Doorstop interview, Adelaide
University course completion rates; Turnbull Government’s measures to support uni students to make the right course choices; Higher education student debt; Importance of vocational education; Turnbull Ministry composition; Retirement of the Member for Heysen 

Simon Birmingham:     Thanks very much for coming along. Today around Australia, thousands of students will receive offers to go to university this year and to start new courses, and what I’m imploring those students to do is to think carefully, do their research, and make sure that they come up with the best possible decision for their future. We know that around one in three Australian students will not necessarily complete the university degree they first enrol in, and that of course is a cost to those students in time and money, and a cost to the taxpayer. The more we can minimise the number of non-completions at university, the better it is for students, universities and taxpayers. 

So what we’ve been working as a Turnbull Government to do is provide more support and assistance for students to make wiser choices. We’re investing around $8 million in the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website, which provides students at qilt.edu.au with more information about the satisfaction levels of existing students, outcomes for those students in terms of completions, and employment outcomes. It’s a great resource that students should access to better inform themselves about whether the offer they’ve received today is the best possible course at the best possible university to meet their ambitions, dreams and aspirations. 

We’re equally working now to implement the reforms recommended as part of our Higher Education Standards Panel review of university admission practices last year, so that in future there’ll be even greater clarity for students to be able to clearly understand the benchmarks that are being set by universities for admission into a course, and to be able to compare what those are, as well as greater accountability and transparency that universities can be held to in terms of the practices that they are applying.

It’s an exciting time for many students and a nervous time for students, in waiting to receive that message about what the offer they’re getting is. But what I’m urging them to do is think carefully, do the research, and that can best set them up for a successful future.

Question:                                 What’s the cause of this high non-completion rate?

Simon Birmingham:     Australia by OEC standards has not a bad rate of non-completion, and in fact historically it’s always hovered around this type of level, with little ups and downs along the way. So it’s not a cause for panic, but of course for every student who fails to complete that’s a lost opportunity for them, wasted time, wasted money for them, and wasted money for the taxpayer. So we want to minimise that as much as we can. 

The causes are many and varied. Some will simply go and transfer into another course and successfully complete that course, so they may have just had the wrong decision at the start, or needed to undertake a pathway program to get in. Others, family circumstances; some will go and get a job. But for others, they may not have been well-prepared, the course may not be a good fit, or indeed students already undertaking the course may not be getting positive outcomes. And so that’s where research can really lift the benefit for students, if they check whether existing students are positive, happy, satisfied in that course, and whether the outcomes are leading to the type of jobs and employment those students want. 

Question:                                 And what can be done to help students better choose the right course?

Simon Birmingham:     I urge students to look at the information that’s available. We’re making more and more available all of the time for them to make wise comparisons across courses and between universities, to get the best possible decision for them. Of course, we’re making sure that in future there’ll be greater transparency around university admissions practices, as well as reviewing exactly some of the causes of attritions and non-completions so that we can address those in future policy decisions too.

Question:                                 How do university non-completion rates compare to apprentice non-completion rates?

Simon Birmingham:     There’s certainly a high level of non-completions across the vocational education and training sector as well. Again, that can be for a range of reasons: change of courses, or sometimes people only seeking specific competencies out of a particular VET program. But it is a viable option and an important option that people should consider today, that university is not for everyone; apprenticeships, vocational education courses are all equally valid pathways, and students should do the full research about all of the different options available to them. That will give them the best chance of realising their dreams, their aspirations, and securing a job in the future.

Question:         Are too many students going to university?

Simon Birmingham:     We don’t believe that too many students are going to university, but we do believe it’s important that students make sure they’re making an informed choice about what it is they’re doing at university, which university they’re going to, and whether it is the best possible fit for their future and their aspirations.

Question:         But is this high non-completion rate leaving young people with high debt, and perhaps should they be pushed more into apprenticeships rather than university?

Simon Birmingham:     We absolutely want to see as many people take up apprenticeship options as possible, because we have really strong employment outcomes from people who go on and successfully complete an apprenticeship. But university education is equally critical to Australia’s future skills mix and our economic needs. It’s just a case of making sure that it’s the right course, the right university for the right student at the right time, and to get the best possible outcome. 

Question:         You said they need to make better choices, but aren’t financial pressures also a factor?

Simon Birmingham:     Well obviously we want to minimise the cost, the debt to students, the cost to taxpayers, and all of that can best be minimised by universities and students making optimal decisions about enrolment practices and decisions. So the best thing we can do there is have transparency, is ensure that universities are held to account for their decisions, and that students have the maximum capability to make informed decisions about their future.

Question:         Should universities themselves do more to better prepare students for what university is all about?

Simon Birmingham:     Again, we’re looking very carefully as part of our higher education reform proposals about whether there are better things that can be done to support universities in pathway programs, preparation of students going into university, potential expansion of sub-bachelor programs or places, associate degrees and the like, that could provide alternatives to the traditional three or four year degree model. These are important things that the Turnbull Government will be addressing this year. But for today’s students making a decision about the offer they receive, we’ve increased the amount of information that’s available. They should access that to consider what’s best for them.

Question:         Do you have any specific proposals, or are you just sort of looking into it at the moment?

Simon Birmingham:     What we’ve already done is create the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website that gives students information, data upon which to make their decisions. We’ve announced that we will be implementing all of the reforms of the review into admissions practices, that we will be making university admissions processes more transparent and more comparable for students into the future to be able to make clear decisions.

We’re now going on to review specific causes of attrition and non-completion rates, and that will be part of our consideration of total university reform that the Turnbull Government is close to finalising, in terms of how it is we get best value for money for students and taxpayers to support a world-class higher education system into the future.

Question:         Is there too much of a focus on enrolments rather than completions?

Simon Birmingham:     I think universities have to make sure they provide the maximum support to every student who starts to be able to complete the course that they’re undertaking. But there’s a responsibility on students as well to do their research, which is why we’re giving them more tools, more information to make better informed decisions and choices in the future.

Question:                     Just on another issue. What do you think Greg Hunt will be like as a health minister?

Simon Birmingham:     I had the pleasure of working with Greg Hunt when I was the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Greg was Minister for the Environment. He’s got a brilliant policy mind, very capable in terms of dealing with complex and challenging issues, which is exactly what is required in the complex and challenging health portfolio.

Question:         Has Malcolm Turnbull missed an opportunity to promote more women into the Cabinet?

Simon Birmingham:     By historical terms we have a very high number of women in the Cabinet. It’s all about putting the best team on the place at this point in time, and I’m confident that’s what he’s done.

Question:         On another issue again, obviously Isobel Redmond has announced she’ll retire from state parliament at the next election; does that not cause a headache for you in the Seat of Heysen with a potential Nick Xenophon challenge there?

Simon Birmingham:     Well Steven Marshall is outlining strong plans for South Australia’s future. His 2036 plan shows a vision for SA. There’ll be plenty more policy details to come, which in contrast to a Labor Party under Jay Weatherill that can’t keep the lights on, can’t keep our children safe, isn’t generating job opportunities in South Australia. I’m confident that we will be offering strong competitive candidates, not just in Heysen, but right around the state at the next election.

Question:         Does this reopen an opportunity for Alexander Downer?

Simon Birmingham:     I think Mr Downer is very happy in his work in London and I don’t see him making a return to politics any time soon.

Question:         Do you have ideas perhaps for someone- for an alternative, say perhaps Sean Edwards?

Simon Birmingham:     No doubt the Liberal Party’s very democratic pre-selection processes will attract a number of candidates for a seat like Heysen. In contrast to the Labor Party, where union leaders and back-room operators stitch up pre-selections in advance, we will advertise in the newspaper for people to nominate as a candidate in Heysen. Grassroots Liberal Party members in Heysen will meet to decide who the best possible candidate will be, and it’s true democracy in action and I’m sure that will yield the best possible outcome for the Liberal Party.

Thanks everybody.