MODERATOR: One of the big ambitions behind Mary O’Kane and her panel’s report is to double the number of university students by 2050, that’s in 30 years. That comes with a big price tag, and I know it’s not the panel’s job to come up with how to fund these things, but it comes with a very big price tag. The last time we tried to have a huge increase in the number of students and including equity students who are costing more, there was no appetite for it. Within the five years, the whole thing had been capped. What makes you believe the government and the government after this government and the government after that is going to be prepared to keep paying for those additional students you say we need for the economy?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think the job of government, Julie, is to act in the national interest. The provision of human capital for this nation and the educational attainment for the nation is in the national interest. I believe it beholds both sides of the government to act in a bipartisan way, to commit to deliver the highest outcomes for the nation’s people. Prioritisation is always the challenge for government. Prioritisation of education when we can demonstrably see the translation of that investment into benefit is something that should come easily for any government.
JOURNALIST: Thanks, Julie, and congratulations today on the award for best journalist in education – congrats. And Professor. thank you very much for your speech. I was very interested to hear you speak about the importance to the nation of fixing skills shortages. I think at one point you said the economic cost of $7 billion if we don’t improve that university attainment. But it seems to me that that means we’re sending a message to young people today that in order to fix that problem, which previous generations have bequeathed to you, we now expect you to go to university and rack up enormous amounts of debt. That debt now currently averages $25,000. Within a couple of years, given indexation, that debt will go to $30,000 or more. I don’t know about you, but I know people who are turning away from universities because they regard it as a dud value proposition because of that debt. I know others who signed up and shelved their studies, again because they didn’t see the value was there. So, you can see where my question is going. Do you have any concerns about this value proposition to young people today? Do you think HECS needs changing?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: It’s a great question, David. I think the fundamental assertion that HECS needs changing, the answer to that is no. HECS is a fantastic system to defer the cost of education until you’re earning sufficiently to repay it. Where we need to be putting our emphasis is conveying the value, conveying the message, that actually is attained by those people engaged in education. We have ample data that demonstrates that the attainment of higher education pays dividends on the individual level and the societal level far in excess of the $25,000 debt. The linking of the HECS debts to CPI has never become an issue until the CPI was as high as it is in recent months. The repayment level thresholds for anyone with a HECS debt starts at $51,500, so the HECS system itself is good. The way in which it is geared and the way in which our system is funded to provide support to the individual and the institution is a core piece for the reform and that’s part of the Accord consideration.
JOURNALIST: So, when you say we need to invest more to make sure we can gain more graduates, are you basically saying to the government fund universities more so that we can have more university graduates but don’t change what the university graduates themselves have to pay. So there’s no intention anywhere of reducing those charges that university graduates are going to have to pay?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: Universities don’t have control over the HECS plans. JRG repositioned those plans in a way which universities questioned at the time and continue to question now. Having an equitable system, which is actually linked to the individual and having an equitable investment, which is actually student-centred is the important piece. I don’t think anyone should ever make a choice on what they want to study based on what their future income might be. They should be studying what they want to study, whether that’s in the arts or the social sciences or in the hard sciences, that’s in the individual pursuit. Anyone who is making an economic investment in terms of what they want to do, in terms of the pursuit of what should be their ambition to achieve and engage with society – that’s the wrong signal to send. I’m hopeful that the bands review happens as part of the Accord process and we will move to a more equitable funding system which is at the individual level and allows people to attain education on their terms.
JOURNALIST: Thanks for your address, Professor. Claudia Long from the ABC. As I’m sure you already know, Minister Jason Clare, the majority of the crossbench and the Opposition and the Greens have all been quite critical of the university sector in terms of saying it’s not doing enough to stop sexual violence on campus. We heard in July that universities are committed to a Respect at Uni week next year. I was just wondering if any vice-chancellors have raised concerns about that program? When will it be, and will the national student safety survey be conducted as well?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I’ll take that in three pieces. I just want to make a comment that I’ve seen the comments from Minister Clare today and from Sussan Ley, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and I have no issue whatsoever with anything that they said in Parliament today. We have a significant issue in our institutions which we have to step up, own and be accountable for, and we cannot do enough to actually engage to deliver better outcomes for our students in this matter. I think it’s worth remembering that the reason we are so alert to this is the steps that were taken by Universities Australia back in 2016 when we engaged with the Human Rights Commission in the surveys around Respect Now Always. Subsequent to that, the initiatives which have been put in place by our institutions are all aimed at actually providing better outcomes for students. The fact that one in five students experiences sexual harassment and that one in 20 students has had a sexual assault while in university is absolutely unacceptable. Every single one of the vice-chancellors here in this room would stand beside me and say that we cannot tolerate a single instance on our campuses.
JOURNALIST: Respectfully though, that doesn’t really address what I asked you.
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I haven’t got to the end of the question.
JOURNALIST: Oh, sorry about that. Yeah, well then keep going.
PROFESSOR LLOYD: In terms of our processes, the idea that we would have a nationwide activity run in the future is one that’s being caucused with our plenary today. We meet after this, so the vice-chancellors will be having that discussion later on. In terms of running the survey, personally I’m of the view that the surveys give us an indication as to where the issues are, but they’re not actually linked to the actions and outcomes that we have. That’s why I do welcome Patty’s appointment as the expert advisor to the governance piece, who can give us hard evidence-based interventions which we can enact and translate best practice into better outcomes for our students.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask about that survey though because that was undertaken in the middle of COVID. There were so many students, as you know, that weren’t on campus. Advocates and students say we don’t actually know what’s working without another national student safety survey. That was one of the recommendations of the AHRC report that you just mentioned, to have that every three years. Will that happen, or won’t it?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: We haven’t made a decision as to how we’re going to progress this, and that’s part of the caucusing we’ll be doing today.
JOURNALIST: Okay. Can you guarantee whether the Respect at Uni Week will actually go ahead next year or not?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: Again, that’s to be caucused today by the VCs.
JOURNALIST: Okay. So, neither of those things are confirmed?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: No.
MODERATOR: John Ross, Times Higher Education.
JOURNALIST: Hi, Professor Lloyd. A question on the same issue really. Universities are copping a lot of stick about sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus based on figures extrapolated from a survey a couple of years ago in which students were asked about their experiences not only on campus but also in bars, off campus, private homes, etcetera. Is there hard evidence that the incidences of this sort of crime is significantly different at universities than it is elsewhere in society? If it isn’t, then should Australia be thinking about taskforces for all the other places where this sort of activity is presumably happening like clubs and golf courses and media organisations and everywhere really?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: John, it’s a really salient question. The data that we amassed through the surveys, and even through the responses we see on our individual university levels, indicate that the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual violence in campuses approximately reflects what’s happening in broader society. But that’s not a cop out for university society. That’s a societal problem. We actually have authority and accountability within our institutions to provide a safe environment, and so we should be taking every step we can within those environments to make sure they’re safe. A lot of the instances that were reported in the surveys, in the two that we’ve had so far, have been on public transport, actually going to and from accommodation to the institutions. They’re not on-campus activities. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a university issue, because we still have to make sure that our students are supported and know how to respond and know how to engage. That consent is in place in terms of the training and provision we give to students, that they can behave in an educated fashion to overcome the ignorance which drives this kind of unacceptable behaviour. While I completely take your point, and I think everybody would accept that there is a societal issue, what we have to do as universities is make sure that we’re in the lead and actually making sure we take the steps that are necessary to snap it out on our campuses as best we can.
MODERATOR: Caitlin Cassidy, The Guardian.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much for your address. Returning if we can to equity, which is obviously a centrepiece of the Accord interim report and necessary to address these future workforce shortages. I guess considering that the HECS-HELP system has been hailed as making university accessible to all Australians, why then do you think we haven’t met the Bradley Review target of 20 per cent of enrolments from low SES backgrounds, which is in itself below population parity? Why has it typically been up to regional universities to do the heavy lifting?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I can take it from a sectoral position, and I can give you a view from myself as somebody who runs an institution, which actually has more than half of students from low SES backgrounds. I’ve looked at Barney Glover, Barney’s certainly got the highest enrolment of non-traditional entrants or low SES students of any institution in the country and is in metropolitan Sydney. Personally, I think that the way in which the Bradley targets haven’t been attained is a combination of two elements. One was the capping of the system at a time just as we were seeing the ability to access education become accessible to people. So, we got a cap in 2017, 2018. That was a pretty retrograde step at the time, and it impacted on those low SES students. In the time that we’ve had demand driven systems, and I do welcome the extension of the demand driven system to all Indigenous students in Australia, we’ve seen a doubling in the participation of Indigenous students in higher education. But as I said in the speech, the mere participation is not the outcome. Having people come in the doors is one thing, but we need people to be successful graduates, to be successful learners and to leave with skills and attainment that can translate into their benefit. The supports, the broader supports which allow people to engage in education to be able to say, ‘I’ll choose education over a job, or I’ll choose education over my part-time job’, those supports and those gears are not in place. That necessary placement poverty issues that we have, in terms of people who are undertaking work integrated learning or people who want to become a teacher who have to do a placement in a regional school, all of those drivers are extra to the provision of places in the demand driven system, and more to do with the supports that are there to ensure that students can access an appropriate income while they’re students. The investment piece, going back to the earlier question, is an important piece. They are making an investment, but we have to make sure that we have the places in place for them, but also the supports in them to be successful. I don’t think it’s a divide between regional and metropolitan. I think that if you look across the nation, there’s a good distribution of participation of under-represented groups in our nation. But when I look at the data in my institution, the groups who have fallen away from participation since the pandemic are low SES students and Indigenous students who are making economic choices to pursue a job in the short term over education in the long term. That’s going to drive our skills deficit and it’s going to be to the detriment of the economy as well.
MODERATOR: Can I just ask you a question on that while I’ve got you? So, just talking about productivity. You talked about the productivity problem. Michael Brennan and the former head of the Productivity Commission has called it the productivity paradox, where we’ve got the most highly educated society in history and yet productivity is sluggish. It’s sluggish at best. You spoke about research being a contributor to productivity. There’s billions and billions of dollars, $11 billion a year or so, going into research. But the new head of the Productivity Commission recently said it was because universities weren’t producing the skills that the economy needs to boost productivity. Could you just respond to that please?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think it’s there in the thread of my hastily delivered speech, Julie. We are currently being asked to address the iceberg of skills shortage, on a three-year horizon. I mean typically a degree program is a three-year piece. The attainment on upskilling of individuals to meet skills needs in the economy can be delivered in a different fashion. The funding mechanisms which are in place are all geared towards funding students who are enrolled in three-year programs, not at the microcredit level, not at the single year level and not sustainably at the sub-bachelor level. We do need to have an overhaul of the way in which we view attainment for skills shortage requirements, and the longer-term knowledge base of the economy. The two things are not geared at the same speed right now, and the Accord process is the opportunity to have that conversation.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Melissa Coade.
JOURNALIST: Hi, Professor. Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. You mentioned this regard shift about the higher education sector as more of a system, and also the need to think more about supporting higher education rather than reforming it. So, from a policy perspective and also with respect to the relationship higher education stakeholders have with the department, why are those distinctions important and what does that look like?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think at its heart it will boil down to individual level agreements between institutions and the department about mission-based activities. Recognising that a regional university versus a metropolitan university have different draw cards in terms of their offerings, have different constituents of students, have different costs of acquisition, have different costs of delivery, but yet there’s a uniformity assumed that every student in Australia is exactly the same. That’s not the case. Students have different needs and institutions have different needs and tailoring the supports for universities at the individual university level, decoupled from a macro one size fits all piece is the only way forward to make sure we have the appropriate differentiation and the appropriate supports in place for mission delivery at the institutional level.
JOURNALIST: Then when we also think about industry as a third quadrant, how does that interface with this new vision you propose?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: Certainly, there are nods in the less than formed recommendations in the Accord view around the creation of curriculum which links to industry needs and requirements. Universities don’t operate in a vacuum. I think it’s very important to make it clear that we do have contemporary curriculum which is informed by industry needs. The ability to respond on this three-year horizon piece becomes a challenge because the accreditation bodies that are in place, which largely dictate what happens in the passage of professional education, they’re on our horizon which is again decoupled from the end user. Having the end user voice in the formation of curriculum, in the articulation of skills requirements, and also in the ear of government in terms of the mechanisms for which we can intervene to deliver students at the pace which are needed by the end user in terms of this industry, is going to be incredibly important. Where that sits in the individual institution’s relationship with the department would be about mission-based differentiation. For example, my university is incredibly linked to true industry activities as a university of enterprise. I’d expect my relationship with the departments to double down on doing that and to demonstrate we are engaging to deliver graduates who would be employable. Another institution may have a different view about what it is they want to achieve for their local region or for their capital city.
JOURNALIST: Simon Grose, Canberra IQ. I’ve got this report that came out late last year. It’s called the ‘Skills Crisis, University Culpability and The Overseas Student Industry’. Are you aware of it?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I’m not.
JOURNALIST: Okay. It comes from the Australian Population Research Institute, which is part of the University of Melbourne. So, it’s got a bit of cred.
PROFESSOR LLOYD: That depends what it says.
JOURNALIST: Its lead author is Bob Birrell, one of eminent greasers of Australian social sciences. I’ll just read you a little excerpt that encapsulates what it’s saying. “At the expense of quality, universities have piled overseas students onto campuses without any obligation to provide additional teaching, accommodation or campus services. In the management and commerce field, universities have minimised teaching costs by large scale employment of casual teaching staff, sparking continuing complaints from domestic students about the quality of the courses. The result was a rapid expansion in courses that could be dumbed down to suit students with relatively poor English.” As Leith van Onselen of MacroBusiness put it, “Australian universities have become middlemen to the immigration system. They’ve lowered entry and teaching standards to maximise student numbers.” What do you say to that?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: Is there a reference and an evidence base with the assertion because it does sound like an opinion as opposed to an evidence-based fact piece. I can tell you that in my institution we’ve got 21 per cent international students, which doesn’t seem to be an overflow of international students. We haven’t changed our entry requirements one piece to address that. Students have to meet the same entry requirements as domestic students. I can also assert that in the delivery of education, while casualisation is one of the means in which we employ staff, it tends to be in areas where we put professionals into the classroom to deliver education which is actually linked to the industry and outcomes. I think that any assertion that institutions have dumbed down education to drive international education, I would refute. I’d also go back to say that in terms of satisfaction, the satisfaction level of students, as evidenced through QILT, is at its highest levels it’s been in the last five years.
JOURNALIST: You’ve basically said what your predecessors have said over the last few years. Thank you very much.
PROFESSOR LLOYD: You’re welcome.
JOURNALIST: As education Journalist of the Year, Julie Hare pointed out right at the beginning of this speech, you’ve come just from South Australia, where obviously the University of South Australia, University of Adelaide are getting very used to the new idea that they’ll actually become one university. That’s obviously going to work.
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I’d like to record that and bring it to the parliamentary inquiry on Monday as I go.
JOURNALIST: What a great idea that is. Obviously, New South Wales University, Sydney University and Macquarie University could co-join too. Ditto in Brisbane. Every state. We could really save a lot of money that’s going on bureaucracy, and instead you could get a sharp end where you are getting universities focusing on particular areas and making sure that we’re actually including all students at the right area. Whether that’s at a more vocational level for particular qualifications, or alternatively for high level research, institutions like the ANU which are specialising in research and they’re actually freed up to do that. Would you like to see much more territorial merging between universities? Or if not, why does it work in one state and why won’t it work in the others?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: My response to that, Nic, is that I’m a firm proponent of the autonomy of institutions to decide what’s in their best interest. In the case of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia have decided that to create a new institution is in our best interests, and the best interest of the state. I wouldn’t force that from a top-down perspective on any other jurisdiction. In many regards, I wouldn’t wish that the journey that we’re on right now on anybody else in this room. Having said that, I know that the destination in that journey will be a better institution in my home state. The evidence base that we have for what this institution will attain and the opportunity that affords us to rethink and redo and recast how we deliver education is absolutely exciting, but it’s also daunting. In terms of saving, the only guaranteed redundancy is that there will only be one vice-chancellor in the future, so there’ll be a saving on that regard. We’ve given a guarantee to all of our staff that there’ll be no forced redundancies and no retrenchments as a consequence of the merger for the next four years. It’s not about saving money, it’s about delivering better institutions, and if institutions decide that they want to combine to deliver better institutions, then more power to them.
JOURNALIST: So, if it’s about building better institutions, there’s no reason why other universities shouldn’t consider doing exactly that?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think they’re all watching to see how we do it first.
JOURNALIST: You seem to be arguing that you are exceptional. Why not New South Wales? I mean, why shouldn’t other universities in Victoria consider it?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: There’s no reason. There’s absolutely no reason why anybody else couldn’t consider it or may even be behind closed doors having those conversations right now.
JOURNALIST: So, you’d like to see it?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I’d like to see a lot of things, Nic. What I want to see is a better university system. Whether that has got more universities in it, because of the way in which we may move towards the delivery of teaching focused institutions as a result of the Accord, or whether it’s going to have fewer institutions because of amalgamations to create institutions of scale which are differentiated. Either one of those outcomes is going to be better if it drives a better system.
JOURNALIST: That was a very good talk. What I really liked was this mention of truth right at the start under Cardinal Newman and now, and I turned that into evidence base and we’re still arguing about it, aren’t we? Even though we know more, we are still arguing about it. What I’d like to ask you is, you waxed eloquent about the research that’s going into AUKUS, the defence and the nuclear submarines and that. What evidence do you have that this is a really high priority sector to invest in? When we look at the recent history of who’s done what and we look at the health services and the other problems that we’re saving. What evidence do you have to wax so eloquently as you did about the AUKUS research?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think my point about AUKUS was that AUKUS will not be delivered without the delivery of research that underpins the technologies that go into these nuclear-powered vessels and the workforce, in particular, the skilled workforce which is required for the production. The prioritisation question is one which has actually the very first question I was asked today about the prioritisation of education over defence, over health. That’s a government challenge. Where we as institutions have to be ready to respond is to be able to deploy our skills, our technical sets, our staff, our resources in the delivery of the solution to whatever problem’s put in front of us. Right now, the challenge is to deliver sovereign capability in defence, and that sovereign capability is linked to a global relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom which will eventuate in the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines. We do not have the capacity in this nation to deliver those submarines based on the current productivity of engineers and graduates in our institutions. It’s a massive challenge for us to upskill and deliver those students against a backdrop of underfunding in the delivery of education in engineering nationally through the way in which policy positions have been geared. It’s a multi-faceted piece. I’m not arguing the toss as to whether it’s a prioritisation which is evidence-based from a universities perspective. In responding to the national challenge and being able to step into delivery of the workforce, the universities need to be geared to be able to actually address the challenge.
JOURNALIST: The question, really, it’s a government decision to put that in high priority?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: Ultimately.
JOURNALIST: Hello again, just going back to the Accord, so the five recommendations from the Accord Panel that have already been accepted and very much welcomed by the sector, at least two of them involved quite a bit of extra paperwork. The abolition of payroll comes with a whole bunch of obligations on universities to have new policies that they may not have written before in certain shapes. The funding guarantee continuity comes with an obligation to spend any excess funds on supporting students, which presumably also involves extra reporting as well as removing the possibility of universities using it for other good purposes, like saving people’s jobs. I’m sure these initiatives are well-intentioned, but is there a danger that they’re pushing people away from fundamental activities like teaching and research and on to filling out forms?
PROFESSOR LLOYD: I think the industry of compliance is a significantly large industry in our organisations right now and I’ve no issue with compliance in terms of regulation and providing reporting and transparency about what we do. I think that one of the key concerns I would have, and I think my colleagues share, is that in any interventions which are proposed through the Accord process, that we reduce the complexity of the system which we have because we do tend to [inaudible] complexity and as you say, complexity comes with overheads and reports. If we can get to a more streamlined, less complex system at the end of this journey, we’ll have a better system as well.