Interview on 2GB Courses and Careers with Danny Bielik
Education delegation to strengthen ties with India; Skills National Partnership Agreement; Support for apprentices

Danny Bielik: Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training. We’re in New Delhi, India for the Australia India Skills Conference. Minister, can you just give us a little bit of information about why- what you’re doing here? 

Simon Birmingham: The strength of the Australian Indian education and training partnership is really incredible. Australia is the second most popular destination for Indian students who choose to study abroad, whether it’s at universities, at training institute or at English language providers. We’ve got around 400 plus research partnerships engagements between Australia and India. So it’s incredibly rich association that we think can be even stronger in the future because India has a skilling task and challenge ahead of it the likes of which the world has never seen before. Prime Minister Modi has an ambition to see around 400 million Indians upskilled by 2022. We’re really here to look at the opportunities for Australia to play a role in helping to make that happen.

Danny Bielik: So why Australia? I mean, what’s so special about Australia? Why are all these providers here at the pest Indian Government to come and talk to them their skills needs?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t really recognise in some ways the strength and in many ways unique attributes of our vocational education and training system. But back at home, we have a system that has standardised uniform national qualifications, that have been developed with clear competency standards that require people to meet the skills that industry and business have said are necessary for different jobs and occupations. And that type of clarity in the training model is quite unusual in parts of the world, and we’ve done well and it’s well-recognised and regarded. The Indians have been working on models of similar types of qualification frameworks. And so we’ve had a long engagement of working with them on developing that. Now there are opportunities for us particularly to help them in training the workforce of trainers and assessors necessary to roll out qualifications and training in future.

Danny Bielik: So this is- I mean, this is all great. Obviously India’s got some important needs. You’re the Minister for Education and Training for Australia. Why is this important to our listeners who are all over Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Because it creates jobs and opportunities for Australia too. International education is around a $21 billion industry. 

Danny Bielik: Our third largest export, right?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So there are more than 100,000 Australian jobs dependent on the education and training services that we provide. Big export dollars. India is our second biggest market in that sense. But it’s not just that we realise benefits from the economic dividend of directly providing training or having Indian students in Australia. We also recognise benefits as a country from India’s economy growing and getting more affluent, that means there is greater demand for our goods, products. services that we export, particularly agricultural services and goods and the like. It means that we have a stronger relationship in the future by having had this two-way mobility of students going between our countries. Who will have much better cultural understandings generate other new economic and trade links in the future, create new opportunities in a range of different ways, as well as stronger diplomatic and cultural security ties. That will really underpin the relationship between Australia and India for decades to come.

Danny Bielik: So we talk about this sort of mobility. I mean a lot of this means there’s training that Australians are going to be doing in India, and that’s clearly a good thing, but then there’s a lot of people who come from India to Australia. We get a lot of calls from our listeners wondering are these taking places away from Australians at universities and TAFEs, at private providers? Are these resources being used up by foreigners, Indians, Chinese, and whomever coming to Australia and taking their places?

Simon Birmingham: Emphatically no. If anything, they’re creating more opportunity, and certainly better experience for Australian students. So Australian places are funded by the Australian Government or by state and territory governments in training bodies, and in no way are those places being subverted or directed to international students, whatever their origin. So first point to reassure listeners is Australian places are for Australians they’re funded for Australians and that’s who they go to. But the second point is that by actually having international students as part of our university or training institution, it enriches those institutions, helps them to provide bigger, better product offering to Australian students as well. It gives Australian students a cultural experience as part of their education.

Danny Bielik: Do they get better buildings and facilities and all sorts? I mean, we’ve seen the unis. All you’ve got to do is drive up there in Sydney, you’ll see the uni buildings. What about- when’s some of this going to dribble through to the TAFEs and be available for Australian students to use as well?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the opportunity is there for the TAFEs, and we see a good number of international students participating in the TAFE sector as well. They’re really exploring their opportunities too, to see how they can continue to grow that, either within Australia or by supporting development outside of Australia. Now, in no way do I expect to see Australian institutions direct resources that would otherwise go to Australian students into developments of new campuses or sites in India. But if they can develop those campuses and sites in India in a way that creates further opportunity for Australian students in the future and a bigger, stronger education and training institutions for Australia, then that’s great news in terms of our transition as an economy from one reliant on mining boom type period to one that is more of a knowledge-based and services-based economy.

Danny Bielik: Thanks very much for joining us again, Minister Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training. We’ve got the Federal Budget coming up shortly. What a lot of listeners don’t know is that the Federal Government contributes around about a third of the skills funding that goes to Australia. Most of it is supplied by the states, but that third is really important. The funding agreement between the Commonwealth and the states hasn’t been finalised yet. When are we likely to see that? Are we going to see cuts, or is money going to go up, or … the Labor Party says you are gutting the vocational education and training system. How can we give some certainty to our listeners? 

Simon Birmingham: There’s a bit of misinformation about both what the partnership agreement was and what might we have into the future. The partnership agreement that was struck between the previous Gillard Government and the state and territory governments was designed in some ways to drive greater contestability in the training market to encourage states to reform they way they did things and encourage more entrants other than TAFEs into that market. It’s certainly had mixed success in that regard. But what it did see was a lot of cost-shifting occurred between the states and the Federal Government. So the states have reduced areas of their spending on training, while the Federal Government paid the states this money in relation to training, as well as expanding the offering of student loans through the old, flawed VET FEE-HELP scheme but now through our new, more targeted VET Student Loans program. 
So what we’re looking closely at is to make sure that we don’t have a continuing situation where the states are shifting costs on to the Federal Government and onto the budget deficit that we have to make sure that if we’re funding anything in the future, it’s actually targeted to get outcomes, because the last one certainly wasn’t. It was just a giant transfer of money to the states. And thirdly, ensuring that we actually get real value for money in anything that the Commonwealth does. This idea that the Federal Government just hands money over to the states for them to keep doing things is ridiculous when state governments are empowered to prioritise their budgets and to make sure that they back, as they should, continued investment in their TAFEs and in training.

Danny Bielik: So minister, it sounds to me like the Budget’s going to have a significant reduction from that $1.7 billion a year that Labor says that is coming out of the national partnership money from the Commonwealth to the state. So assuming that goes down, are you expecting under the new agreement for the states to pick up the tab, or is that money just going to disappear from the availability of training for Australians?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll make our budget decisions which will be announced in the Budget. We continue to through VET student loans provide enormous support for vocational education places. We continue to invest significantly in the Australian Apprenticeships Support Network to back apprenticeship systems right around the country. The Federal Government won’t in any way be vacating the vocational education space, and there may well be new and further investments to come. But I absolutely do expect state governments who own TAFEs, who run TAFEs, who traditionally have been responsible for funding TAFEs, to do their job.

Danny Bielik: Quick question about apprenticeships. The OECD just issued a report and said that apprenticeships may have actually had their day. Are we expecting to see a major change in apprenticeship models in Australia? We’ve seen numbers go down. I get calls every week on the Courses and Careers show asking about apprenticeships. How can someone’s child who didn’t do so well at school get an apprenticeship, employers saying where are all the apprentices. Is this model going to go away? Are you going to nationalise it? What is the future for apprenticeships for Australians?

Simon Birmingham: We continue to see relatively steady numbers in traditional trade-based apprenticeships in Australia. The decline that we’ve had over recent years and particularly since the Gillard Government removed some subsidies for trainees or sort of apprentices in the non-traditional areas and the service industries and the like has largely been limited to those service industry type sectors. The apprenticeship model I think is one that is really quite valuable, but it may need to remake itself in different ways as time goes by. And we’re backing and investing at a federal level in a new internships model to try and encourage shorter forms of work experience and internship arrangements between students, and jobseekers, and employers so that you do develop the type of work-ready apprenticeship type skills, but maybe not necessarily always in the same structured way as an apprenticeship. But I don’t think traditional apprenticeships, particularly in trades, are going away any time soon. They’ll have to change, adapt to modern technology and practices, and we’ll all need to work to help that occur, but we’ll still have a very important role.

Danny Bielik: Minister Birmingham, we’re going to have to have you back again in the studio in Sydney or in Melbourne when we’re both in Australia. From New Delhi, India, I’d like to say thank you very much for coming on our Courses and Careers with us tonight.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Danny. Great to have you on the delegation and showing this level of interest in Australia’s education and training opportunities.

Danny Bielik: Thank you.