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Kim Beazley’s Knowledge Nation Policy

The Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, has outlined the ALP’s plan for a Knowledge Nation.

Beazley began the political year with an address to the National Press Club.

Text of Kim Beazley’s Address to the National Press Club.

Opposition Leader Kim BeazleyOn Monday, I set out our priorities for government – education for all, rebuilding Medicare, better living standards for all Australians wherever they live, and building a Knowledge Nation.

Today I want to expand on one of those priorities – building a Knowledge Nation.

The terms and conditions of success for any nation in the 21st Century begin with its investment in its people and creating an innovative society.

A successful nation must be a fair nation. The new opportunities must be spread as widely as possible to win the support of all our people for change.

In Australia’s case this is doubly important. Because our population is so small, we need to harness everyone’s talents and energies, not just the wealthy few, if we are to succeed this century.

The Howard Government has neglected these issues for 5 years. Labor has forced them back onto the national agenda.

Next week, the Government will produce an Innovation statement. Whatever its content, we know that fundamentally this statement will be an admission of 5 lost years.

This Government has ignored or botched report after report calling for action: the Allen Consulting Report on high-tech jobs; the Mortimer Review of Business Programs; the Goldsworthy Global Information Economy report; and more recently the Chief Scientist’s Science Capability Review; and David Miles’s Report resulting from the Innovation Summit.

While our competitors around the world invest heavily in science, technology and engineering, our Government has only reluctantly and belatedly decided to act.

Whatever initiatives it announces will not lie at the core of the Government’s intellectual being. They will merely be an exercise to clear the decks and get on with what really interests them.

As Einstein said, no problem can be solved by the same thinking which created it.

Increasingly as we see more detail of Mr Howard’s statement next week, it looks to be not new thinking, but a reversal of the policies of the last 5 years:

  • A reversal of the cut to R&D tax concessions;
  • A reversal of Government cuts to the CSIRO;
  • A reversal of some cuts to universities and research;
  • And now a partial reversal of the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment.

One may well ask, where has this Government been these last 5 years?

On schools, all this latest backflip on the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment will do is give back to public schools – with conditions – money they used to receive without conditions. And in any case, this measure gives the 7000 public schools in Australia half the increase in funding the Government is giving to the 61 elite Category One private schools.

Governments must get their priorities right.

We know what this Government’s priorities are.

Labor’s priorities will be different: under us, there will be millions of dollars for quality, but not one extra cent for privilege.

Einstein is right too when it comes to the Government’s record of cutting $1 billion from universities since coming to office, and watching cheerfully as business expenditure on R&D fell from 0.86 percent of GDP in 1995-96 to 0.67 percent in 1998-99.

In fact, current investment in R&D is 33% lower than it would have been had it continued to grow the way it did in the 3 years before Mr Howard cut the 150% tax concession.

This means the very best we can hope for from next week is 7 lost years in R&D – Mr Howard’s wilderness years for the Knowledge Nation.

We all know there is a steady brain drain of our best and brightest from our poorly-funded universities.

In a recent report in Science magazine, young Sydney microbiologist Dee Carter described the crowded and dilapidated conditions in her laboratory. They are so bad that she refuses requests from overseas collaborators to visit. “I’m too embarrassed about the state of the lab to invite them over” she said.

Who knows how many potential Nobel Prize winners we are losing each year?

The job of Government is to build the Knowledge Nation, maximising the use of new technologies across all areas of endeavour, with a workforce trained to realise the potential of those technologies.

Making Australia a Knowledge Nation must start with our education system. I want to make 2001 the year in which education is recognized as the number one political issue for Australia.

Last year Cheryl Kernot and I released a report into the future needs of the Australian workforce — Workforce 2010.

The Report showed that by 2010, forty percent of all new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And yet currently only 15 percent of Australia’s workforce has this level of qualification.

This means we must increase by tens of thousands the number of university graduates every year.

What do we find from the Howard Government at this important time in our history? It is the only government in the western world presiding over a declining public investment in education and research. Without the bucket loads to elite private schools this would look even more appalling.

We now know that the Howard Government’s increases in HECS have flattened demand for university places. Enrolment demand for university undergraduate places has fallen by 3.6 per cent since 1996, most dramatically among mature-aged people who have to repay HECS as they study, on top of their other financial commitments.

The plan to create full fee-paying undergraduate courses for the so-called ‘rich and thick’ has been a complete flop, with enrolments virtually at zero.

In Labor’s last 7 years, we increased the number of Australian undergraduate students by more than 100,000. Since the election of the Howard Government this rate of growth has slowed dramatically. And now I discover from the DETYA website that the Howard Government achieved a new benchmark in the year 2000 by actually reducing the number of Australian university students by more than 4,000.

A wonderful way for the Government to celebrate the dawning of a new millennium – driving Australian students out of university.

But that’s all just in a day’s work for the Howard Government.

We can only guess at the impact on enrolments of Mr Howard and Dr Kemp’s preferred plan — still in the bottom drawer — to deregulate university fees and replace HECS with real interest rate loans. The $100,000 dollar degrees!

The additional graduates we need by 2010 present a challenge every bit as great as that which confronted the Whitlam and Hawke Governments, and which led to the massive expansion in the number of Australians getting a tertiary education during the 1970s and 1980s.

Labor, once again, will rise to that challenge. We recognise the need to get more Australians into tertiary education – and we’re going to do something about it.

Today I announce that a Beazley Labor Government will establish a new public university — the University of Australia Online, or UAO.

It will have the following features:

  • The Commonwealth will fund an additional 100,000 university places by 2010 for Australian students who agree to do their degrees online;
  • All units undertaken online will attract only half the current rate of HECS;
  • Australia’s existing universities will receive Commonwealth assistance in converting units and courses into an online format, through the establishment of a Content Development Program;
  • Existing students may also choose to do all or part of their degree online;
  • The Commonwealth will establish an Institute for Online Teaching to make Australia the world leader in research in this field; and
  • Labor’s IT and communications policies will ensure that universities and students have access to sufficient capacity to realise the potential of online learning.

We have included in a separate kit some more details of how these policies will work.

What I want to focus on today is what I believe this policy proposal will achieve.

The UAO will do two vital things for Australia: it will significantly expand the opportunity to study at university for thousands of Australians who would otherwise miss out; and it will make Australia a world leader in providing online education.

Let me deal with these in turn, beginning with how Labor plans to expand access.

By creating 100,000 additional online university places by 2010, and halving HECS for all units undertaken online, Labor will unlock the door to opportunity for many thousands of Australians talented enough to succeed at University, but locked out by high fees, and the difficulty of fitting study into a busy life.

To ensure that mature age students are able to meet the high entry standards of the UAO and develop the study skills needed to succeed in higher education, foundation courses will be made available free of charge.

As well as changing individuals’ lives; the UAO will expand the skill base of the nation.

  • Australians living outside the major cities will have a better opportunity than ever before to study and interact with fellow students and lecturers without having to leave home;
  • It will be a boon for the parents wanting to upgrade their skills while raising the kids at home; and
  • It will offer new hope for workers at risk in their current jobs to train for a new and more secure job, without having to leave work.

For those not coming directly from year 12, pathway courses will be developed to assess potential UAO applicants. These courses will teach them the skills they need, and grant them access to UAO degrees. I announce today that Labor will make these online pathway courses free of charge. This is Labor’s promise to all those Australians who have ever wondered if they have what it takes to succeed at University.

To ensure that we deliver on the UAO promise, online degrees will be funded at a level that will provide a strong incentive to the universities participating.

In addition, students studying degrees on campus will be able to undertake part of their degree online, paying only half the rate of HECS for those units.

All of this requires government to help people get access to computers and an Internet connection to make the promise a reality. We will be releasing our detailed IT and communications policies to achieve this later this year.

From all the experience of service delivery over the Internet, we know that – with proper upfront investment – average costs of education will come down significantly as numbers of students increase. This is how we know that our plan is affordable and responsible.

Now let me explain how Labor believes this policy will make Australia a world leader in online education.

Australia already has a head start towards becoming the world leader in online education:

  • We are the world leader in distance education;
  • We have formidable skills in multimedia;
  • Between them, Australians speak all the languages of the world; and
  • We share the incomparable gift in this globalised age of the English language.

Aware of the potential of online education, many Australian tertiary institutions are putting selected courses online, but have been hampered by high upfront costs. Under the Howard-Kemp cuts, they simply can’t afford the up-front investment needed to do the job properly.

Online education is not education on the cheap. The executive director of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, Stuart Hamilton, has stated correctly that substantial upfront investment will be needed to improve electronic access to libraries; ensure universities have reliable computer networks; keep universities at the forefront of technological change; and provide training for academics in new teaching methods.

I hear this message and I agree with it, which is why I am committing a Beazley Labor Government to assisting Australian universities to meet the significant upfront costs of moving into online education.

While this policy is aimed at realising the promise of online education, Labor recognises that on-campus education has been badly affected by Howard Government cuts. We will be addressing how we can raise the quality of on-campus education in subsequent policy announcements.

I encourage you to read the more detailed explanation we are releasing of how we intend to structure the UAO and other policies. What I want to use the remainder of my time here today to talk about is why this policy is absolutely essential for our nation’s future.

The first reason is that the information revolution is changing the way education is delivered around the world in ways which represent both a threat and an opportunity for Australia.

A number of institutions around the world have proved the promise of online learning. They are delivering courses of higher quality than ever before, with features simply impossible in an off-line world.

Top international universities in Britain and the United States are gearing up to market their famous lecturers, and university brand names, to students in the Asia-Pacific region, including our own students.

Already a formidable consortium of universities, including Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and the London School of Economics, is offering business degrees to Australian students online.

While this represents a real challenge to Australia, I believe it is one we are equal to.

Labor Governments laid the foundations by establishing the Education Network Australia and Open Learning Australia, but these were starved of funds by the Howard Government.

A number of Australian universities, such as Deakin and Newcastle universities, already offer a selection of full-fee postgraduate coursework degrees.

Southern Cross University in northern NSW, and the University of Southern Queensland, already reach thousands of students online.

Just last year, the University of Southern Queensland won the prestigious International Council for Open and Distance Education award for the world’s best dual mode university.

USQ is proving that online education can offer better quality:

  • At the University of Southern Queensland, contact between students and their tutors and lecturers has increased, because students can now contact their teachers anytime, not just during set office hours.
  • On-campus interaction between students is replicated through online chat rooms and tutorials, where students are required to participate as part of their course requirements. USQ even posts all students assignments on the web as they are submitted, giving other students a vastly wider and deeper (if slightly scarier) interaction with the subject material.
  • Providing texts in digital form helps solve the problem of accessing books and journals. Time previously wasted looking for missing books in libraries can be spent reading another 3 articles on the reading list!
  • Simulated online experiments can be undertaken at any time of the day, without having to book scarce lab space. For example, engineering departments have remote controlled test equipment which a student can switch on to run their tests from their home computers -if they wish at 3 o’clock in the morning in their dressing gowns!

Those who worry that online education is second best, should ask the on-campus USQ students who have demanded – and been granted – equal access to what they see as the privileges of online students.

As you can see, done properly, online education helps us replicate the best features of traditional university teaching — one-on-one tuition, contact with other students, and access to expensive libraries and lab facilities — which Dr Kemp himself admitted in his leaked cabinet submission were affected by the increasing financial pressures on universities.

I believe that this policy will also be a great opportunity for Australian academics.

We all know how bad the brain drain has been in recent years, because brilliant Australians simply can’t get the rewards their talents deserve while remaining in the country they love.

Labor’s policy will deliver the talents of Australian teachers directly to the home computers of the world’s students. It will create thousands of new academic jobs for Australians.

Labor will ensure that Australian academics devising and delivering online courses are recognised, and benefit financially from the use of their intellectual property.

We know our university teachers and researchers are among the best in the world. Now we can prove it, and give them the rewards they deserve. And we can keep them here while doing it.

The second reason we need this policy is that Australia needs many more tertiary graduates if we are to become a Knowledge Nation.

This is an issue of both national prosperity and social justice.

We all know that the Knowledge Nation requires more Australians to have the levels of education reserved in the past for only the few.

What I am talking about with this proposal is nothing less than a revolution in social democratic education policy. We on the progressive side of Australian politics all look with pride to Gough Whitlam’s abolition of university fees as a landmark in education policy in this country.

For all the benefits of that reform, there remained cultural and other factors that were never resolved, and prevented too many talented Australians from getting a tertiary education.

Labor’s reforms during the 1980s and 90s saw the numbers of students at Australian universities expand from 348,000 in 1983 to 634,000 in 1996.

But still, too many Australians have felt estranged from a tertiary education. Often, no-one in their family had ever been to University. Perhaps the family support was not there. More likely, they could not afford several years without work.

Between them, these factors often conspired to keep tertiary education the preserve of the wealthy and privileged.

Then Mr Howard made it government policy!

Today, Labor has come up with a solution that builds on the reforms of the past, by harnessing the power of modern technology:

  • For people who might have been intimidated by the classroom, the classroom will now come to them;
  • For people who cannot afford the luxury of years without work, online learning lets them work and study at their own pace; and
  • For people shut out by the Howard Government’s punitive fees, relief will be at hand.

This plan is one of the keys to boosting lifelong learning in Australia. Indeed, I encourage you not to look at this solely as an education policy, but as Australia’s first comprehensive lifelong learning policy.

And I encourage you all to think about the opportunities this policy will provide, not only for universities, but also for vocational education.

Too often, those reporting on politics in this country see education policy through the prism of a university education. Yet many TAFE colleges are proving already that online opportunities are equally exciting in the vocational as the university sector.

A Beazley Labor Government will work with ANTA to ensure that vocational education also benefits from this online education revolution.

To summarise, the result of these policies will be: to create 100,000 additional university places to meet the demands of the Knowledge Nation; halve HECS for online courses; boost the quality of an Australian university education; create a new online education export industry; combat the “brain drain” by creating more academic jobs with higher salaries; and make Australia the world leader in online education.

Let me say to the universities that I know change is confronting. We believe these policies will be a great thing for the sector and the nation. We come to this idea with an open mind and a willingness to listen. We encourage all interested parties to come to us with their ideas. Together, we can realise the potential of this policy for the future of Australian education.

Let me anticipate your first question by saying I am not stating today the total cost of these proposals, and for very good reason.

The cost to the Commonwealth of the University of Australia Online will be determined by the scale and the pace of its introduction. Both will be determined by the state of the Budget – as I have said in relation to all of our policy commitments.

And of course, the Government will not reveal the state of the Budget for the purposes of campaign commitments until much closer to – and indeed into – the election campaign proper.

While the start up costs will be significant, it will take a number of years for the major expenditure – the new student places – to come onstream and be a major cost to the Budget.

So, what I am saying today is that a Beazley Labor Government will establish the University of Australia Online, and the precise costing of our commitment will be known to you and to the Australian people at the time of the election.

Let me conclude today by showing where this policy fits into the broader Knowledge Nation agenda. In practical terms, becoming a Knowledge Nation will include:

  • Strengthening our manufacturing and service industries through the application of new technologies and the re-skilling of the workforce;
  • Encouraging innovation in emerging fields such as biotechnology, information technology, and green technologies;
  • Encouraging every school — public as well as private-to become a centre of excellence;
  • Having a world-class university system that attracts the world’s leading researchers and teachers;
  • Establishing leading-edge telecommunications, transport and research infrastructure;
  • And last, but by no means least, a Knowledge Nation will mean helping all of our citizens to improve their skills and gain a secure and well-paid job through properly-funded vocational education and lifelong-learning programs.

This last point is crucial.

The Knowledge Nation is not just about universities and lab coats, it is just as much about schools, apprenticeships and the factory floor. It is about the way we do business; address our environmental needs; respond to our social problems.

This is what Mr Howard just can’t seem to grasp. He only sees the Knowledge Nation agenda as a political threat to be neutralised, not as I do as a fundamental re-orientation of national priorities.

In the Knowledge Nation, education will have to start earlier in life, continue throughout life, and be of a higher quality than ever before.

Of course Barry Jones recognised this 20 years ago in his prophetic bestseller, Sleepers Wake, when he wrote that Australia needed to “create an open university … in which people of all ages can study for degrees at home, in their own time, using television and other modern techniques”. Today we can use the Internet and digital communications to make Barry’s dream a reality.

Improving educational opportunities for Australians will be my light on the hill in the 21st Century.

We will be making more announcements on schools, TAFE and universities between now and the next election, but Labor has always held that equal access to education is essential for a modern, progressive nation.

I can predict criticism from Messrs Kemp and Howard already.

It will be the response you would expect from people trapped in the chalkboard era of education – the response you would expect from the Government which brought you a collapse in R&D investment; and the single most incompetent IT outsourcing program in world history.

It will be the response you would expect from the government which brought you the digital television revolution, which blasted off on January 1 this year, with no set-top boxes commercially on sale and optimistic estimates suggest as many as 15 households able to witness the magnificent spectacle.

It will be the response you would expect from a Government which crippled the development of a vibrant new datacasting industry in Australia; and whose attempts to regulate the Internet have only made it look more ridiculous with every passing day.

Online education is already here, and we must adapt. We want to get Australia ahead of the curve, and quickly.

And unlike this Government, Labor can actually do it.

Labor is a party in which ideas count, in which our people are always thinking about how to adapt our deep commitment to social justice to the rapid changes in the world around us.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have entered an election year.

The period between Federal elections is like a marathon – or at least it seems that way for an Opposition Leader.

And in this marathon we have just entered the stadium – more or less side by side with our opponents, if you believe the polls.

As an Opposition, we will be under much more scrutiny over the coming months, and we welcome that. The policies we have already announced will return to focus. And we will be rolling out more policies through the year, up to and including the election campaign proper.

Our plan for the University of Australia Online is just one of many such ideas you will be hearing from us.

This year Australia is celebrating the coming together one hundred years ago of six colonies into a modern nation-state. We should honour the founders of this remarkable country by overcoming prejudice and cynicism, and grasping the opportunities of the new world in which we live.

In doing so, we in the Labor Party believe there is no alternative other than to open those opportunities to everyone – so that we move forward in fairness, together and united.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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