Narelle Graham: Without too much further ado, the Turnbull Government’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham is in day two of a visit to regional South Australia today. The Minister was in Port Lincoln yesterday, today it was Port Augusta and Whyalla that were on the itinerary and the visit coincides with a report that the Government could rake in half a billion dollars a year by reducing repayment thresholds for HECS loans to an income of $42,000 a year.

Minister Simon Birmingham, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Narelle, it’s great to be with you.

Narelle Graham: Thanks for your time, I’m mindful that you do have a plane to catch and I trust that the visit went well so I’ll give you a chance to talk about it but I think the news of the moment is this repayment of student loans. How likely is this reduction in the repayment threshold from an income of $54,000 a year to $42,000?

Simon Birmingham: Narelle, we’ve seen over the recent years that the cost of funding university education and higher education has grown at about twice the rate as the economy, which is obviously not a sustainable cost for federal taxpayers to continue to bear. We’ve also seen an increase in the amount of debt under our HECS or HELP system that’s not being repaid or estimated not to be repaid going up. So there are a couple of factors there that do mean there are real pressures on the Federal Budget which I’m sure all of your listeners appreciate, and still have the deficit so we have real challenges to address and [indistinct] there. So what we are looking at is what type of measures can be fairly and reasonably applied to ensure that we make more sustainable higher education and university funding in the future so we maintain the capacity for universities to take large numbers of students in but what it is what we can do to make sure that that is not a continued increasing drain on the Federal Budget. So what I’ve said there is I am open to looking at all measures, our student loan scheme in Australia is one of the most generous in the world, students of course don’t have to pay a single cent upfront to go to university, they don’t have to repay until they reach a reasonable income, they then only have their debt indexed at inflation, rather than any real cost of debt and they repay quite gradually, so there are…

Narelle Graham: [Interrupts] $42,000 though, seems like a low threshold Minister. That’s quite a jump, that’s $12,000 from a previous threshold of 54,000 before you have to start repaying to 42,000. The average wage is around 70,000. Is it an attempt to discourage young people from going to uni?

Simon Birmingham: Well certainly not and university students on average enjoy a much higher wage over their career than non-university graduates. So there is still, whatever happens, a very strong incentive for university, for people to go to university and of course we are talking about figures there that are well above minimum wage and we’re talking about if anything were to occur, repayment rates that are relatively modest in terms of the actual costs of individuals.

Narelle Graham: That’s the idea of going to university isn’t it? That you would be earning more than the minimum wage. How much of their income would people be expected to repay?

Simon Birmingham: Well now that’s getting a little ahead of it, I should emphasise that the report that we’re talking about here are not government reports, they’re reports that have come from the Grattan Institute, one of the leading think tanks of public policy analysts in relation to high education.

Narelle Graham: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: This is their proposal, their idea, their figure, not the Government’s figure, but I am being quite open and the Turnbull Government is being very honest with people in saying that we do need to find ways to make funding of higher education more affordable in the future and looking at the way in which student debts are repaid. It’s one of those measures to think about and that I’m quite happy to take all ideas into proper consideration.

Narelle Graham: Well we talk about- perhaps we’ll talk about some of the concerns that you might have with it. Senator Simon Birmingham is with me, Minister for Education and Training. He’s been touring regional South Australia which we are definitely going to talk about before he jumps on this plane. The report recognises that it’s women with children who will be most affected by these changes, does that concern you when you think you know is that part of the considerations that you have to take on board here?

Simon Birmingham: Well part of the big increases with the patient that we’re seeing in higher education is from women. That’s wonderful, that’s a great thing that’s occurred in terms of the dramatically increasing numbers of Australians who are going to university. So that has also contributed to some degree to the level of debt not expected to be repaid in relation to student loans because there are more people who will spend perhaps more of their life not necessarily working full time for the [indistinct]. Now I am absolutely committed and the Turnbull Government is committed to making sure that our student loan scheme remains one of the most generous in the world, that people don’t have to pay upfront to go to university, that they have very generous repayments so people shouldn’t think that anything we would do would be [indistinct] in a way that would put off low income individuals, women, or others from going to university. I am very conscious of all of those issues. But we do equally need to make sure that our generous student loan scheme doesn’t ultimately fall over and jeopardise the capacity of future Australians to enjoy similar generosity.

Narelle Graham: You mention, Minister Simon Birmingham, that this is a report at this stage, what would it take for it to become a reality? Like how far away is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are a range of reforms to universities that are currently linking to forward budget protection. I’ve been open that I am talking to university stakeholders and others about whether there could be any modifications to those reforms but a key principle that I will have to address there is still how we find budget savings to ensure that university funding is sustainable into the long term. So it will be something that we look at through this or future budget cycles. We are very committed though to making sure that there are reforms to university sector that make it more innovative but also make it more financially sustainable and equally maintain the high level of equity that we have in Australia of access to university education.

Narelle Graham: And how was the reception at Uni SA’s Whyalla campus when you were there today?

Simon Birmingham: Look, great, so finished off essentially at the Uni SA Whyalla campus, a couple of days in Port Lincoln, Port Augusta and Whyalla and it was great to finish at that higher education level speaking with some of the students and teachers engaged in the delivery of primary education degrees and nursing degrees there as well as those who run the rural health unit at the Whyalla campus and they’ve done a great job in skilling many people from regional South Australia in the health professions and therefore lifting the available workforce of rural South Australians to work in those health professions in our regional cities and towns.

Narelle Graham: But Minister, do you think there’s an adequate education pathway for students in regional areas, to meeting their learning needs? Whether it be for secondary or tertiary options?

Simon Birmingham: There are absolutely increased challenges and barriers at times for students from rural and regional areas and it’s something that Rowan Ramsey as the local MP was acutely aware of and has spoken to me about many many times, as have a number of my other colleagues in Coalition Party Room in Canberra. As to how it is that we can best support the ambitions of rural students? There are some interesting models around the country – in Geraldton in WA, a number of universities have come together to provide a facility and opportunity for students to commence their degrees at least in the Geraldton area locally and to be able to access a wider number of pathways. And they are some of the innovative type delivery models that I think we need to be encouraging our universities to be looking at into the future.

Narelle Graham: Okay. As a result of this visit, have teachers expressed concerns to you about the number of contract positions that we now find? Being given contracts of 12 months duration at a time – and realising that that is more of a State Government issue.

Simon Birmingham: That hasn’t come up and maybe it didn’t come up because teachers realise that it is more of a State – or even almost entirely a State Government issue as to how they employ their teachers. We had very positive visits to the schools that we visited, primary and secondary, special education, Indigenous education – so we got around a number of different school sites across the three different rural cities. And each of them has done more innovative things in recent years, particularly to lift studies and activities in the vocational sector, making good utilisation of shared facilities across their campuses. And it’s that type of collaboration that I think again needs to be encouraged between schools to make sure that they can offer different pathways to their students…

Narelle Graham: [Talks over] to meet different needs.

Simon Birmingham: …that may not always be available on their individual school campus.

Narelle Graham: So Minister, great to have had you visit and seeing first hand what is happening in regional South Australia from an education point of view. What have you taken away from here that you then go right; this is what I’m going to work on?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah look, there are a couple of things. I met with RICE this morning, who are a provider of services to isolated families and isolated children. They have some particular concerns about the way some of the childcare reforms might impact on delivery of their services. I’ve committed to go and look at their unique model and make sure that it is not [indistinct] a detriment as a result of any policy changes. Of course I’ve already spoken about the commitment to have a look at whether we can encourage universities and put in structures that might incentivise them to have a look at more innovative ways of delivering tertiary education access to rural students. And I think more generally, it’s recommitted me to the importance of school autonomy as part of our overall plans around the education system. That of course, local schools, but especially in rural and regional areas do need to have the capacity to tailor what they’re delivering in a way that meets the needs of their local community and the special needs of their students and local economy. So there are things to pursue with state education ministers.

Narelle Graham: Thank you. I appreciate you being part of the program. I’m sure they wouldn’t leave without you, but just in case they do I’ll let you get that flight.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Thanks. I’m sure they would if I wasn’t on there, so thank you very much Narelle.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham there, the Minister for Education and Training, who has been in the region.