Interview on 3AW Breakfast with Ross Stevenson and John Burns
University course completion rates; Turnbull Government’s measures to support uni students to make the right course choices

Ross Stevenson: You are familiar when it comes to tertiary education, well undergraduate degrees, of the expression ‘pathways’?

John Burns: No.

Ross Stevenson: Right, if you wanted to get into a degree when you went into university you either got the marks to get in or you didn’t and if you didn’t stiff bikkies.

John Burns: Right.

Ross Stevenson: Right, now there’s a thing called pathways. If you don’t get in go and do another course for a year and you’ll find a pathway into doing what you want.

John Burns: Oh I see.

Ross Stevenson: Today is the day when people find out whether they have got into their course, their first-choice course, at a time where it shows that one in three Australian students are not completing their university degrees within six years. I can’t think of a degree that takes six years. Does medicine still take six years?

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training. Minister, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you.

Ross Stevenson: Right, it’s not a great result that 33 per cent of Australian students are not completing their university degrees within six years, why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s not. Now admittedly, that figure has been relatively constant for a number of years, it’s bounced up and down tiny amounts, but it’s a fairly static figure. And we know that a number of those students will change directions while they’re at university and go into a different course which they might go on to complete, so it’s not all bad news in that sense. But we are keen to try to drive that down as much as possible because it represents lost and wasted time and money for both students and taxpayers and so the fewer instances of non-completions that we can generate, the better it is for all involved.

Ross Stevenson: Is there any non-completion caused by someone failing an exam and getting booted out? Or is that something that only happened in ancient history?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] No there would still be some of those of students who just don’t manage to get through. So there are those instances. And of course, we expect our universities to uphold standards and that not everybody just flies through and so not everybody will manage to successfully complete …

Ross Stevenson: [Talks over] I don’t mean to be rude, Minister, but my rudimentary understanding of modern university is that everyone does get to fly through. I was told that the kid who finishes bottom of medical school is called doctor.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well I don’t think that’s entirely the case. We do have pretty good and strong academic standards still imposed, but we are working to hold universities to better account, particularly for the students they admit. We had a comprehensive review of student admissions practices this year, which were implementing all of the reforms there which will require unis in future to publish, not just more transparently their admission practices, but do it in consistent manners that allow us to compare across universities apples with apples so that they can be held really to account for decisions they’re making about whether or not the students are fit for purpose to undertake a course.

Ross Stevenson: If education is, for example, an export industry, and I read – and I don’t know whether it’s true or not – that Victoria’s biggest export industry is education …

John Burns: [Interrupts] I followed a car yesterday which had a number plate; Victoria: Education state.

Ross Stevenson: Yeah, well there’s no money in failing people, is there, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: There’s also no money in trashing your reputation. Education is a big export industry. It generates for the country now about $19 billion in international income; it’s actually our nationally third largest, coming after coal and iron ore. So we do see big dollars coming in internationally and Victoria is a big beneficiary of that. But reputation is one of the biggest factors there. You have to cherish that reputation as a university or else you will trash the potential to be able to generate that type of revenue in the future.

Ross Stevenson: Do too many people go to university?

Simon Birmingham: No. We live in an era where people having higher levels of skills is critical for their future success. Of course, people will have to adapt those skills across different career pathways, but we do need to make sure people are making the right choice. And today, as many kids will get their- and people will get their university offers, I’d be urging them to make sure they do the research. We’ve made more data and information available and continue to do so on the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website, where they can compare student satisfaction and course outcomes across different universities and different courses and make hopefully better informed decisions about what is the best course at the best university to best serve their future needs.

Ross Stevenson: Good on you, Minister, many thanks for your time. Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham. And who, in his last answer to our question, used the word …

John Burns: Go on.

Ross Stevenson: … pathways.

John Burns: Oh.