Interview on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliott
Issues with Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP; New VET Student Loans program

Tom Elliott: Alright, dodgy degrees. I didn’t realise there was a thing called a Diploma of Fashion Styling, but apparently it does exist. Or does it, anymore? Our next guest is the Minister for Education and Training. Senator Simon Birmingham, good afternoon. 

Simon Birmingham: G’day, it’s great to be with you.

Tom Elliott: So tell us, is it true that- I mean, these sorts of degrees like a Diploma of Energy Healing, that if I want to do one today, the Federal Government will basically pay for it?

Simon Birmingham:
We have what’s called at present a VET-FEE- VET-FEE HELP scheme, which was put in place by the Gillard Government, and yes, it is essentially open-ended. It means the Government picks up the cost of your fees. There is an expectation that if you go on in life and earn more than $50,000, those fees will be paid back. But in all too many instances, especially with some of these lifestyle-type diplomas, the money simply isn’t being repaid, and probably never will be.

Tom Elliott: Do people who do a Diploma of Therapeutic Arts in Counselling – and I assume that means they counsel by people by showing them, I don’t know, Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman or something like that – do they routinely earn a lot of money after they have one of these diplomas?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, a lot of these more lifestyle-type fields of study are ones that people do out of interest, rather than for their employment or their professional development. Sometimes they might align with a job. There are instances in counselling where this might be useful, but in general, far too many of them are used for simply lifestyle purposes by people who aren’t in the workforce and perhaps have no intention of going into the workforce.

Tom Elliott: So how did we get to the point where no-one in the Government until now sort of looked at some of these degrees and just said well, that’s ridiculous, we’re not funding that? I mean, who thought that it would ever be a good idea to spend tens of thousands of dollars on veterinary Chinese herbal medicine?

Simon Birmingham:
Well, in many ways it’s probably because there’ve been so many problems with this VET-FEE HELP scheme that we’ve been dealing with much bigger problems that result in billions of dollars of wastage rather than necessarily some of those that have very small take-up rates and comprise only a small cohort of the students in question. The whole VET-FEE HELP scheme has seen ridiculous growth in terms of student loans from $325 million when the Gillard Government changed rules right up to $2.9 billion by 2015. We took action as a Government through 2015 to try to bring that back down, and the 2016 figure will be hundreds of millions of dollars less than that, but it’s still not good enough, which is why we’re proposing to close the scheme down altogether, start again by rebuilding a new program from the ground up that is more selective about the providers who are in it, the courses that are offered, and the value of loans that can be charged.

Tom Elliott: So will you- will you or someone in your office go to the people who run the Diploma of Fashion Styling and say explain to us in five minutes or less why we should fund this rather odd-sounding qualification?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what we’re proposing to do is to run a test over all of the different diploma-level qualifications that are out there that are funded under this program, and for admittance as eligible courses under the new program, they’ll have to be on a skills needs list that states and territories draw up, at least two of those lists across different states so that we have some benchmark there. We’ll have a look at other areas of high economic need, such as STEM skills or agricultural skills to make sure that they are also included from a national perspective. But then any others who get left out, such as some of the ones you’ve mentioned, they’ll simply have to come back to us and make their own case if they want to be added back into the list, and to do so they would have to be demonstrating very strong employment outcomes.

Tom Elliott: Okay then. Now, what about some university degrees? For example, I’m told by my producers that gender studies is a very popular thing today, and there are also some lecturers who combine the school of Marxist communism with modern-day feminism. Would you run the ruler over those two and hopefully stop funding them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I have a different review that’s underway looking at university funding and higher education reform, and part of that I’ve asked for some advice back around what we fund and the extent to which we fund it and whether that creates diverse (*) incentives for universities to enrol students in courses again with limited likely employment outcomes or the like. So there’s absolutely a live conversation in that space. Universities historically have been afforded far more autonomy about the fields of study that they offer, so it would be a radical change to start to be more prescriptive in that space. But if there’s significant wastage of Government funds, then of course taxpayers would expect us to be looking hard at all of those sorts of things.

Tom Elliott: Now speaking of funding, on Q & A on the ABC on Monday night, you said that some private schools are overfunded. Does that mean you’re going to strip money away from them and maybe redeploy it somewhere else?

Simon Birmingham: What I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of weeks is highlight some of the huge inconsistencies in school funding around Australia. There’s a bit of a myth that developed suggesting that the Labor Party’s so-called Gonski reforms were all fair and needs-based and transparent, whereas in fact it’s a mish-mash of 27 different funding agreements, which means that a student sitting in an identical school in Victoria gets a different amount of money from what that student would get if they were in the Northern Territory. And the same can be said across non-government schools as well. But in that space, there are also a whole lot of historic arrangements that were preserved by Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten and you see continued growth on top of those historic arrangements that do mean that some schools, both independent and Catholic schools, are notionally overfunded against the current model. Now, we’re in discussions with the states, territories, and non-government school sector to work out how we might transition to a newer, fairer, simpler, equitable model that is ensuring funding is distributed according to need. Still supports students right across the school systems, whether it’s independent, Catholic, or government but does so in a much more transparent and equitable manner than current arrangements do.

Tom Elliott: Senator Birmingham, thank you for your time. The Senator is the Minister for Education and Training.