EMMA GRIFFITHS: Now innovation is a byword for the Coalition and for most political parties these days. What are the chances of being an innovative nation if we don’t have a thriving education sector? The federal Education Minister is Simon Birmingham.

Minister, there’s still a 20 per cent cut on the table for the university sector, where will universities be expected to pick up that short fall?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon Emma and good afternoon to your listeners and everybody there at QUT today. We’re not proposing a 20 per cent cut in funding to universities, what we have budgeted for is that there needs to be savings across the university sector but, that those savings may be realised by a reapportionment of the share of a student’s fees that is paid by the taxpayer versus what a student puts on their HECs or HELP debt. So, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a reduction in funding going into universities, but that who is paying what in terms of the current, around 60 per cent, that the taxpayer pays might shift to about 50 per cent and the student loan component could shift up to about 50 per cent is what is canvassed in the budget papers.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: So it would be a 50/50 split as was proposed in the 2014 budget?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well that’s essentially it. Obviously there were some other reforms proposed in 2014 such as full fee deregulation which we are not proceeding with. We are presenting a number of alternatives to that to expand access into university for people at sub-bachelor level in diplomas and associate degrees and pathway courses into university and providing scope potentially for universities to offer flagship courses as a part of their student load, up to 20 per cent perhaps, that actually allows them to innovate and yes, product differentiate including in fees there. But overwhelmingly, students will be able to go to university in the future with certainty that fees are fixed and of course that we absolutely are rock solid committed to the most equitable programme the world really has in terms of accessing universities, which is our HECs and HELP programme, that ensures students don’t have to pay a dollar upfront to go to uni and don’t have to pay it back until they’re earning a decent wage.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Minister, we’ve heard this afternoon from the Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake that higher fees deter people from disadvantaged backgrounds more and that in fact they are the students that benefit most from a tertiary education. So, how would you offset that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Emma, I would have to contest what Peter has said there that we’ve seen nothing but increasing enrolments ever since the HECs scheme was put in to place. So, when we shifted…[indistinct]

EMMA GRIFFITHS: [Interrupting]…but for students of disadvantaged backgrounds though Minister we’re not yet at our goal of 20 per cent that has been set.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’re not yet even by any means and there is still increased work to be done there, but we have absolutely seen increased enrolments from students of disadvantaged backgrounds just as we have across the entire sector and that’s been the case each and every time there has been fee changes. Making it clear, as I think it is really critical for us to do, that nobody is going to face upfront fees or barriers to entry regardless of their financial situation, their family background. What I want to make sure is we have equitable arrangements and access, we’ve seen good, strong growth in students from rural and regional areas, approaching around 19 per cent in terms of the student load now, there is still some way to go there, but it’s pleasing to see that we’re getting that growth in enrolments from students of all backgrounds. The last lot of data we had also showed some strong growth in Indigenous student enrolments so, I think we are tracking in the right direction and I’m very positive that we can put in place the type of arrangements that will help that further and most importantly, in terms of the types of reforms the Turnbull Government wants to pursue, it is that expansion of places in sub-bachelor areas that can really help with students of disadvantage because we see too often that students who might be admitted from lower socio-economic areas or areas of disadvantage that they get to uni, but they have higher drop out rates when they get there.

If we can actually offer more diploma programmes, more pathway programmes, more of those entry points into the university system, then there is actually much greater scope for students to come in, be well prepared to succeed, to then go on to a bachelor programme if that is their choice.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: At QUT a four year degree in primary school teaching is estimated to cost $65,000, at the moment students pay $24,000 of that so, around a third. What you are proposing would see them pay nearly 10,000 more, is that going to encourage people to become teachers?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we have a huge growth over recent years in enrolments in teaching professions, the AEU and others seem to be telling me we’ve had too many people enrolled in teaching recently. I think that people take a long term perspective though when they’re looking at their university education, that they actually are sensible enough and wise enough to realise that the fees that they incur at university, which they don’t have to pay upfront, which they don’t pay back until they earn a decent wage…[indistinct]

EMMA GRIFFITHS: [Interrupting]…would you be changing that threshold, Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is currently $54,000.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: That’s right. And are you changing that threshold, will you be lowering that at all?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: What we have canvassed in our position papers we released in the Budget is that there are different ways in which we could try to achieve those Budget savings that are necessary in higher education. So, you might make some changes to repayment thresholds, but if you did that, then you wouldn’t need to change the balance of taxpayer student contributions to fees quite so much. I think it is important that listeners appreciate that higher education costs, university costs to taxpayers has gone up by 59 per cent since 2009. So, since the demand driven system was introduced, and that’s twice the rate of economic growth. Obviously it is not sustainable in a budget position to keep having growth in costs outstripping the economy to that extent. So, we are looking for some very modest savings and we’re open to the different ways to make sure we get the fairest possible way of achieving those savings and that’s why, whilst we have the savings, transparently, openly in the Budget going in to this election saying that they have to be met, we have put out a position paper that says there are some different ways to do it, I’ve invited comment and feedback from right across the sector so that we can come up with the most equitable and fair way of achieving those savings…

EMMA GRIFFITHS: And when will we know where you arrive? Before we vote or after?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think we’ve actually been very clear as to what the options are…[indistinct]

EMMA GRIFFITHS: [Interrupting]…they’re options though, they’re not decisions are they Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well the Budget is a clear decision. The savings have to be met, Emma and we’ve been clear about that. The Budget assumes a 20 per cent change in fees. So, that’s…[indistinct]

EMMA GRIFFITHS: [Interrupting]…so, that sounds to me like you are wanting to lower thresholds for repayment of student debt?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well no, if people can mount an argument that that is a fairer way of doing it than actually changing the component of fees that are paid for by the student on their debt, then that’s an option that we are open to. This is about sensibly working through how we get financial sustainability for the university sector over the long haul. We’re investing record levels, it’s grown, as I said, at twice the rate of economic growth since 2009. We are committed to seeing an open arrangement. We want to find a funding mechanism that allows us to expand that access for people to enter through pathway programmes and diplomas and sub-bachelor courses. So, there’s a range of things we are trying to do that are quite innovative in the higher education space too, but we have to find ways to be able to pay for them.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Minister, just switching to the other end of the education spectrum with Year Ones. The Budget also revealed that you would like year ones, so six year olds, tested for literacy and numeracy, what is that going to achieve?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well around 200,000 Australian students are estimated to not be able to read properly and reading, of course, is the single most important foundation stone for success in all the rest of their educational attainment. So, what we’ve proposed is not a NAPLAN test, not a sit down written test, but that there should be, modelled on what’s happening in the United Kingdom, a common assessment that is applied in the first 18 months of a child’s education, so around about the age of six, where we actually get a common assessment of their reading capabilities, of their phonetic awareness and understanding and that then there can be interventions undertaken there at that very earliest stage to help those children who are not progressing appropriately in terms of their reading competency.

So, it is really an area that I’m very passionate about and the Government is very eager to see that we address this issue of students not learning to read properly, not understanding and reading fast enough in their education because if we leave it until the first NAPLAN test that occurs when a student is around about the age of eight, that really is starting to get too late in to the educational experience if reading is not being learnt in an effective way at the outset.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Simon Birmingham thanks very much for your time today.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Emma, a pleasure.