Ian Narev - Securing Australia's Future Prosperity

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Thank you very much Sally for that kind introduction. I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today, pay my respects to their elders past and present, and to all other indigenous Australians here today.

This is a real privilege to be speaking in this hall at the CEDA Conference and on the topic of securing Australia’s future economic prosperity. I guess as a banker in this environment I should be using the opportunity to bend the ears of the great thinkers and doers in the room on subjects very dear to your heart like bank capital, bank liquidity, credit card rates et cetera. But I doubt you are actually interested in that and even if you are I doubt I have got anything to add that you haven’t already heard before.

So instead of that I would like to take the opportunity to talk about what we at the Commonwealth Bank are doing in schools. And the reason I want to do that is not so much about what we are doing, although I will cover that a little bit later, but more why we are doing it. And for those of you who may fall asleep over the next 15 minutes and not hear what I get to I will give you the punch line right at the start and that is that above all else the success for us in the long term future for the Commonwealth Bank depends on Australia’s success. So the fortunes of our company and the Australian economy in the long term are inextricably linked.

We actually feel very good about the long term economic prospects of Australia but if we are going as an economy to harness all the opportunity that we have and to meet the challenges we need to be prepared to invest for the long term. And one of the key areas that we need to invest in is our schools. They are doing great today but they, like all of us as institutions, need to continue evolving as the world economy needs to evolve.

So what do we do about it? We are not educational specialists, we leave that to the great principals and the great teachers in our schools, we are not educational policy thinkers, we leave that to the good policy brains. What we have been thinking about is our opportunity and our responsibility to think about the capabilities that we have that we can apply to schools and for us at the Commonwealth Bank that has led to a commitment over the next three years to spend $50 million to help bring our capabilities to strengthen Australian schools.

So I want to talk briefly about each of those aspects. Why we feel good about the long term prospects of the economy, the imperative to invest, the role of skills and then what we, as the Commonwealth Bank, are going to be doing about it.

So first of all to the economy. Well by virtue of who we are, of where we are, and of what we have, the economic prospects in the long term for Australia are tremendously exciting and we all know many of the drivers of that. We have a great endowment of natural resources, we have got high cultural attractiveness, and geographically we are positioned to a region that is replete with opportunity.

And as we look around our own footprint in this region for the Commonwealth Bank outside Australia and New Zealand, and I talk particularly about Indonesia, China, Vietnam and India, what do we find when we talk to people in those regions? Yes we find people who want to buy our goods and services but equally importantly we find people who want to visit Australia, we find people who want to invest in Australia, we find people who want to educate their children in Australia, and in many cases we find people who want to live in Australia. And the recipe for Australia’s long term economic prospects is as simple as saying that dynamic of all the people in the region with an interest in Australia is only at its outset. And by virtue of our natural resources, our very strong culture, our time zone and other advantages, we are in a position to be beneficiaries of that dynamic enhanced by the fact that technology is opening up economies and opening up markets.

So those two forces combined, the undoubted economic rise of the region, with volatility of course, and the forces of technology, mean that for us here in Australia the long term prospects for the economy are very rosy. There is always the however and the however is despite the natural advantages the ability to exploit the opportunities does not fall into our lap. It requires good policy and good investment. And through the economic prescription that I have talked about it will be clear we need to get foreign investment policy right, we need to get taxation right, we need to get immigration policy right, we need to get infrastructure right. In addition to that we need a national focus on skills.

Now in our observation we can sometimes get a little bit complacent about this in terms of our relative advantages in the region. We often characterise Australia as the skills economy and somewhat haughtily look at other economies in the region and describe them as the cheap labour economies. And so the competition as such is pitched against our skills versus the labour cost arbitrage.

Now I can tell you that I, like many of you, have met graduates of IIT in India. I have met entrepreneurs in Hangzhou where we have 20% of a stake of the Bank of Hangzhou which is the birthplace of Alibaba. I have met exceptionally well educated regulators in Vietnam. I have met many of the 2,500 native Indonesians that we employ in Indonesia. The skills of the best people in these economies are equal to the skills of the best people in any economy anywhere in the world. So let’s not kid ourselves, we do not have a monopoly of skills in the region. We have to understand that to take the advantages that we have in Australia we are going to need to invest in the skills of the future to make sure our economy adapts successfully to the future.

So what are those skill requirements as they relate to education? Well again I will provide the caveat, as I will do on a number of occasions, we are not educational experts. What we are though is an employer of over 50,000 people and a provider of financial services to hundreds of thousands of other businesses across Australia who are creating the employment opportunities of the next decade and beyond.

And based on those observations we see a few different needs and opportunities arising from the increased prevalence of technology in our economy. The first of these is that there is a base level of technology literacy that every student, every one of our kids, is going to need. In the same way as we think about the foundational skills, the old three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, we need to understand that even today in our workforce whether you are working in a branch, whether you are working in a customer facing call centre, and by the way all of ours are in Australia not in some of these other geographies, whether you are working in HR with your internal customers or whether you are working in investor relations you are needing to work with technology every day to serve your customers better, to be more productive. So a base level of technology for every kid, no matter what job they are going to go into in what company, is going to be critical.

Number two, beyond that we are going to need to grow a cadre of coders, technology thinkers, who are able to perform the true competitive advantage functions in the Commonwealth Bank, in other banks, in other big companies and other small businesses. In other words category two is making sure that the educational system can help build the skills of that small number of really outstanding software engineers, coders, who are going to create the competitive advantage of the future.

Number three is to understand the impact of technology on teaching methods themselves. And Sally mentioned that one of my roles is the trustee of a non-profit I helped start in New Zealand, the Springboard Trust, which helps build the skills of primary school teachers in New Zealand particularly in disadvantaged areas. So I have worked with over 100 principals through that. I have also worked with Beth Godwin who is my dear friend who is here today from Cabramatta High, and good schools are thinking about modern learning environments where they can harness technology to improve learning even of the old skills. And as a father of three children, the youngest of who is not yet three, we can see the advantages of that even in the home. So category three is using that technology in the schools.

And then finally we are still going to need good skills and apprenticeships. Now we talk a lot about the need for coders, we talk a lot about the need for software engineers, but if you go back to the prescription that I talked about earlier, that people want to live here, they want to invest here, they want to visit here, they want to have their children educated here, services are still critically important. And although we do talk about the gap in some of the lower skilled jobs as a result of some aspects of manufacturing atrophying in Australia there are still opportunities and there are still opportunities for higher skilled jobs and apprenticeships and we must not ignore those either.

So the investment in schools is to help build the foundations for those four aspects of improved outcomes for schools. Better schools make a better country.

So finally to our role and what we are doing as the Commonwealth Bank. Well let me again start by emphasising what are we not doing. We are not going to provide brilliant insights into how to teach. We have been around the schools, we have seen outstanding principals, we have seen outstanding teachers who are able to do that. We always need more of them but we have the people who can do that thinking. And often too much of the educational debate is focussed on what is wrong with our schools, actually we need to add as much of observations which I can say personally about what is right with our schools and what we can do more of.

We are also not going to have a lot to say about policy. But we have thought as a responsible large corporate, as a company with a stake in Australia’s future economic prosperity who wants to see schools strengthened and skills built, what capabilities have we got that we can apply that we can bring to bear in the schools. And we have got three reasons why we believe we can add value.

First of all is just our reach in schools. We have been doing school banking for over 80 years in Australia. We are in a lot of the schools, we know a lot of the schools, we actually have a presence.

Number two is a deep understanding through what we do every day of financial literacy and increasingly an understanding of how to build financial literacy capability in school children. Our Start Smart Program which at primary, secondary and then transition to tertiary level has enrolled more than one million kids in financial literacy classes since 2007 has given us a basic understanding of how to build those financial literacy skills. So that is number two.

And number three is our understanding as a large corporate about how to make technology work at scale. So while we cannot teach better, run schools better or contribute well to policy what we can do is bring those three specific capabilities to do what we can to improve the schools.

How is that translating into specifics? Well I said at the start that we have committed $50 million over the next three years to our school’s program and we do that because of the alignment of long term interests as I said. The first decision that we have made is to redouble our efforts on the Start Smart Program. So that is the program that builds financial literacy at schools. Currently we have about 275,000 kids a year going through that program and we are going to lift it to 500,000. We work with experienced facilitators and educators to deliver the financial literacy skills, we measure the outcomes, we work with principals and teachers rather than talking at them, and we help deliver those financial literacy skills and we are going to double the effort that we have to do that. So that is plank number one.

Plank number two is that while we have been in these schools we have, as many people have, been enamoured with a lot of the teachers, felt that they deserved appreciation, and decided to introduce a small program which is going to reward teachers, provide awards for those who have shown particular aptitude in delivering innovative financial literacy programs to children. And I can tell you that one of the most pleasant tasks I have every year is going to present those awards, or as the principals are brought to Sydney to receive the awards, seeing what they have done, seeing the energy of kids who have built new businesses within these schools to understand how money works. So that is number two.

And then the third part of our partnership with schools is the piece that we are announcing today which is our partnership with Social Ventures Australia to deliver the Teaching and Learning Toolkit to schools in Australia. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit quite simply is an online resource which enables proven educational techniques to be shared right across schools right across the country. The idea originated in the United Kingdom, it has been a proven success in the United Kingdom. It takes 34 different areas currently, everything from how to make homework most effective, how to get parental involvement most effective, what are the optimal school hours, those sorts of topics, subjects them to quite extensive academic review and then once they pass the academic review packages them very simply online to enable all schools to use what is proven to work. And then obviously for the schools to feed that experience back and enrich the research.

The reason why we are so excited about the Teaching and Learning Toolkit in addition to the fact that Social Ventures Australia, which is a wonderful organisation, has given us another example of its entrepreneurial skills, is that it solves one of the critical problems that we have observed in schools which is you have outstanding principals and outstanding teachers working in environments which lack scale and therefore across Australia you often have 1,000 outstanding people trying to solve the same problem at the same time and unable to share the experience.

So what the Teaching and Learning Toolkit does is (a) provide the online technology resource, and (b) provides really strong academic discipline so that the very vexed questions in schools, and I am sure Beth will nod about this, about what works and what doesn’t, which is the subject of endless good debate, is subject to good academic scrutiny. And a significant part of the $6 million we are going to be putting towards the Teaching and Learning Toolkit will go to make sure that the global research is adapted to Australia to reflect Australian needs and Australian conditions.

So those three programs, the Start Smart, the teaching awards and the Teaching and Learning Toolkit are where we have decided our contribution is going to be in education over the next three years and beyond.

Finally I just want to wrap up by emphasising one very positive aspect that we see about the ability to get things done in Australia. Despite the fact that we said we don’t have a monopoly on skills what we do have in Australia, and I think the forum that we have got today is a good example of it, is relative to all the economies in the region a unique ability to bring good thinkers and good doers together quickly to get action.

Success in education is going to depend on good policy from Government, both state and federal, it is going to depend on good thinking in our universities, it is going to be dependent upon great work from principals and teachers. It is going to depend on corporates playing their part. And if there is one bit of competitive advantage Australia genuinely has it is an ability to bring together all those stakeholders quickly to out-execute other economies because when there are multi-faceted goals where you need all these different pieces of input we should be able to get them done quickly. And if we all leave our corporate agendas at the door, our political agendas at the door, and we collaborate around this, then Australia’s ability to harness that very rosy future will be good for our kids and be good for all of us in our retirements, thank you.