Michael Brissenden: One part of the Budget that has been confirmed is spending on education. The Government is committing an extra $1.2 billion for schools between 2018 and 2020, partially reversing the $30 billion cut to education funding in the 2014 Budget.
Funding will be tied to new literacy and numeracy checks. The commitment falls short of the $4.5 billion Labor has promised to spend to fully fund the Gonski plan.
Education ministers- state education ministers are criticising the plan, saying their schools will still be hundreds of millions of dollars worse off. Well for more on this I am joined in our Parliament House studio by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham, Simon Birmingham good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael, great to be with you.
Michael Brissenden: So before the last election the Coalition was promising to honour the education agreements Labor had entered into without the strings attached. This is what Tony Abbott said, he said under the Coalition you’ll get the funding but you won’t get the strings attached? Seems that no longer applies?
Simon Birmingham: Well Michael we are proposing to keep growing school funding from a base this year in 2016 of some $16.2 billion, which will increase each and every year across the budget cycle out to 2020, the final year of budget projections, where school funding will have grown to $20.1 billion.
Significant and real growth, but affordable growth, and yes as you say growth that we will make conditional upon seeing real reforms from states and territories and across our school systems.
Because what we’ve seen under the analysis is that over the last 20 years school funding in Australia has doubled in real terms, taking inflation into account, and yet our performance across reading and literacy, maths and science, teaching of languages, they’ve all gone backwards, and we need to do something to turn that around.
Michael Brissenden: Okay, it is an increase in funding from the 2014 Budget, but it’s not the $4.5 billion that Labor’s promised. Still short the states say.
Simon Birmingham: Well it’s not what Labor is promising to spend, nor are we committing to an additional $100 billion of taxes that Labor are proposing.
So as a Government we will spend within our means, we are committing extra spending, an extra $1.2 billion than was in the budget previously, growing spending from $16.2 billion this year to $20.1 billion in 2020, but all of that which is affordable, which we can pay for within the budget as it is, within our means, without increasing the overall level of taxation on Australians. And most importantly though, making sure it is spent as wisely and effectively as possible.
Michael Brissenden: Okay, but is it an acknowledgement that you got it wrong in the 2014 Budget; that the cuts were too big?
Simon Birmingham: Well we want to make sure that we get it right going into this election that we are open and honest with the Australian people about what we think the nation can afford…
Michael Brissenden: [Talks over] That’s a way of saying you got it wrong in 2014 then?
Simon Birmingham: …about what we think the nation can afford, and ultimately that we’re focused on school reforms. It’s not as I said about how much money is spent; it has to be about how wisely that money is spent.
The nation can’t keep tipping ever greater sums in and not getting results for it. The Labor Party can’t tell you how they’re proposing to spend billions and billions of dollars. I can tell you we now have a detailed plan that demonstrates we want to see increased investment and activity in reading and literacy at the very earliest years, better identification of children who are failing to meet standards so that they can have interventions and support. Greater ambition for maths and sciences in the later years, and greater support to keep our most capable, most outstanding teachers in the school system.
Michael Brissenden: The states certainly think it’s about the money that’s being spent. You would have seen obviously the comments that are around from some of the Premiers today.
New South Wales’ Adrian Piccoli says he’ll continue to advocate for the full Gonski funding. Victoria’s Minister James Merlino says no spin can hide the fact that walking away from Gonski rips hundreds of millions of dollars from Victorian schools. So you’re going to have a fight with the states still aren’t you?
Simon Birmingham: Well the idea that we’re ripping funding away from anywhere is ridiculous when as I’ve said a couple of times in this interview funding is going up each and every year.
Michael Brissenden: Okay so it’s not going up as much as they’d expected, and that’s the point isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: States will… sorry the states will of course always ask for more money. States have always asked for money, they will always ask for more money, it is as predictable as night following day that states will say they want more money.
As a Federal Government it’s important that we live within our means, that we make sure money is spent as wisely and effectively as possible, and we are very committed to the principals of ensuring funding is distributed according to need.
To making sure that those schools that are low socio-economic schools, which have high levels of students with a disability, who are in regional or remote areas, or high levels of Indigenous students, get extra funding.
Those needs-based principals are central to the type of distribution models we want to see for funding, but ultimately we want to see improved outcomes from our students, and that is about making sure that state ministers, and everybody focused on how effectively the money is spent, not just continuing to ask for ever more money while we have declining results.
Michael Brissenden: Okay but the states are going to have to agree to your terms aren’t they? Is it an all or nothing thing, or is this going to be a negotiated agreement?
Simon Birmingham: Well I’m a rational and sensible person, and I will talk sensibly with the states about these areas of reforms, and of course listen to their feedback about the proposals we have.
But we want to see real commitment for real change in return for increased funding. We want to make sure that we don’t continue a situation where Australia’s overall performance, but most critically the performance of individual boys and girls around Australia, goes backwards in the face of increasing funding.
Because that’s unacceptable for those children, and it’s unacceptable for the taxpayer in terms of value for money.
Michael Brissenden: And will there be different agreements for state schools, Catholic education system, and the independent schools system?
Simon Birmingham: Well we have at present some 27 different funding agreements that we inherited from the Labor Party. So their so-called wonderful funding reforms that they introduced in the Gillard years left us with 27 different models.
Now I want to tidy that up as best as possible, to stick to neat principals around needs-based distribution, and to make sure that funding that flows from the states and territories as well as from the Commonwealth, flows according to need into schools.
It’s also very clear that we will support every student in Australia whether they are attending a government school or a non-government school, but ultimately non-government school students receive significantly less support today than students in government schools, and that will continue to be the case.
Parent’s fees will provide that gap, but our increased support will give certainty to those parents that their fees shouldn’t have to go up too much, particularly in low-fee non-government schools, just as it should give certainty to students and parents in government schools that support for them will grow each and every year into the future.
Michael Brissenden: Okay just quickly on higher education, you haven’t really flagged what you’re going to be doing there, but there will be- there are reports that you still plan to push ahead with deregulation of some sort of the university sector.
What hopes do you have that any deregulation model gets support? Because this was an incredibly unpopular part of the 2014 budget wasn’t it? Even suggesting that you’d put university fees up is an unpopular move.
Simon Birmingham: Well Michael I don’t want to pre-empt what we’ll say in terms of the changes to higher education policy. There will be changes from what had been previously mooted though, and those changes will be clear to all Australians pre-election.
A driving factor for me is equitable access to our universities. That no Australian student should pay a dollar up front, that we maintain our world’s most generous student loan scheme for people to go to university.
Michael Brissenden: Okay but the costs of degrees will have to go up. Deregulation means the cost of degrees will go up doesn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well the cost to the taxpayer of funding universities has grown at twice the rate of the economy since 2009. That’s not sustainable. Students do get a significant private benefit from having a university education.
As Universities Australia research out today demonstrates, they earn higher wages than other Australians. And so as has been the case since the Hawke Government we will expect that students make a contribution in paying back fees once they earn a decent wage in future. Equity of access…
Michael Brissenden: [Talks over] I think the point is you’ll expect them to make a bigger contribution than they’re making at the moment.
Simon Birmingham: Well we want to make sure that this generous system is sustainable for all students in the future, and at present it is being weighed down by increasing cost, mounting debt levels that won’t be repaid, and we have to address all of those different factors, as well as encourage our universities to actually innovate and excel and differentiate from one another, which current funding models don’t achieve.
Michael Brissenden: Okay we’ll leave it there. Simon Birmingham thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Michael.
Michael Brissenden: Education Minister Simon Birmingham.