Subject: Higher Education Reforms; Secondary Education


MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now, away from the international stage and back to domestic politics now. Malcolm Turnbull's new Cabinet is settling into the job, and one of those given a promotion is South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: He's taken over the Education Ministry, formerly held by Christopher Pyne, and Senator Birmingham joins us now from Canberra. Good morning Senator and thanks for making time for us.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning Virginia, great to be with you.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Is university deregulation dead?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I wouldn't say that Virginia, but I certainly am adopting a very open door approach to this portfolio, and one where I'm starting out by listening and consulting with academics, with vice chancellors, with business and industry leaders and the crossbenchers. And I want to hear all of their views. We have to acknowledge that our universities face a number of pressures, that there are pressures on the sustainable funding structure for universities, that there's increased global competition that our universities need to face up to as increasingly students will have the opportunity to study with international institutions, with some of the big name universities like a Harvard or a Stanford a Yale online, that Australian students will have that choice as well. So there are big changes in the university sector in years to come. I want to talk to the universities about how we face up to those changes and how we make sure that our universities are in the top pack of the world and are universities of choice, not just for international students but remain universities of choice for Australian students in the future too.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So you're going right back to zero, this is almost like a complete revision of everything that all fixed, as Minister Pyne told us.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I'm not going back to zero. We have legislation that's still before the Parliament, we have government policy that's there, and that of course will form a benchmark for conversations. But Christopher was always clear that there had to be room to compromise, and that we had to be sensible about trying to get pragmatic outcomes. And that's exactly the approach that I will be taking. But I'll be talking to-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay, I just need to leap in there, because you've said you want to really have a listening tour, if you like, you want to have a proper conversation, but the legislation is still there. Central to this legislation is deregulation, so are you open to that shifting or not?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Virginia I'm open to talking to people about everything, and when I have had those conversations and have developed properly informed opinions on what is achievable and what is a priority, then of course I'll be taking those recommendations to the Cabinet.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay, and at that point it's possible that the legislation might change?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don't want to take anything off the table in terms of how we might achieve sensible reform and make sure that our universities can be world class in the future.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay. Well deregulation of fees, of course charge the international students and domestic post grads, that resulted in a Group of Eight universities charging much higher fees. Do you think the same thing will happen if you proceed with fee deregulation as proposed by the former Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think we've seen that those universities who, under the model that's before the Parliament and that Christopher Pyne championed, who put out their fee schedules, demonstrated the Labor Party were running quite a reckless scare campaign in terms of what types of fees would exist. Now would we expect to see, under some form of fee deregulation, differentiation in fees? Absolutely. And why shouldn't there be a differentiation in fees, if you're accepting of the fact that different universities have different student outcomes in terms of employment rates, in terms of how a degree is recognised, in terms of the whole range of student outcomes that we should be measuring. And now we've taken some big steps to give students and parents and teachers greater information through the QILT indicators that are available online, new metrics that allow people to compare one university against another, the outcomes of one degree against another. They're really important reforms, because I want to- what I want to do is empower students to make the best choice, and from that empower universities to be competitive and to strive to be the best in the field in which they choose to offer education and training, and to indeed encourage them to specialise more and make sure they are of the highest quality, not just to be driven by a funding model that says let's simply pack more undergraduate students into lecture theatres.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Would you want to see the – in particular the Group of Eight universities, the key universities, the top ones – would you like to see them spend most of the extra revenue they might be able to raise under whatever model gets through on better teaching or more on research?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think if we have universities that are really focused on competing for students, then of course they will be investing in student outcomes, which include better teaching, better facilities for students. But of course they also have a role and a responsibility for investment in research, and it's important to how they are perceived and the value of the degrees from those universities, that they are investing and achieving in research. And it's integral to the type of ambition that we have under Malcolm Turnbull to be a country that is innovative and adaptive, and responding to global changes, that our research institutions, including our universities, are pursuing really aggressive research agendas. So I don't think it's an either or approach here. I would expect to see a model where universities are encouraged to invest in students because they're competing for those students, as well as to invest in research because that is part of their positioning for that student uptake. 

VIRGINIA TRILOI: Interestingly and coincident with this that that Group of Eight is actually describing the country's research system you would have seen in the papers today as broken and urging your government to fix it and fund it properly. Will you do that or what is a reasonable sum to fix it in your view?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Christopher Pyne has already initiated some reviews into how research funding is handled and I think we need to be looking very carefully at making sure research is wherever possible focused in areas of potential economic growth for Australia, of how we adapt to the global changes that Malcolm Turnbull's talking about and ensuring that universities are rightly incentivised to be partnering with industry and business for the commercialisation of that research. There's no point just doing research if then all we see is the uptake occurring overseas, we want to see Australia-

VIRGINIA TRILOI: Exactly, but that's where you usually need the Commonwealth to step in because then you require not only the involvement of say the overseas company or the like or even the local multinational, but you need some sort of seeding money. Is that where the Commonwealth would like to get involved?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That's one possibility and obviously Malcolm Turnbull has put real priority on how we leverage research into commercialisation for the creation of the new innovation portfolio that Christopher Pyne is tasked with. So Christopher and I will be working incredibly closely across industry, science and innovation that he's charged with and education and training that I have to make sure we're getting the best possible outcomes there. And there is some interesting models around the world. The UK has seen some success in terms of how their research funding formulas actually do drive increased commercial uptake of research out of universities and they're the types of examples that I'll be keen to get my head around and have a look at in the coming weeks and months.

VIRGINIA TRILOI: Just a quick question if I can on the turning to state education or secondary education. What changes in how teaches teach would make the most difference to how much children learn? What do you want to see there?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is really important that teachers in terms of their teaching styles and methods are in my view adaptable to the needs in the classroom. There are certainly cases where students come into the school system terribly under prepared from their early learning and one of the important reforms in the structure of this ministry is to bring childcare and early learning back into the education portfolio so that I can take a full spectrum analysis of how it is that we help children through those early years, but if a child comes into the school system without some of the real basics in their literacy and language skills to start with then there's a need for elements of the direct instruction and phonics type learning that has been more successfully applied in some indigenous communities. But where children are well advanced we have to be encouraging them to excel and that absolutely requires free thinking and creative thinking as part of that sphere of excellence. And looking at the education statistics what concerns me is seeing that on a global comparison level and indeed just on an Australian metrics level our top performers have come down in recent years and we don't have as many high performers in the system as well as having many lower performers in our school system and we need to shift all of those curves up.

VIRGINIA TRILOI: So individual learning programs then? Is that what you're talking about, individual learning programs for students the whole way through the system?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think recognising that there isn't a one size fits all approach for what teachers should be applying as a teaching pedagogy in the classroom. That teachers need to understand the different pedagogies, different learning styles and methods and that they need to be able to be adapted to the circumstances of the community and of the children in that classroom.

VIRGINIA TRILOI: Just one final question, this on politics today. We understand the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be appearing on Ray Hadley's radio program this morning. Should he just go quietly? Is rehearsing and revising everything that went on with his demise helpful to you guys?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think Tony Abbott I have great confidence will handle himself in a respectful manner and will want to see Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party succeed in the future. Tony leaves some strong legacies in place. While I was somebody who believed we needed a fresh start under Malcolm, I don't think we should downplay the achievements that Tony had, nor do we try to pretend that Tony doesn't have an ongoing role in making a contribution in his areas of passion such as indigenous education and indigenous advancement. So I hope and trust that Tony will be somebody in the future as a former prime minister who makes a positive contribution and continues to do so to public life and I wish he and Margie nothing but the best.

VIRGINIA TRILOI: Alright, good to talk to you Senator. Thanks so much.

Thanks so much Virginia.