Fiona Wyllie: And higher education is in the news again today. The Federal Minister for Education has announced a review into university entrance standards, and confirming cuts to university funding is still a possibility in the May Budget. He faced protests last night, and now he is with us on Statewide Drive, the Minister for Education Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Fiona, and good afternoon to your listeners.

Fiona Wyllie: Was that the first protest you’ve faced?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think- I mean I think there have been the odd little rally outside the office at times and so on, but I have to say there’s sort of been nothing to date, including really last night, but nothing that quite amounts to a protest other than a gathering of a dozen or so individuals.

Fiona Wyllie: You have asked the Higher Education Standards Panel to look at how to improve the transparency of higher education admissions, why is this necessary?

Simon Birmingham: It’s necessary – and I made this request earlier this year and what’s been released in the last 24 hours is essentially a discussion paper that identifies a number of the options they’re considering. It’s necessary because I think there is inadequate clarity around the type of measures and benchmarks that our universities are using to admit students, that there’s a degree of public concern, concern from students and families about exactly what the pathways are. And it really comes down to two particular objectives that I have: one is to make sure that students have the best available information upon which to make their decisions about which pathway, which course they want to pursue, what they need to do to get in, what they need to do to succeed; and the other is to make sure that our universities are held to account for the standards that they are applying, and that they are upholding high standards to achieve excellent outcomes as institutions. So there are two driving factors there behind wanting to have transparency, because it drives informed decisions by the students, but also best practice by the universities.

Fiona Wyllie: Are you hearing from people who are disappointed when they hear- maybe make a choice for a course because they believe their ATAR doesn’t allow them to do what they really want to and then they found out someone with a lower ATAR perhaps is doing that course? Where does this come from, these concerns?

Simon Birmingham: There are a number of anecdotes where it becomes evident some time after university applications have been made, offers offered, and acceptances put in that it becomes clear that perhaps the ATAR that was published as the minimum cut-off was not really the minimum ATAR, and that there are a range of other distortions applied, bonus points or the like, that are not necessarily transparent to students and their families when they’re making those decisions about what to apply for. Now, ATAR is not the be all and end all of what should be considered for our entry into every course for every student in a university, there are other things that are rightly considered. Of course for quite some time in many areas of medicine people have considered other aptitudes that candidates should have before going into that field. And with mature age students there need to be other pathways aside from just year 12 ATAR for obvious reasons. But we need to have confidence that the systems in place are robust and strong.

Fiona Wyllie: Given there is research to support the fact students in regional areas tend to perform lower than their city counterparts with their ATAR marks, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t operate on the same playing field as other students, how important is it for admissions procedures to continue to take into account these factors and give the extra points?

Simon Birmingham: I’m really passionate about equitable access and making sure that students do have good strong pathways into university regardless of where they live, where they’re from, what their background is. That’s why in funding support for students at universities, the Turnbull Government is completely committed to ensuring that nobody pays any fees up front, that we retain our generous HECS and HELP loan system that ensures that people can essentially put their fees on the government credit card and pay it back when they earn enough money later on. But I think- so and in terms of admission practices, obviously maintaining bonus points is not necessarily a bad thing in some of these instances, but people should understand what those bonus points are; ideally there should be at least an ability to compare them across university institutions, if not for in some instances there to be consistency. And in my home state of South Australia the three universities, big universities that operate there have come together and applied bonus points in a uniform way, which I think is not an unhelpful example to provide across perhaps the rest of the country.

Fiona Wyllie: It costs a lot of money to complete a university degree these days. We spoke about HECS on the program yesterday after the Grattan Institute modelling and had an overwhelming response from people who said their families were struggling with the costs. What’s the Government doing to ensure Australia- universities in Australia are affordable?

Simon Birmingham: Cost pressures are real for both families and students and for taxpayers. The cost to the federal taxpayer, to the Federal Budget, of higher education, of teaching and learning for students has gone up by around 59 per cent since 2009. Over the same period of time, the cost- the growth in our economy has only been about 29 per cent. So essentially we’ve seen effectively twice the growth in costs in higher education as we’ve seen in economic growth, and that for the Federal Budget, the taxpayer, is not a sustainable rate of growth. But I am also conscious that students take on a debt burden as a result of paying their fees.

Now those debts are provided under one of the world’s most generous student loan schemes where nobody pays a cent upfront, nobody pays any real interest on those debts, and you don’t pay them back until earning more than $54,000. So it’s a generous arrangement, and it does mean that access should be equitable, and we want to maintain the sustainability of that generous loan scheme which means making sure that we do get debts paid back, that we do keep at least a limit on the spiralling growth of the debt not expected to be repaid to the taxpayer, because otherwise future governments will look at that loan scheme and think that it’s unaffordable, and that’s a situation we can’t possibly get into.

Fiona Wyllie: Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining our program today.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure. Thanks for having me.