HAMISH MACDONALD: This is RN Breakfast. There are several ways to determine the price of a university degree, for example by how much it costs to administer the course, by the demand or by the earning capacity of its graduates. In 2021, the Morrison Government changed all of that and made some degrees cheaper to entice students into areas like maths and science while charging thousands more for degrees like the humanities and law. Universities say it doesn’t work and is leaving students worse off. Catriona Jackson is the CEO of Universities Australia. She’s in Washington D.C. promoting how universities can support the delivery of AUKUS, which I do want to get to. I understand you’ve just arrived. There’s a little bit of jet lag involved, so we’ll allow you that. Catriona Jackson, thanks for coming on.
CATRIONA JACKSON: I’m sure you’ll be kind to me, Hamish. I’m sure you’ll be kind.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Never. Let’s start with the issues at home. You’re calling for the controversial Job-ready Graduates package introduced by the Morrison Government to be replaced. Why?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The intent was to try and encourage students to change their choices for university degrees. I don’t know about you, Hamish, but I did philosophy and politics at university. If you told me to do nursing or architecture, I would’ve done philosophy or politics. There was an attempt to use a price signal to get kids to change their minds about their courses and it just hasn’t worked. The evidence from people like Bruce Chapman, who designed the HECS scheme – the income contingent loan system that is a really fundamental part of the Australian system – was that it wasn’t going to work, and it hasn’t worked. It’s also left some lumpiness in the system and it just needs to be overhauled.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Isn’t it the case though this was always going to take some time to work? It wouldn’t be an immediate switch.
CATRIONA JACKSON: All the indications from the research from people like Bruce and others was these sorts of price signals just do not work. That’s quite a part, Hamish, from whether you think it’s a good idea to be getting people to change what they fundamentally believe they’re good at and they’re keen on and they’ve got proof from school that they’ll be good at as a job. If we want to direct people into different kinds of jobs, you need to make really clear to them how exciting and interesting they are. You need to talk to them at career level, back at school. You need to do a whole bunch of other things. You can’t just jigger their fees.
HAMISH MACDONALD: And so how do you get more students into those areas that they’re needed?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It depends on the judgment about what’s needed and what’s not needed. We know at the moment we have really serious skill shortages across a whole bunch of industries and migration is one answer. Making sure that the career paths are really clear, the advice you get when you’re in high school is fundamental and there’s work that can be done on that, so there’s a whole range of other things you can do other than supply ineffective price signals.
HAMISH MACDONALD: What are you going to ask for from the federal government? How do you want university degrees to be priced?
CATRIONA JACKSON: There’s always been a presumption in Australia that there’s a private benefit to a university degree but also a public benefit. There’s a mix of the student contribution and the taxpayer contribution. That is a good way of doing it. We are lucky in having the income contingent loan system. We are the envy of the world for a lot of other nations, including the one I’m currently in, so we have some great foundational stuff. However, there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not just about replacing JRG, although that is a first step and a very important short-term change. We need to make sure that we’ve got a really good partnership deal between governments and universities that balances the kind of certainty of policy and funding that you just need to get on with the job with some additional flexibility so universities can play to their mission. We can maybe get a little bit more differentiation in the system.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Does that mean the Commonwealth, the taxpayer, giving more money?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We think universities need to be adequately supported and fully supported. Almost every challenge we face needs more highly educated people rather than fewer. If you’re going to tackle climate change and energy renewal and all sorts of changes, all the geopolitical changes happening all around us, you really need to have highly skilled people that will require additional investment into research, into teaching, into infrastructure.
HAMISH MACDONALD: On that topic, you are in the United States. What are you doing there?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We are here to talk to our partners in universities and the security agencies over here about how we can make sure we are just putting in the early work and the quick work to make sure we’ve got the workforce for AUKUS. The government tells us 20,000 jobs are in it, almost all of those jobs will need university qualifications. In the capped environment we’re in at the moment, we can’t produce them. It’s also really important to understand, I’m sure as you do, Hamish, that it’s not just about nuclear physics. It’s engineers, psychologists, nurses, doctors, people across a huge range. We’re also, as I said before, in the middle of a massive skills crisis. We don’t think it’s constructive to be nicking skilled people from our colleagues in the US and the UK, so we’ve started deep conversations with them about how we collaborate deeply through research, but also how we collaborate as countries, so we are upping the game for everyone, upping the capacity for everyone rather than driving the price of those skilled workers up and stealing them from each other.
HAMISH MACDONALD: But isn’t it not just about the workers and the students where those come from, but where the knowledge comes from? Is there a question of that in terms of this new era that we’re embarking on in Australia with nuclear technology?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It certainly is, and we’ve already had deep conversations, as has the government, about the kind of education and training we’ll need from our colleagues in the US and the UK. I think some arrangements have already been made for people to come to Australia to tool up our educators, our researchers, so we can do the education and training properly as well.
HAMISH MACDONALD: In that regard, does the system put in place by the Morrison Government actually make a bit of sense given what’s needed, where the types of degrees that they were essentially making it cheaper for people to get into?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Hamish, if it was going to work, you might have the bones of a tiny wee bit of an argument, but there was just no indication it was going to work. So, no.
HAMISH MACDONALD: I do need to ask you about something in The Guardian this morning. It’s reporting that a senior academic at an Australian university says the way staff are being treated is “appallingly unethical”. That’s the quote. It says so many staff are being fired that students are like customers at a supermarket using a self-checkout. Can you see that happening in Australian universities?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I clearly wouldn’t agree with that being put that way. It is really clear that staff were let go during COVID and that was a tragedy for universities and for the communities that we support and we live in. Universities are coming back and recovering. Things are getting a little bit better, but don’t pretend there hasn’t been a really traumatic event, not just for the communities we serve but for the institutions that I represent. It will take us a little while to get through that and there is significant work going on with the Fair Work Ombudsman, Sandra Parker. I genuinely believe that universities are making a good fist of making sure that their industrial house is in order.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Catriona Jackson, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Pleasure, Hamish.