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Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit

Australia’s declining school standards crisis: it is time for urgent action by government and universities

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to address the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit.

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

I would also like to acknowledge the AFR’s commitment to journalistic excellence in its work reporting on the higher education sector, and the many Vice Chancellors and other university leaders who are attending the summit.

Overview

Today I will outline the Opposition’s concerns about the parlous state of our education system, and our focus on the critical need to put students first.

To put students first, we need a more accountable and transparent university sector which is measured according to student outcomes, not enrolments, and delivers courses which are fit for purpose and closely aligned with the needs of industry.

To put students first, we need a government that’s prepared to make the tough decisions, not tinker at the edges; a government which protects students from incurring crippling student debt, not one that throws them to the wolves.

An education system in decline

As you might have gathered, I am not going to mince my words today.

I am angry, and you should be too.

Our education system is failing young Australians.  The declining standards in our schools, at both primary and secondary level, have become a national embarrassment.

On almost every score, Australian students are failing to make the grade.

    • • One in five Year 7 students have a reading ability of a child in Grade 4.
    • • The most recent NAPLAN results tell us the number of Year 3 students in the bottom two bands for reading have increased from 8.6 per cent in 2018 to 11.2 per cent in 2022. For numeracy, this is up from 11.5 per cent to 14.6 per cent.
    • • By Year 9, only 86.5 per cent of boys are meeting the national minimum reading standard, the worst result since NAPLAN began. For indigenous students, it’s even worse at only 67.2%.
    • • According to the Australian Education Research Organisation or AERO, only 26 per cent of Year 9 students are using correct punctuation, with the majority writing at a Year 3 level.
    • • Just yesterday, AERO released a new study on the impact of poor learning in the early years of school. Students who perform below expectations in their Year 3 NAPLAN test are at high risk of continuing to perform below par throughout their schooling.  In other words, they never catch up.

Our international PISA results – the Programme for International Student Assessment – are particularly grim.

      • • Twenty years ago, Australia ranked 4th internationally in reading, 8th in science and 11th in maths.  Now we have fallen to 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths.
      • • Australia has lost the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning over the past two decades. We were once on par with top performing nations such as Singapore. Now the average 15-year-old Singaporean is three years ahead of their Australian counterparts.

As AERO has reiterated, the biggest disadvantage a child can suffer is not their postcode; but a poor education which robs them of high- level skills in literacy and numeracy.

The battle to restore the highest standards to our schools is compounded by declining attendance rates, an over-crowded curriculum, and a growing teacher shortage crisis for which the government has no immediate solution.

But this is a battle our country cannot afford to lose.

Urgent action required

It is beyond doubt that these declining standards are directly and seriously affecting the competency of the average student who enrols at an Australian university.

That’s why the higher education sector needs to care a lot more about the pipeline of students knocking on their front door … especially when deficient university teaching courses are, in part, to blame for so many students not receiving the education they deserve in Australian classrooms.

Our clever country has drifted into mediocrity.

This critical issue, regrettably, attracted little attention in the University Accord’s interim report.

Unless the Albanese Government, along with the mainland states and territories, starts to treat this situation with the urgency it deserves, more young Australians will fail to reach their full potential.

If schools are not adequately preparing students for the 21st century global knowledge economy, this will affect our productivity and future prosperity, as well as our reputation as a preeminent destination for international students which last year boosted our national economy by $25.5 billion.

This is not about a lack of funding.  Over the past two decades, despite a 60 per cent increase in schools funding, standards continue to decline.

This is about the refusal by Labor governments – state and federal – to mandate evidence-based teaching and learning in every Australian classroom – including high impact, explicit instruction, and the teaching of phonics.

The era of inquiry-based learning – or loose learning as I call it – has caused enormous harm.

I pay tribute to the Tasmanian Liberal Government which has announced it will mandate evidence-based best practice literacy instruction, along with rigorous testing, in every classroom by 2026.

I also pay tribute to some incredible schools which have embraced the science of learning and are seeing some incredible results: schools like Challis Community Primary School in Perth, the Catholic schools in Canberra-Goulburn, and Marsden Road Public School in Liverpool, Sydney, where teachers are told to forget everything they learn at university, a terrible indictment on our tertiary education system.

Coalition’s record of putting students first

That’s why the Coalition when in government drove the teacher training reforms our country needs to help lift standards, incentivise teachers and hold universities to account for poor performance, recommendations largely replicated in the government’s Strong Beginnings report.

Our firm focus was – and continues to be – on putting students first.

When in government, the Coalition provided the university sector with unprecedented support during the pandemic whilst implementing a range of measures to drive accountability, transparency, and better student outcomes.

This included the $2.2 billion University Research Commercialisation Package – to ensure that research is delivering real outcomes for our nation.  Too many research papers – which serve global rankings and international student revenues but very little else – end up in the bottom drawer.

Over nine years, we increased funding to universities by 34 per cent to $19.5 billion and increased the number of Commonwealth 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.  We fostered innovation by funding microcredential courses to support Australians to upskill and reskill in areas of industry need and delivered 32 Regional University Centres.

Our Job-Ready Graduates package of reforms created 30,000 new university places, 50,000 short course places and more support for students in regional and remote Australia.  We uncapped Commonwealth supported places for indigenous students from rural and regional Australia.

The delivery of lower-cost degrees to drive national priority skills has been broadly criticised – but so far, the government has come up with no answers other than to abolish the 50 per cent pass rule, an important safeguard against students continuing to enrol in units of study they fail, leaving them with massive HECS debt and nothing to show for it.

Labor’s HECS debt disaster

Labor’s HECS debt disaster is crippling young Australians.  On this measure, Education Minister Jason Clare deserves an F.

In June, more than 3 million Australians were hit with a 7.1 per cent increase in their student loan thanks to Labor’s skyrocketing inflation.  This has driven up the average HECS loan of $23,685 by $1,700. Over three years, under the Albanese Government, HECS loans are set to increase by more than 15 per cent.  HECS debt liability is mounting at such a rate it’s slashing the borrowing power of first home buyers.

There’s been no action even on the antiquated HECS payment scheme which Jason Clare promised to fix after initially declaring there was nothing to see here.  HECS debt repayments are not accounted for in real time, and this is unjustly driving up student debt.

These pressures are made worse by Labor’s Big Australia policy which will see 1.5 million people heading over our way over five years. Around half of these arrivals will be international students.  This has big consequences for domestic students who need access to strong job prospects and affordable housing to thrive and succeed.

However, the Albanese Government has no economic plan to deliver the affordable housing and other infrastructure necessary to support such a large influx of migrants.

If universities are going to continue to sell the dream of an Australian education overseas, they must take greater responsibility to ensure that students don’t end up couch surfing, just to make ends meet. The Opposition is carefully considering how universities can be held to account for their current practices which, far too often, put students last.

A more accountable and transparent university sector

On behalf of the Opposition, I’ve been raising deep concerns from day one about the failure of the government to hold universities to account for the product they sell.  When students are choosing to enter university, they deserve all relevant information – from completion rates to out of pocket costs to modes of delivery to employment outcomes.

When universities provide deficient courses, students must be able to access refunds through a student ombudsman or other independent mechanism.

Delivering value to students is critical.  That’s why we opposed the government’s Startup Year loans scheme which charges student entrepreneurs full fees for accelerator courses they can currently do for free. This is absurd.

The failure of most universities to oppose such poor policy was driven by self-interest and not what was in the best interests of students.

While we were able to secure amendments to protect students’ IP and deliver a minimum number of places to regional Australia, issues overlooked by the government, regrettably, our attempt to give students the right to refunds for deficient courses was opposed by Labor and the Greens.  So much for Labor and the Greens’ commitment to student rights.

It’s therefore no surprise that I am a little cynical about the government’s last-minute efforts to introduce a student support scheme – complete with fines for non-compliance and possible refunds – which looks like the government is scrambling after dropping the ball. It is concerning that the government has not foreshadowed the critical need to make student safety and wellbeing central to its proposed student support policy.

If universities are going to face financial consequences for not providing adequate support for students, perhaps they should wear some of the liability for the consequential student debt?

As contentious as that may be, it’s just not acceptable that only 41 per cent of undergraduates are completing their four-year degree in that time, with 21 per cent dropping out altogether. For indigenous students, it’s much worse – the four-year completion rate is just 26 per cent while more than a third drop out.

This is one reason we should consider an Australian university ranking system which would drive the quality and competitiveness of our higher education landscape. While Australia boasts a strong reputation for its educational institutions, the absence of a dedicated domestic ranking system leaves a crucial gap in evaluating and benchmarking the performance of universities.

Ranking every aspect of a university course’s performance – from teaching quality to research output to industry engagement to employment outcomes – would build on the Coalition’s commitment to put students first.

This could also serve as a powerful tool for policymakers and funding bodies, offering a data-driven approach to the allocation of valuable resources.  Excellence could be rewarded, and dud degrees – and there are quite a few out there – could be defunded.  Now there’s an idea which will stir a few VCs from their ivory towers!

Of course, the Opposition is open to all good ideas as part of the University Accord process, but we remain concerned about the government’s vortex of education reviews which pushes any real action out to next year and beyond.

Prioritising job-ready graduates

As the Business Council of Australia has highlighted in its Seize the Moment report, universities must do a much better job delivering to industry job-ready graduates who possess the foundational skills necessary to thrive in the workplace.  There are critical skills such as cyber skills which almost every university graduate will need. But where is the focus on critical skills at our universities?

Unless universities better respond to this challenge especially in the face of workforce shortages, industry will have no choice but to step in and recruit and train the best and brightest from school, making a university courses for these students unnecessary.

Teaching expertise is paramount. When I enrolled in a BA in Journalism at RMIT, my lecturer in television news reporting hadn’t come to grips with the fact that the industry had moved from film to videotape. I don’t want to be rude, but there was little reason to stay … I am sure things are a lot better these days.

We must also not lose sight of the fact that boilermakers and welders are just as important as engineers and economists.  Attending university is one important pathway to future employment, but it is not the be all and end all.

Conclusion

Of course, the biggest challenge for universities starts in the early years at school. Unless we improve the pipeline of students seeking to embark on a university education in this country, the value of a university qualification over time will wane.

In an inspiring model of education, Curtin University has partnered with Challis Primary, a low SES school in Perth. University students in occupational therapy, speech therapy, social work and early education are learning on the job whilst providing valuable wrap-around services to students who are thriving.

There is much that the higher education sector can do to bolster the educational fortunes of young Australians.

As they say, you reap what you sow.  Young Australians deserve better. Parents deserves better.  And our country deserves better.

Thank you.

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