Simon Birmingham: It’s a real pleasure to be here today in Wodonga with Cathy McGowan, discussing everything across the Education and Training portfolio from the earliest years of child care and early learning, through schooling, through TAFEs, through universities, through community colleges, getting that full appreciation of the importance of education and training to, in particular, regional Australia.
The Turnbull Government is really committed to making sure that we provide the best possible education pathways for all Australians, but as a Government with so many Members and Senators with deep connections into regional Australia, we are especially determined to make sure that across all our policy settings, we do the best we possibly can by our regional education institutions. And here at La Trobe University’s Wodonga campus and together with the local TAFE, we’re seeing a wonderful example of tertiary providers collaborating with one another, doing so in a manner that is innovative through their new Diploma-to-Degree Pathway programs. And these are the types of models that I want to take back and think about in the context of overall higher education reform how we can best help institutions like this to keep doing more in the future, to provide more of these important pathway opportunities that can lift the ambition of local high school students to go on to further study, can lift the level of attainment in higher education qualifications in regional areas like Wodonga to be a level of attainment that is akin to what we get in areas of metropolitan Australia. Because it’s important that regional economies transform just as the rest of the Australian economy transforms through the types of technological changes and changes in workforce pressures that we’re seeing.
The construction of modern economies will be very different from that in the past, and it requires more highly skilled individuals pursuing and undertaking different types of jobs. But those jobs are just as important in regional Australia as they are in suburban settings, and to make sure we undertake that transition successfully, we need the right education and training policy settings. So I really want to thank Cathy for putting together a very, very full program on this Melbourne Cup Day that is going to guarantee I get a really intense picture of the local educational landscape, but also the education providers who are taking their time out to give me a good understanding of what they’re doing that’s working and the challenges and pressures they face to help better inform the policy decisions I have to make and the Government makes in the weeks, months, and years to come. Thank you. Cathy?
Cathy McGowan: [Talks over] Great. Well, I really support that. To welcome the Minister … we gathered here a couple of years ago to talk about education reform that was taking place and how important it was to put rural and regional education right at the centre. So I’m just so pleased to have the Minister here today visiting La Trobe, learning about the cooperation between La Trobe and the TAFE college, about how the secondary schools work together. We’re visiting the community college and we’ve been looking at child care. So the Minister can take back some really fantastic models of what one regional city is doing to bring education to its community. So fantastic to have you here, and so looking forward to doing the next step which is translating this into policy, because we all know that the future of all of Australia rests on us in the regions, and education is just the most important foundation for everybody. So as we do innovation, as we do change, we’ve got to have education at the centre of it so that everybody’s got an opportunity to reach their potential. And particularly when you live in the country, you can reach your potential in the country.
So it’s just great to have you here, and we’re going to Catholic College for the Cup, and I understand that the Year 7s and Year 8s are all organised. So for 3.10, when the nation stops, it’s really going to stop in Wodonga today. So thank you very much. And thanks, guys, for turning up. I know you’ve all got a big day, so really appreciate you coming.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.
Cathy McGowan: So did we want to have a comment from La Trobe and CSU? La Trobe and [inaudible].
Question: The child care visit you had this morning, can you maybe run us through a little bit about what happened out there and what you were able to talk to parents about?
Simon Birmingham: Yeah sure. So, had a wonderful group of parents as well as a local service provider and what we’re proposing is a significant change to child care services in Australia where the current support we have is across a number of different rebates and payment programs and regional services like this one are funded under a very constrained model that is a fixed contract in terms of the amount of money they receive with no real variability or incentive to offer more days of care or to receive greater funding if they get more students engaged in the service.
Our new model that we propose for the new child care subsidy will remove some of the restrictions about the number of days per week or hours per day a service will be open. So it means that small, mobile-based services in regional Australia, if they’re only operating one or two days a week, those parents could actually attract and receive the new child care subsidy.
I recognise though, there are particular challenges for those services in terms of their viability which is why we have a $1 billion additional community child care fund that we’ve put in place which is to try to ensure that we help to transition services that are used to a fixed contract model onto one that will give them greater flexibility and greater capacity to provide more hours of care and more days a week of care to parents who need it but also of course ensure that they actually have the type of financial sustainability if they are a smaller service that – for obvious reasons, in smaller regional communities, can only attract certain numbers of people there.
All of that’s important for two reasons, one is to allow working mums in particular to be able to participate in the local workforce, but have confidence there are local care options available to them for their children. But secondly, as a father of a four-year-old and a five-year-old, I’m very passionate about early education opportunities for young children and young children in regional settings deserve those early education opportunities just as much, if not even more so because they need particular access to opportunities to socialise and engage with other young children that are more challenging when you’re living in a more remote environment.
Question: Can you guarantee these working mums will be better off under these changes?
Simon Birmingham: I’m confident that we can make sure the services that are there continue and hopefully that the new arrangements will ensure those services have the capacity to offer more hours, more days of care and that that can actually give better outcomes for those families and those children. So, we’re going through a very comprehensive process there. The changes won’t take effect until 1 July 2018. We’ve engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers for undertaking – who are undertaking individual audits with each of the service providers so that I will get a comprehensive picture of each service around the country who is having to make a transition from these fixed contracts into a more mainstream child care and early education service model and then we’ll be able to make an assessment of what particular additional support some of them will need where their viability could be threatened by transition to make sure that they do successfully make a change and get the extra support to continue.
Question: What do you think the flow on effects and benefits will be from this extra flexibility for those who live regionally?
Simon Birmingham: Look, for regional families, if they can access an extra few hours of care at the end of a day – well, what I hear, that makes the big difference to them, is of course where their child actually goes. Do you go to a really small, local provider who actually now provides the hours of care you need to be able to get to and from work and drop the kid off and pick your kid up at the end of the day. Or, if you don’t have those number of hours, you end up saying well, I need to take my child to a major regional centre where I can get those hours which then becomes, really, a sort of situation that is a bit self fulfilling in that the local service in the smaller community is no longer able to actually operate because it’s losing children to the bigger regional centre because it’s not operating for the length of hours that parents really need.
So, that’s one of the benefits in terms of the number of hours during the day a service is open but the other is, of course, the number of days per week which again is a similar factor. One of the mums this morning said well, I don’t want little Billy going to – going to three different services on three different days of the week when I’m working and if it’s only open in my town one day of the week, that just doesn’t really work for me. So, if we can get that uptake that allows them to operate more days of the week, that will then, of course, help to hopefully improve the viability of the service as well as ensure that mums, dads and children are able to access services closer to home, where they live and where they hope to go to school.
Question: Cathy you raised concerns in Parliament that centralisation could occur. What’s your take out of today’s visit? Do you still have those concerns?
Cathy McGowan: So, I’m really pleased that the Minister can come and actually look and talk to the families. He’s committed to listen to what they’ve got to say. The review process is going on. So I think we’ve got quite a bit of work to do between now and when the final program is implemented to make sure that these issues are taken up. So it gives me great confidence that the Minister is- one, he’s here. Two, he’s got these professionals looking at the transition project. We’re going to finish off this afternoon down at the community college that hosts the mobile child care, so actually talking to the administrators there to see about how they can fit in from an administrative perspective to the new program. So, I’m looking forward to the Minister having a chat with Rodney Wangman about how all that’s going to work in process as well so, we’ve got a bit of time ahead of us to actually make sure that we design services that in the end actually meet the needs of the families.
Question: Minister, you mentioned challenges that are faced by education providers and also by students in accessing tertiary education. What are some of those challenges?
Simon Birmingham: Challenges vary of course from more remote centres and areas that don’t of course have a university campus or a TAFE campus that they can physically get to. Here in Albury-Wodonga you’re of course blessed with the fact that there are two universities in La Trobe and Charles Sturt. TAFEs on both sides of the border as well, which provides great access and opportunity for students in terms of where they can go. But, there is still then a limited number of courses that are sometimes available, that don’t always fit people’s needs. So, there’s the cost of relocating if people choose to do that. But more particularly it’s about I think how we really raise that level of ambition through schools, and get more families realising that jobs of the future require higher skills, require participation therefore in higher education and learning. And that we really help students to prepare themselves through school and to develop the ambition to go on and study at one of the local TAFEs, at the local university. And we’ve got the right policy settings as well for flexibility across those institutions, so they can cooperate, so they can ensure they structure the right types of pathways and that’s why I was really thrilled today to hear about the success of the diploma degree program that La Trobe and TAFE are providing together, which is encouraging more students to have a go at higher education, to give them the opportunity to secure a qualification after 12 months of diploma level. But we’re now seeing 60 per cent of those students going on to proceed in their degree program as well, which is providing evidence that a good strong entry level pathway can then really increase ambition and uptake of getting those higher level qualifications.
Question: What about loans? You made some changes or you announced some changes a few weeks ago to the loan scheme. How will that impact students from here either going to university locally or travelling to the bigger cities?
Simon Birmingham: The new student loan schemes- the new VET Student Loan program we’re putting in place, should I hope give people greater confidence in vocational education and training in the future. Sadly, the much rorted and corrupted scheme that’s been in place has really put a dent in confidence that people can have in vocational education providers. And so, restoring that level of confidence and integrity in the system I hope will give people greater faith to go and pursue higher level VET qualifications. I don’t expect in a community like this, in providers particularly like the TAFE, that there’ll be particularly tangible differences because the TAFE has been a good quality provider, has not been subject to the type of price inflation and rorting that we’ve seen elsewhere in the marketplace. But in some regional areas, we have seen particularly vulnerable Australians targeted for the student loan scheme in the past, and what I have confidence in the new changes is that they will stamp out that targeting of vulnerable people, and ensure that it is only students genuinely pursuing studies, at a genuinely reputable training provider, in worthwhile areas of education and training who are actually accessing those loans.
Question: In terms of educational standing, how do you feel it’s improved or deteriorated over the last 30 years?
Simon Birmingham: I think Australia has a world-class education system that we should be proud of. That’s not to say that we can’t do more and do better but overall the level of educational attainment by Australians has grown remarkably over the last few decades and that includes in regional Australia. We see far greater participation right across Australia today in higher education than we did a number of years ago. But there’s always more to do; we still see significant underrepresentation of regional Australians in higher education relative to metropolitan areas and that’s something as I said before that I’m very keen for us to work on and do better at. We see in our school system that our performance in a number of international measures in terms of literacy, numeracy skills, has plateaued or gone a bit backwards and we have to work very hard on some of the basics to lift that up again, while of course making the changes in our schooling system to get more students studying in the STEM disciplines and areas relevant to a modern economy. So there’s a real battle there for school education to make sure they walk and chew gum on getting the basics right as well as pursuing those preparatory aspects for a modern economy, not just STEM skills but resilience skills, collaborative skills, all those other things that modern workplaces require.
Question: Cathy, an opportunity for the Education Minister to be here today, is there anything that you’ve called on him or the Government to do better or that you’d like to see changed?
Cathy McGowan: Look the number one thing for me is a passion for regional Australia and putting education at the centre of that. So we’ve got so much potential in regional Australia and I’m just really looking forward to making sure that the education policy of the Turnbull Government actually reflects rural and regional Australia and that it’s not a city-centric policy, that it actually sees that with quality education, with quality research, with opportunities for people to come and study in Albury-Wodonga, we’ll be able to take our place in the national economy and at the moment I just don’t see that happening. I see a concentration on the cities and I’m just saying to the Government come on now, let’s put rural and regional Australia at the centre and let’s put education at the centre of that.
Simon Birmingham: Last question.
Question: Mr Birmingham, also just a couple of questions from my Canberra colleagues: do you have a response to Doug Cameron calling the Government’s handling of $2 million to a Bob Day-linked institution a misuse of public funds?
Simon Birmingham: Well I’m surprised that Doug Cameron wants to attack the reputation of a long standing not-for-profit community college that has given apprenticeship opportunities to hundreds of young people, and I’m surprised that he would question why it is the Government wants to try to deal with the reality that Labor’s 2012 cuts to the incentives for apprenticeships resulted in the largest decline in apprenticeship commencements that we’ve ever seen in Australia and that’s why we want to trial different models and different pathway approaches to get more young kids undertaking apprenticeships in the future.
Question: And when did you speak to Bob Day about the formation of an Apprentice Advisory Group?
Simon Birmingham: I suspect that I told Bob Day after the Apprenticeship Advisory Group had been formed that it existed as indeed we told the whole world. Bob Day was as entitled as any other member of parliament to lobby on behalf of his local community and to work hard to advocate for young people to get apprenticeship opportunities and I expect all local members of parliament and all senators to advocate for their communities and I’m just disappointed that the Labor Party wants to play politics with apprenticeship opportunities for young Australians which I think are so critical for our future.
Question: Is there anything else you wanted to add on that?
Simon Birmingham: No all good.
Question: Thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.