protects buildings from bush fire which you can buy in Bunnings; the innovation of UNSW engineer Guan Yeoh
  • • The University of South Australia’s Arjun Budlakoti who teaches anatomy like no other;
  • • Joint winners of the community champion award – Central Queensland University’s U-Beach program and Uni SA’s IFarmWell suicide prevention program
  • • And the extraordinary Nexus Program from La Trobe University headed by the Dean of School Education, Joanna Barbousas – which is transforming teacher education and young lives in disadvantaged schools across Victoria with evidence-based teaching methods

All just incredible stuff.

Congratulations to all the winners.

For universities, the opportunities and the challenges are considerable.

The Coalition welcomes this national discussion on reforming the higher education sector.

We are considering the Universities Accord final report in detail.

In everything our universities do, we want to ensure that students come first.

That’s why we’ve advocated for an independent student ombudsman to give students a voice and welcome the government’s announcement.

From safety on campus to refunds for deficient courses, students deserve better when their complaints aren’t adequately managed or resolved by universities.

We supported the government’s expansion of Regional University Centres in the regions, though we do question the merits of building these centres in the suburbs.

But in putting students first, we have raised continuing concerns about escalating student debt – up a staggering 7.1 per cent last June – and cost of living pressures on students including access to affordable housing.

And we opposed a number of measures that we believe were not in the best interests of students – Startup Year – a full fee loan scheme for courses that were previously free – go figure. And the abolition of the 50 per cent pass rule.

As the minister for education, Jason Clare, said last night – there is a lot in the Accord’s reform agenda.

And might I say a little bit of kite flying – with raised expectations of paid student placements for student nurses, teachers and carers to combat placement poverty, changes to HECS repayments and much greater support for students in need – those from low SES families and the regions.

It is disappointing however that the government’s response has raised many more questions than answers, at a time when universities – still suffering the aftershocks of COVID – need certainty and stability like never before.

The government has not articulated any plan for universities or put forward a set of priorities – and that makes your job tough.

Currently, 860,000 Australians have a Commonwealth supported place.

The Accord suggests this number will increase to 1.8 million students over some 25 years – because 55 per cent of all Australians aged between 25 and 34 will need a bachelor’s or higher degree by 2050.

This target underpins many of the report’s recommendations.

However, the ANU’s higher education expert, Andrew Norton, estimates universities will need to enrol students with an ATAR as low as 45 to reach this number.

Monday’s front page of the Australian highlighted that uncomfortable truth – ‘Low bar to entry under university reform.’

And herein lies a big challenge for the higher education sector.

You know you can’t just open your doors and hope for the best.

Pushing vulnerable students with poor grades into a university course, risks alienating them from a trade or other more suitable work and putting them on a pathway to failure.

The success of your students requires ongoing commitment, investment and hard work.

Rightly, the Accord has a strong focus on breaking down the barriers for disadvantaged students and those from the regions.

Disappointingly though, it failed to highlight the incredible work already being done in this space by our universities investing in foundation skills – through the delivery of scholarships, outreach courses and intensive pathway programs.

Your investment in these enabling courses isn’t just tokenistic, it reflects a true belief in the transformational power of education.

But I might add – it should not take a bonus payment to universities to ensure a student completes his or her degree.

Surely that is core business – this is what universities are paid to do – by students and by the Commonwealth.

So, this is one recommendation that should not be supported.

Of course, there were a few things the minister didn’t mention in his speech last night – the controversial Higher Education Future Fund and Labor’s promise to overturn the Job-ready Graduates funding model which would drive up the cost of teaching and nursing degrees.

There was no mention of Labor’s commitment to increase research funding to 3 per cent of GDP or the $102 million cut to university research in the last MYEFO statement.

There was also not a word about the growing chaos caused by the covert refusal of the government to process thousands of international student visas which has the potential to harm the reputation of Australia’s biggest services export.

Arguably, the biggest favour that governments can do for universities is to fix our schools.

We need more students to finish school. And we need to do a lot more to raise academic standards.

One in three students is failing NAPLAN.

One in five Year 7 students has the reading ability of a Year 4 student.

Once children fall behind, only a small percentage catch up.

The average Year 10 student from the PISA international results tells us the students are now one year behind in his or her learning compared to 20 years ago.

One whole year.

There is no more important education reform than raising school standards and delivering engaged classrooms– by mandating evidence-based teaching methods such as explicit instruction in every Australian school.

The schools and school systems which have moved to the science of reading and other proven teaching methods – such as the Canberra Goulburn Archdiocese – are producing some exceptional results.

This group of 56 catholic schools is being supported by the groundbreaking work of La Trobe’s Nexus program.

Three hundred catholic schools in Melbourne are about to adopt a teaching program founded in explicit instruction, because they worked out that this is what works and they are also being supported by Nexus.

Universities can and do transform lives every day.

We need to make sure we support a myriad of success stories at every university – to shape Australia now and for generations to come.

Thank you.

Share this