Subject: Education Policy Direction
STEVE CHASE: Senator Birmingham, we are hearing that the government is keen to reset some key policy directions, especially in taxation and in your portfolio, Education; what does that mean for your portfolio?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well good morning, Steve and listeners. Look, for the Education portfolio I will be an Education Minister who seeks to build a consensus and work with education stakeholders from early learning and schools through to universities and the vocational training sector and make sure that through that we are developing policies as much as possible in a collaborative sense. Now clearly, there is some focus at present in relation to the higher education reforms. The government has policies that remain policies until the cabinet determines otherwise, but it is my expectation that I’ll be listening very closely to the views of education stakeholders on the content of those policies, on the reforms that are most needed for the higher education sector and that will, of course, inform my approach to future cabinet discussions on the matter.
STEVE CHASE: Now your South Australian Senate colleague, Nick Xenophon, this morning said that he wants you to abandon the education deregulation legislation, is that an option?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Malcolm Turnbull has been very clear; this is a government that will run by a proper process. We are a team and we’ll work as a team and the cabinet will make decisions as a team and it will be my responsibility to inform the cabinet of views in relation to those policies and to make sure that we then come to a consensus position so, that is the approach that I’ll be taking, I won’t be leaping to any policy pronouncements on this and it is important that I take the time to hear what people are saying, including the crossbench Senators like Nick Xenophon and make sure that we proceed in a manner that is realistic about what can be implemented, but also is realistic about what needs to be done for the higher education sector in Australia and make sure that our universities are in a position where they can be world class institutions well in to the future in particularly in an environment of increasing global competition from universities right around the world.
STEVE CHASE: But it would appear yesterday that the ALP upped the stakes a little bit. The opposition leader announced universities will get an extra $2.5 billion over four years and he says they will not have to increase student fees under a Labor government, is that something you can match or better?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Steve, there is a couple of points to that. Firstly, there is a bit of a ‘funny money’ aspect to what Labor is doing there in that all their doing is applying funding that is, in essence, already there for universities. They’re taking and paying for it by virtue of saying they wouldn’t proceed with our current package of proposals and they wouldn’t proceed with some savings measures that the previous Labor government put forward. So, there is not necessarily new or additional money for universities, let’s be clear on that to start with. Secondly, I think there are a lot of questions still to be answered about Labor’s approach. They’re suggesting somehow that it would be paid also in part by limiting the number of places available to students; so, does that actually mean that they would be having fewer students going to universities in the future? And they’re also suggesting that they would be regearing some of these payments towards completion payments. Now, completion payments sound nice for universities, but you have to be very careful about what such an incentive actually does for the way universities respond because it could see them cutting out of universities those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds who they might think have a lesser chance of completing a degree or it could see them, in the worst case scenario, progressing people through a degree without them necessarily having achieved all of the competencies or skills that you would expect them to have during that degree. There are a lot of questions to be answered about Labor’s policy.
STEVE CHASE: Finally, you’re telling me that you can’t say whether you’re going to match or better what Labor has put on the table now, you can’t say whether you’re going to abandon the universities deregulation legislation, but can you at least give me a timetable of when you’re going to make some sort of definite commitment in this area?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Steve, this is a government that will move quickly. It is only about twelve months until the next election. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, wants us to make sure that we bring back policy proposals to him in a swift timeline, but no, I’m not going to put a fixed timeline on it. You can be confident that when we have a new cabinet position, if there is a new cabinet position in this area, the world will know about it quickly and promptly, but until then my commitment to the education stakeholders is that less than twenty-four hours in to the job, I’m still listening and consulting and wanting to hear their views rather than simply leaping to some sort of position based on my own prejudices.
STEVE CHASE: You were a key backer of Malcolm Turnbull in the leadership change of recent days, Tony Abbott has come out today and said some fairly savage things against Scott Morrison, do you fear that that could cause a new round of instability?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’ve been really heartened overall by the sense of unity and purpose that members of the government have shown. I appreciate that there are people who are disappointed and feeling a bit bruised out of the changes and, of course, you would expect Tony Abbott to be one of those people and my heart does go out to Tony for the circumstance he finds himself in, but ultimately, I think we’ve done what was in the best interest of the nation in putting in place a leader in Malcolm Turnbull who has a strong vision for Australia, a strong sense of wanting to take this country in a direction where we face up with the global challenges of technological disruption and innovation and my portfolio of Education and Training is critical to that so, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity ahead and I have complete confidence that the team will rally behind Malcolm and present a positive, optimistic vision for Australia’s place in the world that I think Australians will find very compelling.