Interview on 4BC Drive with Ben Davis
Topics: Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model; Higher education reforms to drive better outcomes for both students and taxpayers

Ben Davis: Gonski is backski. Now, flanked by Education Minister Simon Birmingham and the man himself, David Gonski, the Prime Minister announced a new review into education in this country. It’s to be called – wait for it – Gonski 2.0. Only six years after the original review was undertaken, a new one will be initiated, with the finds to be handed down in December. Now, along with the review, Malcolm Turnbull announced nearly every school across the country will receive a funding boost over the next decade – this is a 10 year plan – with the Commonwealth to kick in for both private and public schools. It’s going to reach 30.5 billion by 2027. Twenty-four of the country’s wealthiest schools, they’ll see their funding reduced as part of this reform.

Let’s get some more detail now from the Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham. He’s on the line now. Senator, good afternoon. For simple terms, simple level for mum and dads who are listening, what does this announcement mean?

Simon Birmingham: Well, g’day Ben. For mums and dads who are listening it means that we’re resolving and ending the school funding wars by promising that every school across the country will be treated on a needs-based way by the Federal Government in exactly the same way. So we will, for government schools, transition them so that whether it’s in suburban Queensland, outback Queensland, or in any other state or territory, we’ll provide them with the same level of support based on their individual needs. So that means there’s a base level of per student funding that will be attracted, but on top of that, if they have more students with disability, if they have more students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, if they have large numbers of Indigenous students, or it’s a really small rural or remote school, there’s additional support that flows into that. And for Queensland, it means that of the funding commitments we’ve given today there’s around 11 per cent extra funding that we’re committing to over the next 10 years, over and above what was in the Budget just last year.

Ben Davis: Alright, speaking of budgets, what are we kicking there? It’s 17.5 billion – that’s what it stands at 2017 – up to 30.6 billion, so just a bit under double by- well, in the next ten years. How are you going to pay for it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll fully detail funding arrangements and how things are paid for in the federal Budget next week. It is fully funded. We’ve had to make difficult decisions in the federal Budget to make sure that we can pay for priorities. Malcolm Turnbull and I and the Government are committed to supporting Australian schools, to ensuring that the continued debates that are focussed on school funding are brought to an end through doing what Labor did, by actually having a fair, consistent approach to needs-based school funding. 

Now, the Gonski report, as you say, was handed down six years ago, and what we got from it were 27 different funding agreements that treated states differently, sectors differently, that was far from a sector-blind needs-based approach to funding. Well, that’s what we’re going to now apply. We’re actually going to implement a sector-blind needs-based approach to funding in schools right across the country. We’ll transition schools over a ten year period to make sure that they’re all treated equally. And alongside that, the work that David Gonski is now going to lead is not about looking at how much money is spent or who it’s given to, it will be purely now work about saying how is it, with this record level of investment, we can make sure we get the best bang for our buck in ensuring it’s used for schools, teachers, to improve the outcomes of Australian school children.

Ben Davis: There’s going to be people listening going, well, hang on, why are we going back to Gonski? Why go back to David Gonski on this? I mean, the original report coming in six years ago [indistinct] but it’s left us with an education system, as you said, with 27 different school funding agreements. I know that wasn’t the intention of it, but we haven’t gone anywhere with it yet.

Simon Birmingham: That’s only because Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten distorted the implementation of David Gonski’s original report. We’ve gone back, we’re being pure to his original recommendations, implementing it in a fair and consistent way. And so why get David Gonski to do this second piece of work about how to improve the actual education standards in schools, and how to make sure that this money is put to good use? Well, because David has got, in a sense, a universal degree of credibility in this space. 

Now, state ministers have urged me for a long time to adopt the Gonski report, unions have urged me to do so. David is an eminent businessman, he is an accomplished chairman; he will oversee a panel of educational experts who will develop this report. But I trust and hope that because it comes from somebody who people have lauded over the last few years, because of his work in relationship to school funding, that we will get the same degree of acceptance when recommendations are handed down [indistinct] from the states, territories, unions, and others. 

Ben Davis: Senator, you mentioned about the states, they keep asking you this, that, the other. Have you consulted with the states on this? Because when we phoned Kate Jones’ office, the Queensland Education Minister, to comment on this they were still trying to get their head around this. They’re still trying to formulate a reply. They were listening to your media conference. It sounded like, and the impression that we were given, is that they were hearing it for the first time.

Simon Birmingham: As I’ve spoken to Kate – and we had a very positive conversation, and I hope that we can work constructively in relation to this – we’re not proposing what the Labor Party did, which was to say we’ll just spend billions of dollars in an ad hoc inconsistent way. Now, for the states there’s some attraction in of course just receiving billions of dollars. What we’re proposing is a calm, considered, and methodological approach that actually gives us a nationally consistent approach to school funding. Now, if Kate …

Ben Davis: [Interrupts] Constructed this- sorry, the constructed discussion, did she say yes, we’ll agree with this, or this is okay, we want to adopt it?

Simon Birmingham: They want to look at the details, and I respect that, but I hope that Kate and the Queensland Government can appreciate what it is we’re trying to achieve here. The past is the past in terms of the different deals that were stitched together. We want to put through the Senate, through the Parliament, an arrangement that will lock in certainty for the next ten years to get everybody onto the same final school funding model, and of course being an enduring model that lasts thereafter. 

Ben Davis: Senator, a lot of discussion, a lot of phone calls today about what you announced last night with university funding. If we can just steer that way for a moment – I know your time is precious so I won’t take long on this. But, for me, I agree with trying to fill that $52 billion void that is in the Budget, just trying to get some of this HELP fees back, but the rest of it is sending mixed messages. We’re hearing about housing affordability and how Canberra is going to help young Australians get into their first home; now we’re hearing they’re going to make it tougher and more expensive to get into higher education. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, firstly, it certainly won’t be tougher to get into higher education.

Ben Davis: [Interrupts] Financially. Sorry, financially.

Simon Birmingham: No, no, but also financially. The core part of the reforms we’re applying is to make sure that the income-contingent loan, the student loan program we have – nowadays known as HELP; previously known as HECS – is preserved into the future, because that enables any Australian from any background and any financial circumstances to go to uni without having to pay a single dollar upfront. 

Ben Davis: But they’ll have to pay it back sooner when they get to a threshold of $42,000?

Simon Birmingham: The Government fixed up the uni fees in the majority for students. So around 54 per cent of university fees in the future will be paid for by taxpayers; the other 46 per cent, on average, we’re asking students to pay for …

Ben Davis: [Interrupts] Which goes up from 42 per cent.

Simon Birmingham: We won’t be asking them to pay that back until they earn $42,000 a year, which is 20 per cent above the minimum full-time wage. But importantly, when we do ask them to start making a contribution to pay back, it will only be one per cent per annum that we’re asking them to contribute. So that, when you boil it all down, is about $8 a week that we’ll be asking university graduates to pay back against their debt, their student loan. And if you look at it by international comparisons, you know, in New Zealand students start paying back their university debt at $19,000 …

Ben Davis: [Interrupts] Yeah, but Senator, sorry, with all due respect, we’re talking about going to university here in Australia. I mean, we can have a look internationally, but we want Australian kids to be educated in Australia.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and our student loan scheme is one of the most generous in the world. Since it was introduced way back in the Hawke Government, even with the application [indistinct] under it, and when they’ve been increased we have seen nothing but an increase in participation by students from all backgrounds. In fact, participation from low socioeconomic students has grown faster under the HECS and HELP schemes than participation of students overall has. So it really is an equitable measure. 

But importantly, we need that student loan scheme which ensures there are no upfront fees to be sustainable into the future. We currently have $52 billion worth of debt on student loans, and without change the estimate is that around one-quarter of that will not be paid back. Now, that means that a minister in my shoes in ten years’ time, or maybe even sooner than that, would look at it and say this whole model is no longer sustainable. What we’re trying to do is make sure that it is sustainable, that we’re getting the vast majority of debts paid back.

Ben Davis: Is it sustainable now? Should we start again as far as university funding is concerned, start again?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we believe the measures we’ve put in place or proposed in our reforms, not just changes to when debts are paid back, but also performance funding for universities to make sure that we can incentivise them to really focus on graduates completing and getting a job; different arrangements for universities to offer more one and two-year courses into the future, not just locking students into three and four-year degrees, these types of reforms will help to drive greater sustainability, and indeed hopefully better skill people directly to the jobs in our economy.

Ben Davis: Probably only time for a yes or no answer on this one: apprenticeships – I know it’s kind of in your realm. Will that be part of the Budget, increased apprenticeship numbers in this country?

Simon Birmingham: The short answer is yes, we’re looking at apprenticeships, and very conscious of the need to make sure we boost apprenticeships. 

Ben Davis: Looking forward to that next Tuesday night. Appreciate your time. Senator Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister on a federal level.