Subject: Higher Education Reforms; School Funding


SPENCE DENNY: South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, who has been made Minister or will be made Minister for Education and Training, joins us from Canberra; Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Spence and good morning to your listeners.

SPENCE DENNY: And congratulations to you. You come in to this role having served as the Assistant Minister for Education and Training and you come in at a time when Christopher Pyne, who you are taking over from, couldn’t get the bill to deregulate uni fees through the upper house. Being in the Senate yourself, does that put you in a strong position to perhaps progress that bill?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Spence, it is an exciting time to come in to the portfolio and you are correct that for the last nine months or so I’ve served as the Minister responsible for vocational education and training which has been a great apprenticeship, if you like, in terms of getting to understand many of the issues in the sector and yes indeed, understanding some of the concerns that the Senate crossbenchers have in relation to aspects of our higher education reforms and I’ll be taking a comprehensive look at, of course, all of our policy settings. This is a new Prime Minister, a new start in many ways and we’ll be looking very carefully and closely at the policies that we have and my approach will be one of talking to stakeholders, engaging with those across the education sector and seeking wherever possible to develop policy collaboratively and make sure we take as much of a consensus driven approach as possible while, of course, fronting up to and dealing with the real challenges that we face.

SPENCE DENNY: So are you saying that you plan to progress that bill to deregulate uni fees? Are you going to maintain that push?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’d love to give you the exclusive, Spence, but I’m not going to make policy pronouncements this morning, I haven’t been sworn in yet, the new cabinet will meet for the first time this afternoon. My intention will be to go away and talk to education stakeholders, talk to the universities, talk to the vocational education and training sector, talk to industry and business and get a good sense of what they value out of the reform proposals on the table, get a good sense of what they see as issues that we must proceed with, but also try to make sure that we progress from reform, that we make sure what we are pursuing are things that can be achieved and can be implemented and so that will be the approach that I intend to take, but of course, all of that is subject to having the proper discussions and consultations and including those proper discussions through the cabinet processes first.

SPENCE DENNY: Well Labor is proposing reform as well, obviously in opposition, and in their reforms for higher education, which we’re focussing on at this stage, they say it would cost $100,000 more under the Liberal proposal to study medicine at university.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Spence, that’s not true and that’s always just been part of a scare campaign that the Labor Party and some of the unions have run against the reforms that were put forward, but that’s all a matter of a scare campaign in the past-

SPENCE DENNY: This is part of the new package that Kim Carr is announcing this morning. Tightening of rules, an aim to get more students to complete, a guarantee for student funding and cheaper higher education.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And I look forward to analysing the detail of what Labor is proposing today. From what I’ve read in the newspapers, it appears to be a little scant on detail as to how it will actually make a difference to student completions, it seems to be a standard old Labor Party policy that there is nothing you can fix that doesn’t involve just throwing a little bit more money at it, but look, let’s have a look at it, I’m somebody who wants to be constructive with all parties and that includes the opposition, if they’re willing to sit down and talk to us constructively, but our universities face significant global pressures, not unlike what the rest of the economy faces and we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that, increasingly, Australian students have a choice, not just of studying at an Australian university or a local university in Adelaide, but they will have a choice of studying at universities right around the world and our universities need to be able to compete with those institutions around the world for international students and for Australian students. They need to be able to excel and specialise in different areas and that’s much of what the current reform package is built up on is giving the university sector the freedom and the autonomy to be able to compete and to specialise and to make sure that they are the best they possibly can be in a very competitive global environment. Now, I’ll go back and reassess and reanalyse all of those reforms, reengage with all of the stakeholders and hope that we can come up with the policy proposal that is about equipping our universities to do the best by Australian students, but also to be the best they can in a world environment where they have to compete and that won’t be an option if they don’t compete, they’ll slip behind, it will be bad for Australia and bad for those universities too.

SPENCE DENNY: So Senator Simon Birmingham, are you saying then that courses will now be structured under your model for international students who can afford to study in Australia and not Australians who struggle?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No. Well Spence, we already have a-

SPENCE DENNY: But you’ve just described it as an international market in which you’re competing and if we’re talking about $100,000 plus to study at university, it is only going to be those people who are able to afford it, isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Spence, if you heard what I said, I said that Australian students, who used to just think about going to uni in Adelaide and, increasingly, have thought about going to uni in other parts of Australia, will increasingly in the future and already do, have the opportunity to consider going to university anywhere in the world because it is so much easier to be able to study online to engage with different universities around the globe-

SPENCE DENNY: You want Australian students to go overseas?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No I don’t, Spence. I’m just saying we need to deal with reality. I can’t stop Australian students from studying overseas or engaging with universities overseas, but that will be an increasing risk and possibility given the fact that international universities, of course the big name ones like Harvard or Stanford, but others as well, are increasingly making their subjects and their studies available through mechanisms that would be available to Australian students. Now, I want to make sure that the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, all of our other institutions around Australia are competing with those international universities for Australian students, for global students. I want to make sure, of course, that university is also accessible to Australian students. Let’s not forget, that as Labor have run their scare campaigns about university funding and costs, that there has never been a proposal on the table from the Coalition Government that would force one Australian student to pay $1 up front for an undergraduate degree. It has always been the case that we would maintain the long running HECs style programme that has been in place since the Hawke Government so that students can defer any fees and only have to pay them back when they start to earn the financial benefits of a university education.

SPENCE DENNY: Are you going to be applying interest to HECs debts?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we already apply a level of interest to a HECs debt and that, of course, is indexed each year and that is the current government proposal. 

SPENCE DENNY: So, surely-

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And I’m not aware of anything difference with the Labor Party.

SPENCE DENNY: Surely, if you’re suggesting – and it is all about money here, isn’t it? I mean, realistically, it is about the affordability, it is about somebody’s ability to go ahead and study at university and I realise that you can borrow the money, you’ve got to pay it back eventually, but you can borrow the money, but if previously it might have cost $30-40,000 if it is now $100,000 it is going to take a long time to pay it back, isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Spence, let’s just unpack that a little bit. Firstly, in terms of affordability to go to university, no Australian student wanting to enter an undergraduate place, a Bachelor Degree place, faces $1 in upfront costs in terms of the fees. So it goes on the HECs system, which means that you don’t pay a dollar of it back until you are earning in excess of $54,000. That means that you actually have to derive that private personal benefit from a university benefit of a good income stream before you start to pay back any of those fees. Lastly, I’d make it very clear that in terms of the policy that was on the table around higher education deregulation and the universities that did indicate where their fees might go under that, none of them were looking at $100,000 degrees, so we should be very clear that that was a Labor Party scare campaign and we shouldn’t accept that figure or buy in to it. What we do want though, is an environment where our universities continue to be among the best in the world and get even better so that we have more of those universities in the top 50, in the top 100 in the world, providing the best and most recognised education to Australian students and that only comes from actually being up there competing with the rest of the worlds universities.

SPENCE DENNY: You’re listening to 891 ABC Adelaide, I’m speaking with Senator Simon Birmingham who in about two and a half hours’ time will be sworn in as Minister for Education and Training. Senator Birmingham, can we just briefly talk about primary and secondary school funding, if we can because if got to tell you I’ve lost track with what is going on with the Gonski modelling, obviously that was going on under the previous government and I know that the last I saw on the Gonski modelling the Labor states where still pressuring to maintain that Gonski model for funding primary and secondary education in the states. What’s your attitude to maintaining funding for primary and secondary schools around Australia?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Spence, I’m a product of the public education system, I have a very deep and strong commitment to making sure that education is available for all students of the highest quality regardless of their social or economic background, regardless of where they live. Now, how we achieve that is not just a matter of funding, but I’ll deal with the funding equation first and foremost and that is that, as a government, we honoured our commitment that over the first budget cycle of the term we would deliver against Gonski. So, for the four years of the budget cycle that the government came in on, we’ve delivered those Gonski funding levels. Now, in the future there will have to be another renegotiation of school funding levels in accordance with the terms of the agreements that have been struck with states and the independent and Catholic school sectors. I’ll have those discussions constructively, I do want to make sure that school funding, so far as possible, delivers what is required for students to be able to be their best and achieve their best, but it is not just about funding, and Christopher Pyne as Education Minister had a very focussed look at making sure teacher quality was lifted and that has to be a continued priority, at ensuring our curriculum and curriculum standards were appropriate and focussed on the things that students need to learn, on ensuring that we try to lift the front level of parental engagement and on delivering greater autonomy to schools around Australia. So, we have to be conscious we’re having a look at those other aspects because over the last few years as school funding levels have grown quite significantly around Australia, we’ve still seen a continued slippage of our rankings in terms of global student outcomes. So, it is not about saying put more money in and you definitely get better outcomes, that’s been proven to be wrong, you have to do much more than put money in. You have to get the best quality teachers on the ground, you have to ensure the parents are engaged, you have to give the schools the autonomy to make sure that they run themselves in an effective way and, of course, you need the most appropriate curriculum there too.

SPENCE DENNY: Being a South Australian, you’d be aware that primary students in South Australia remain in primary school until year seven and that is not the case elsewhere; are you an advocate for a national curriculum and policy?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we do have a national curriculum in place and that’s been enhanced by the reforms that Christopher Pyne pursued and in particular increasing focus, of course, on some of the basic skills that we think are essential and, you are right, in South Australia, I think it is now the only state left where year seven students are still in the primary school system and that’s something that I think the South Australian Government does need to have a look at. I know Steven Marshall and the State Opposition went to the last election proposing to move year seven students in to the secondary school system. It does also have impacts on student funding in a state like SA so, that’s a matter for the SA government to consider too, but I think it is important that we make sure that from those early years of early learning right through the school system, that we do have a real focus on the need to equip students with quality educational outcomes, that they’ve got the right curriculum, that yes, we also are making sure that in those middle years we provide the right specialist teaching knowledge and opportunities and that’s where the benefit comes in from for having year sevens in the secondary schooling stream rather than necessarily the primary schooling stream.

SPENCE DENNY: Just briefly, if we can please, Simon Birmingham, we know that parents are dropping kids off at school right now and they’ll be listening to what the new Education Minister has to say, what is your immediate priority in the portfolio?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Spence look, I want to make sure that my priority is one of listening. Right now, I want to get out there and talk to the stakeholders, I don’t want to make early policy prescriptions. I think it is important, as a new Minister that I settle in and actually listen to what the states and the independent and Catholic schools sectors see as their priorities, that I listen to the department, the teachers and the parents and others. Now, having come to this role from the vocational education and training role, I certainly have continued priorities in that space. I particularly want to see us have a look at how we can operate a more federal style of running vocational education and training and universities together and making sure that we have a more integrated approach to funding and student opportunities to crisscross between vocational education and training and university education where that is appropriate. So, I think there is some big things we can do in that space. In the school space, I do want to see us bed down the teacher quality reforms that Christopher Pyne started, I think that could be one of his great legacies in the portfolio in terms of actually lifting the quality of students coming out of university with teaching degrees in the future. My grandmother was a teacher and a primary school principal, I remember the high regard in which the profession was held during her years and I really want to make sure that that profession is one that is again held in the highest regard possible for the future.

SPENCE DENNY: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you. 

SIMON BIRMIINGHAM: An absolute pleasure, Spence.