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Albanese Government must safeguard academic freedom in Australian universities, 2 minute statements

I am delighted to rise in this debate as the new shadow minister for education. In taking over from Alan Tudge, I have very big shoes to fill. I would like to start by acknowledging Alan’s exceptional work as the former Minister for Education and Youth. He is certainly a great loss to our team. Alan drove many important initiatives now being supported by the Albanese government, including the coalition’s $2.2 billion research commercialisation agenda for the Australian university sector, including the magnificent $1.6 billion Economic Accelerator program.

I am delighted that this passed the parliament yesterday—a key initiative, as I say, of the former coalition government. This is a program which will drive the translation and commercialisation of research to ensure that Australian universities can take more of their innovations and inventions to market. The initiative follows a review which found that, while Australian universities undertook world-leading research and published more than 100,000 academic papers, too often this did not result in tangible income.

The coalition is determined to support a new wave of commercial innovation in the same way that Australian research developed the electronic pacemaker, penicillin, the black box flight recorder, wifi, cochlear implants and, in more recent times, from Deakin University the lightweight carbon fibre wheel, which started as a competition between Deakin University students and has now resulted in the magnificent advanced manufacturing carbon revolution. This is a program which will help bridge the valley of death when early-stage research is often not progressed because of the risk and uncertainty of commercial returns. I particularly want to reference the Business Council of Australia’s comments about our commercialisation package.

It said it will:
… significantly improve Australia’s ability to commercialise our best ideas and innovations, scaling them up to create exciting new industries, new exports and new highly skilled jobs for Australians.

As I said, this is a very important part of the coalition’s legacy in education, which also includes record funding for early education and schools and a laserlike focus on the importance of lifting school standards, including through strengthened teacher training and a stronger curriculum.

As I mentioned at the Universities Australia annual conference, we do welcome the various reviews being undertaken by the Albanese government into early child care, into schools and into universities through the Universities Accord. But we are concerned there is a danger of being caught in a review vortex. We simply cannot slow the pace of reform which is required to provide greater access to early childhood education and care, to reverse declining standards in our schools and teacher workforce pressures, and to ensure that we deliver the right skilled graduates to fuel our future workforce through our university and higher education sector.

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 comparative to other nations. This is a cause of great concern for all Australians. 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 24 points. To lift student performance we must absolutely focus on ensuring we have a strong curriculum, that we are teaching phonics in every classroom and that we are using explicit teaching models to support engaged classrooms.

I have to say I was delighted to meet with a group of primary school principals yesterday from the government, Catholic and independent schools sectors who share a common goal: to lift standards and to ensure that our students reach the very best of their potential. A crowded curriculum bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape which provides too little discretion for school principals and individual schools remains a very big issue in Australian primary schools, and it’s certainly going to be a focus of my work as the shadow minister for education.

The former coalition government proposed a three-pillar plan for our recovery, addressing what students are taught, how they are taught and the environment in which they are taught. In relation to the National School Reform Agreement, it is imperative that that funding is linked to targeted outcomes, particularly student performance and attendance. But I have to say it should not take another review and another 12 months, which would delay the additional schools funding that Labor committed to deliver. I am very concerned that this delay in effect constitutes another broken promise by the Albanese government because even the Australian Education Union has accused Labor of betraying public schools by not delivering this funding in a timely manner. I also want to reiterate the importance of returning to a one-year diploma of education, another issue I raised in my Universities Australia address. I am pleased that education ministers, at their meeting on 27 February, about four days after I raised this, resolved to consider how a two-year postgraduate teaching degree could be reduced to 12 months. With falling graduate numbers and teachers continuing to leave the profession in droves, it is critical that we explore all avenues to get more teachers into our schools. A one-year postgraduate teaching qualification will encourage more Australians, both graduates and professionals working in other careers, to switch to teaching.

Breaking down barriers to a career in teaching—let’s face it, it is a wonderful career—whilst safeguarding the quality and standards of teacher training is vital. It’s backed up by the research, which shows there is no significant change in qualifications and in outcomes for teachers who do a one-year postgraduate qualification compared with a two-year master’s degree. I want to congratulate Premier Perrottet, who has taken such a strong lead by announcing that New South Wales will recognise a one-year postgraduate teaching qualification. New South Wales and the Liberals in New South Wales are absolutely leading the way. I ask why Labor’s education minister, Mr Clare, is dragging the chain.

I also want to call on the Albanese government to take action on two other important issues in the time I have remaining. I have raised concerns about the Confucius Institutes in a range of Australian universities. I acknowledge the higher education sector plays a vital role in combating foreign interference and influence, 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 any 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 deeply conflicting position is very difficult to reconcile, and it needs to be urgently addressed.

I also want to call on the Albanese government to ensure that all of the important work of the coalition on safeguarding academic freedom and freedom of speech on Australian university campuses is not undermined. I note that 41 Australian universities have agreed to the model code developed by the Hon. Robert French AC, a key recommendation of the coalition’s review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers. It is of concern that a number of universities, including the University of Melbourne, have adopted a position on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament which could potentially undermine academic freedom. It’s absolutely fundamental that academic freedom is preserved at all costs. It protects the rights of academics to engage in free, robust speech. As we know, it is incumbent on all educational institutions to teach Australians how to think, not what to think, and academics who don’t believe in free speech have no place at Australian universities.

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