Subject: Higher Education Reforms; Vocational Education and Training


IAN HENSCHKE: Simon Birmingham is the Education and Training Minister and he’s just announced that he will not reintroduce the government’s higher education bill in to Parliament for another vote this year. Politics is about the art of the achievable is it, Simon Birmingham?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well good morning Ian and good morning to your listeners. Yes, it is to a point and, of course, we have to accept the reality that the Senate has twice blocked reform proposals and so, today I’ve announced that the intended start date of 2016 for these reforms will not be proceeded with and that, of course, does two things. It gives the university sector certainty for what their funding situation will be next year and it gives me, as the new Minister and Malcolm Turnbull as the new Prime Minister, time to consult and discuss with universities, Vice-Chancellors, students, businesses, my fellow Senators and others about what is possible to address some of the challenges that our universities face in the future.

IAN HENSCHKE: And so what changes are coming then? Are we going to see higher university fees?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are challenges we have to acknowledge for universities from the types of reforms that have happened in recent years. The opening up of the demand driven system for student places has put funding pressure on taxpayers and universities around funding sustainability, it has created an incentive to put more students in to lecture theatres at a fixed flat cost rate and there are challenges to that, there are also more globally competitive challenges for universities with more international institutions competing with Australian universities in future-

IAN HENSCHKE: So is the answer ‘yes’?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we have to recognise all of those problems and deal with the reality of the challenges face, but I’m a new Minister-

IAN HENSCHKE: But is the reality ‘yes’?

Ian, what I have said today very clearly, is firstly we won’t be proceeding with reforms in 2016 and now, the government’s policy as such until such time as they are changed, so the only significant change today is not proceeding in 2016 but, that in the interim it gives me time to properly consult with the sector and try to work out what reforms are necessary to ensure our universities are would class in the future, that we have sustainable financial and funding models in place and they’re the types of discussions that I’ll be having and will welcome with anybody who wants to sensibly sit down and have them with me free of a fear or scare campaign the likes of which the Labor Party are trying to run.

IAN HENSCHKE: Ok. Now, we had a young student on this morning, he was part of the student representative group at Flinders University. He said that he had so much trouble meeting his HECS fees that he couldn’t by Bjorn Lomborg’s book or have time to read it, but he was opposed to the idea-

Well that’s just rubbish, Ian. That is complete rubbish. No student repays their HECS fees until they earn $54,000 per annum or thereabouts. So, no Australian undergraduate student faces any upfront fees and I stated that very clearly in my speech to the world academic forum today that I though the HECS system of no upfront fees to students was essential to retain, essential that we make sure it is sustained in to the future and strengthened in to the future because from an equity perspective that is one of the most important aspects in Australia that no undergraduate student going to university pays a cent in upfront fees and that will be the case under the Turnbull Government I assure you.

IAN HENSCHKE: Ok. Now, under the Turnbull Government what will happen to this position of Bjorn Lomborg? Because we’ve been talking about it this morning, a lot of people saying they believe in open discussion, I mean let’s have a discussion about it now. The Copenhagen Consensus Centre is able to receive some funding, I think it’s to the tune of $4 million, and establish itself at Flinders University. It was rejected from the University of Western Australia. You’re a South Australian; do you want Bjorn Lomborg to be at Flinders University?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I stand for academic freedom and autonomy of universities and that is entirely a matter for Flinders University.

IAN HENSCHKE: Ok. So at Flinders University, the academics are apparently approaching the people who have got the money and saying ‘look, we’d like to have it there’ so you won’t block that in any way, shape or form then?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Every university in Australia should be a place in which ideas are contested and debated, in which researchers are aspiring to excellence, but to get to that point of excellence you have to accept differing opinions through part of the process so, which academics universities choose to engage is entirely a matter for those universities.

IAN HENSCHKE: Now on the other matter, you’re also the Minister for Training. We were talking about a jobs forum this morning and it comes up every time we discuss this, about the need for more people to work in hospitality and healthcare and we probably need fewer people in some of the university degrees where they are leaving and then not being able to get jobs, I mean do you have a particular view on whether you, as the Minister, should be pulling some levers?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think how our training system works is a real challenge, and I said this previously as the Minister responsible for Vocational Education and Training at a national level, that I was concerned about the inconsistency in the way funding applies across States, the frequency of changes that States have to their funding formulas and mechanisms for training.  We’ve seen that quite horrifically in South Australia with the change from Skills For All to the WorkReady model that the government has applied which has, in hospitality areas included, crippled the number of providers who can offer training in that sector, crippled the number of courses in which that training is subsidised or available. So I think there is a real problem there and it is one that just because I’ve moved on from vocational education in my new role at the Cabinet level for Education and Training, I will maintain a strong interest and desire to see if we can get a more sensible and stable national approach to supporting VET and particularly training in sectors like hospitality out of the types of Federation discussions that have been had between the former Prime Minister and Premier. 

IAN HENSCHKE: Now, we had a text this morning from John from Gawler East and he said there is currently a programme at the university at Roseworthy, at the campus up there, where German students, as we mentioned in our discussion here with Matt Williams, are working as lab technicians as part of their study. He said there is nothing like that for local students and it highlights again you can have a different training system where people are actually studying and working simultaneously both in schools and at universities and people are saying we need more of that. Is that a view that you support?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think that is a really important type of model and, of course, historically it’s what vocational training and apprenticeships in particular have been based on the idea that people work and learn in an integrated manner and increasingly in the future it won’t just be about technical skills that people might get or academic skills and knowledge from universities, it will be about employability skills, about those broader engagement skills and they really come most directly from engaging in the workplace and those types of settings, so I will encourage, as I did in the VET space, people that absolutely look at how universities, other teaching institutions and training institutions and better engage with employers and industry to give students real world experience of being in workplace settings and learning on the job as well as learning theory and academic set structures.

IAN HENSCHKE: Ok. In the little time we’ve got before we go to the news headlines, you’ve probably only got at least one year in the position now because they’re not going to change Ministries before the next election-

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I hope we win the next election and I’m there for longer!

IAN HENSCHKE: and if you’re there for longer, what do you want to achieve? Paul Keating said “sometimes you just have to go for it and do something” what are you going to do that will be the Simon Birmingham legacy as the Education Minister? Because Christopher Pyne didn’t get his off the ground by the sounds of it; what are you going to do that will get off the ground?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So I want to, as I’ve said, continue the discussions around vocational education and see if we can’t have a better, more integrated approach to funding, training and education across all post-schooling levels. I think that is something the Federal Government should be trying to harmonise and integrate as much as possible. I want to see whether I can still achieve reforms in the university sector that ensure our universities are globally excellent and financially sustainable in the future and making sure that we do whatever is possible and pragmatically achievable in the Senate on that front, it’s something that I will keep working on and aspiring to and, of course, ultimately continuing to work with the States to continue Christopher Pyne’s work where he did achieve much in lifting the long term status and standard of our teachers is essential for the schools sector. So, across schools, universities and vocational education there are some big ambitions that we’ve got. I’m very keen to achieve as much as I can in the next twelve months, but hopefully much, much more in three years thereafter. 

IAN HENSCHKE: So, out of those there are some there that are sort of motherhood statements, but there was one there saying you want to improve the standard of our teachers; is that the big one you want to focus on, is that something you’re really concerned about?     

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think that is a big legacy item of Christopher’s as well, so I want to continue his work. I want to continue his work there absolutely.

IAN HENSCHKE: Well it has been very interesting talking to you, thank you very much and I wish you all the best in your Ministry.