Topics: Gonski education funding; reforms to tertiary education

Simon Birmingham: Thank you for your welcome to country. As some of you would’ve heard me say before, I’m acknowledging the Kaurna people here in the Adelaide plains and all of Australia’s Indigenous people, but also acknowledge [indistinct] education in particular continue to learn much more of Indigenous knowledge from Indigenous knowledge and to build upon that together as a nation.

Pascale, your reflection about life as the political football, the different issues that come at times, I think and I hope that if I look at some of the accomplishments this year, some of the changes made this year, others that are still perhaps a debate in progress, a work in progress; but I do hope that out of all of the many financial debates and so on that we might be debating at present, that there is a real scope as we move beyond them to look at some of the much more meaningful areas of discussion that are really critical in terms of our education landscape.

And it’s with that in mind that I’m particularly keen to be here today talking to the Council of Deans of Education again, to make this as engaging as possible. Because it’s a small group, it’s a slightly overgrown roundtable, but I think it’s far better if I put aside my time for Q and A and engagement rather than you sitting here and hearing a long speech from me saying many things that you’ve probably already heard me say or in the newspaper or have a high-level awareness.

Of course, it is the first day of spring, so we’ll make it as positive and cheery a discussion as we can. And that won’t always be easy on some big areas where we might be in disagreement, but, as I say, let’s focus certainly on the positives, because there are a lot of positives in education. And I guess one of the big changes this year that has happened, has occurred, and that we will see now implemented, are the Government’s changes around school funding. And though I’m not silly enough to think for a second that they will put to bed the debate about school funding forever and a day, there are some issues that we still need to work through that improve the model of reforms there.

And in the next election, you’ll no doubt see our political opponents promise greater levels of spending; but I think the changes we’ve made, the structure that we’ve built, the pipeline and the architecture of the Gonski model is a fair one, that we’ve put in place something that will be transparent, that does end decades of different deals and inequities. It phases all of them out. But what’s significant about that in terms of looking to the future is that hopefully, in discussions around education – school education in particular, which have been so dominated over the last decade really about endless debates around money, dollars, funding, and against what, that we might be able to spend a little bit more time talking about how it’s best used, how we get the best outcomes, how we ensure that not only in initial teacher education, but ongoing professional development and support, the evidence-basis behind and the programs that are available, all of those attributes become the greater focus of attention, hopefully not political debate of the same nature we’ve seen on schools funding, but certainly of effort and attention and focus from ministers, shadow ministers, departmental leaders and others.

And ultimately, that of course is also where I hope, in the higher education landscape, that we can get to as well, notwithstanding the differences of opinions that would exist about some of the reforms that are before the Parliament. But ultimately what the conversation that I want to make sure we’re having and the focus of our policy efforts is about quality and outcomes and the best interests of students, the best interests of our nation in terms of our research outcomes and elsewhere. And it’s the Council of Deans of Education who are critical to all of those discussions.

In the schools funding space and the schools reform space, we’ve now commissioned David Gonski to do a second piece of work looking not about dollars, but indeed about the most effective utilisation of those dollars. And your input to that process will be very important and I encourage you to make submissions, engage with that process, have your say about how it is that you think that significant additional investment in school funding can make a big difference, and how a fairer model can make a big difference. I think it’s, in particular with your expertise, how it is you think it can best be leveraged by schools and school systems in terms of supporting the ongoing professional development and skills development of the teacher workforce, as well as of course building on the very significant work that so many of you, all of you, are doing in relation to initial teacher education and training as well.

We in the higher education space, as I indicated, have – and it’s been lively debated this week – a number of significant changes that are before the Parliament. Hopefully by year’s end we’ll know exactly the status of all of those. Importantly, some of the things that we are seeking to achieve out of that – and just a quick taste, then I suspect some of the questions will go to this – are to ensure that across the landscape of qualifications in higher ed there’s a degree of consistency about student choice and student-centred models. That the approach we’re taking in expanding access around sub-bachelor programs and associate degrees, but also the intention behind the scholarship model that’s proposed for postgraduate courses, is all about empowering students to be able to make choices, take their entitlement or government subsidy, government support, to the institution that best suits them and the institution that best meets their needs, as of course undergraduate students in the demand-driven model are already completely free to do.

So the policy ambition behind some of those reforms is to say, okay, we can’t, as a nation, afford to say we’re just going to throw the demand-driven model open across the board and let a thousand flowers bloom in all of the qualifications; because clearly that would become an enormous cost to do so in the postgraduate space. But rather than postgrad education as being an historical mix of this university gets this many quotas for CSPs, this discipline and that university gets another amount – which, analogous to schools funding, has just build up over a long period of time in terms of lots of different arrangements laid on top of one another – we go right back to first principles and say, well, we have a certain pool of places to be supported; what disciplines should they be; where is the public benefit greatest in terms of the investment of those dollars for students in those disciplines; how do you ensure they’re effectively shared across the states? Then let them go to the most worthy, able students and let those students choose which of our wonderful universities they think best meet their needs.

So in that sense it’s something that we want to work with the sector on, and I see working with those in the education sphere as being particularly important; because there is no doubt that there will continue to be a very significant level of support for masters of education programs and the like because it is so critical to how it is that we get people with a diverse range of life skills and experiences into the teaching profession.

So your input in terms of how you think that can best work, the selection of processes, the timelines that are necessary and so on really can be particularly valuable.

We’re also as part of those higher-ed reforms there’s one area that I’ll touch on quickly. Looking at the element of performance-contingent funding, it’s fairly hotly contested by some of the leadership in the sector. But again, to give you a sense of what it is that we’re trying to achieve in terms of the policy rationale behind it. The demand-driven system of course is according universities enormous autonomy to be able to enrol as many students as you want, in whatever disciplines you want, according to the demand that you see that’s available. And that autonomy is a great thing. It’s premised, in a sense, on the notion that demand-driven means students are always making the wisest choices. But to be honest I think one of the strongest arguments against the full fee deregulation debate we had previously is that our model of supporting students, our fantastic model of supporting students with the HECS/HELP type scheme, neuters students in a sense to some of the usual market considerations.

When you go to buy a car you think about the value for money you get in a car et cetera. In choosing to go to university the fee structure that students consider, because the HELP scheme is so generous and fully deferring all up-front costs, does really take a lot of the price sensitivity out. And I think that was one of the stronger arguments against fee deregulation. If you don’t have a condition where students are necessarily making the most considered decisions in terms of what their enrolment choices are then you want to make sure that you’ve got some level of incentive for the supply side to be considerate of the student outcomes too.

And unis are overwhelming considering the student outcomes. But a little bit of financial incentive to think about optimal rates of enrolment, optimal approaches in terms of minimising attrition, the necessary support for students to succeed and ultimately the employment outcomes for students, are all I think quite important aspects for us to look at. Once again it’s something that we propose developing very much in baby steps approach though.

Year one, the only condition that we want to put around any type of performance funding is that universities do implement what they’ve already said they’re going to implement in relation to changes to admissions practices. I don’t imagine that years two or three would see particularly earth shattering changes either, that it really will be a case of building up something that develops confidence across the sector.

And importantly we fully recognise that performance funding can’t possibly be the same in every institution. Institutions that take some of the best and brightest in urban environments and are able to cream from the top of school leavers and the like obviously have vastly different scenarios they deal with compared with others looking at first in family students and with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, especially catering in rural or regional markets. So this is about trying to develop something we want to do collaboratively with the system that we do with an overarching framework to then recognise everybody will have different targets and standards to meet.

Of course, as the Deans of Education, your focus and work in particular will be looking at many of the efforts around TEMAG review. I know that’s going to be a topic of discussion in the panel that we have to come. We’ll shortly have – later in the day I’m catching up with John Hadley and AITSL and others who are in town – but we’ll shortly have in Parliament House a forum that will try to provide a report card, if you like, on where we’ve got to in terms of TEMAG implementation. John and others from the university regional panel will come together and we’ll be sitting down to have a look at exactly what has been achieved to date, where we think we’ve got to.

So your input on a day like today will be really important to hear, from your perspective, what we ought to be very mindful of in terms of the next steps forward. I think we’ve clearly seen some very positive effort and work in terms of the implementation and with the reforms. I thank you for the effort at change and change management that you’ve made in your institutions in terms of achieving some of those outcomes.

We want to see the process around accreditation, the meeting of those standards, met ideally by the end of this year. But of course, hearing from you as to how state and territory regulatory authorities and others are engaging with you in that process will be important for us to understand, how that is [indistinct]. I’m particularly keen to hear in terms of changes around implementation of primary specialisation as well as to what trends you’re seeing, what it is you think you are able to help shape and influence in that space to ensure that we have, ideally, the optimal mix of skilled primary school graduates in the future too.

So, as I said at the outset, not a time for me to go on too long, and I probably already have at any event. I look forward to your questions, comments and thoughts and I thank you very much for the chance to be here with you today, but also for the work that you do. And I hope, as I say in a few places, that maybe when I catch up with you next year we can have a discussion that doesn’t involve anything about funding, whether it’s at schools or universities, and really is all focused on the important aspects of the work you do to help our schools and education systems succeed. Thank you.