Subject: Higher Education Reforms
DAVID PENBERTHY: Well two weeks ago South Australian Liberal Senator, Simon Birmingham, was sworn in as the Federal Minister for Education after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and in one of the biggest policy shifts by the new government it was confirmed yesterday that the plan for higher education reform has been shelved. Simon Birmingham joins us now; Minister thank you for your time. This was a policy which Tony Abbott and which your South Australian colleague Christopher Pyne were incredibly passionate about, why have you decided to walk away from it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well good morning Penbo, Jane and listeners. What’s important to understand about the announcement yesterday is that we have announced that we will not be proceeding with any reforms in 2016. That is to give universities, students, parents etcetera absolute certainty that funding for universities will remain the same next year and in the interim it gives myself, as the new Minister, Malcolm Turnbull as the new Prime Minister, time to consult and listen about what is achievable through the Senate and how it is that we can best provide sustainable funding for universities in the future. There are still real issues that have to be faced in the university sector as to providing world class universities that are sustainably funded in a government situation where we do still have major debt and deficit problems so, I’m not walking away from the need for reform or the reform package but we are saying we need time to see what is achievable through the Senate and what is in the best interests of our universities.
DAVID PENBERTHY: So it sounds like a sort of stop and regroup position from the government and is it also perhaps a concession that in order to make a series of changes as big as this you would need to take them to the people and get a mandate for them as opposed to the approach taken by the Abbott government when it tried to sort of spring this on the university sector without discussion prior to the last election?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Penbo, I’m keen to do as much as is possible in the life of this Parliament. I don’t think that in three year terms we should simply sit on our hands for the final twelve months, so if there are sensible reforms that I can navigate through the Senate, then that is absolutely what will happen, but of course, the government will also have its policies and Malcolm Turnbull will no doubt be presenting some bold reforms to the Australian people at the next election because that is the nature of the challenge we face. Malcolm has acknowledged that Australia needs to face up to global change, technological change and that requires significant changes for Australia in the future and our university sector is not exempt from that. Our universities in future will face far more competition from other institutions right around the world. Chinese and Asian universities are coming on in leaps and bounds competing more for international students, but in time as technological change means Australian students can choose to study at international institutions, our universities will need to adapt and make sure they are also the universities of choice for Australian domestic students too so-
DAVID PENBERTHY: Sorry to cut you off, but a lot of the universities will be really disappointed with what you announced yesterday because a lot of them are saying that financially the system that they operate under now isn’t sustainable, so they will be hoping that you do go back to the original plan won’t they?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and Penbo, it is important to understand that the policies remain the same aside from a one year deferral. At present, the legislation and the proposals to provide for autonomy for universities, including fee flexibility is something that the government stands by until the Cabinet determines otherwise. It is just that we have said to universities we accept they shouldn’t suffer, nor should students, uncertainty about what fee structures would be next year and that the government wants to have proper consultations and discussions with them about making sure that this package is the ideal one or if it is not then putting changes on the table and an alternative proposal and seeing if we can legislate that. I want to be very clear, the government is not running away from the idea that we should be giving our universities as much autonomy as possible, that we should be making sure that those institutions which are deemed to be the most learned and knowledgeable in the nation should be capable of running themselves, should be capable of setting fees that are appropriate for their students, but we do want to make sure that we give them certainty for next year and that we have time to talk to the Senate crossbenchers, time to talk to universities and students and other stakeholders to make sure that this proposal is the right one and to try, of course if it is, to actually get it legislated.
JANE RILEY: In the short term I’m sure that many students and their families will be breathing a sigh of relief, but in the longer term that they always end up with this HECS that they’ve got to pay up; will that effect how that operates? Will that change or is that still to be considered?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Jane, I think HECS is one of the fairest systems in the world and I am absolutely determined to make sure that we maintain an equitable system, that we have the right for students to attend university without paying one dollar in upfront fees and that’s what HECS allows for and the reform proposals that the government has presented before still embodies HECS, still has that no upfront fees approach. It really is unfortunate that our political opponents have run a scare campaign where they have implied that there would be upfront fees. That’s just not true. An equitable system which any reforms must maintain needs to ensure that Australians don’t pay one cent upfront. HECS is a very fair system where people only pay for the benefit from their tertiary education, of their university degree when they start earning a decent income.
DAVID PENBERTHY: Just finally Senator Birmingham, when Tony Abbott departed as Prime Minister he used the words “there will be no sniping from the sidelines” in the past five days he has given three interviews where he has made criticisms of the Turnbull Government including yesterday he said he was disappointed by your decision to suspend the higher education reforms. Do you think that, not to put too fine a point on it, that the former PM needs to pull his head in a bit?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look I think Tony is entitled to be able to talk about his legacy, about the good achievements that government made for Australia while he was Prime Minister, but I think over all I really do welcome the fact that Australians seem to be enjoying the sense of positivity and optimism that Malcolm Turnbull has brought to the Prime Ministership. The Liberal Party has had more new membership applications than we’ve had any departures since the change in Prime Ministership and there really does seem to be a renewed sense of confidence around and that’s great and I hope that we can continue to rally people around a positive vision for the nation.
DAVID PENBERTHY: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, guys.