Interview on 4RO with Aaron Stevens
Topics: Boosting apprenticeships through the Skilling Australians Fund; Funding for Central Queensland University

Aaron Stevens: The Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins me right now.

Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Aaron, great to be with you.

Aaron Stevens: Yeah good, thank you very much for your time. There was concerns raised by Tanya Plibersek yesterday about the numbers, particularly in apprentices as we go into another mining boom in this region. You are saying that some of the things that she said yesterday were incorrect.

Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s right. We’ve really sought to try to ensure the focus on training, particularly apprentices, is quite strong, and so in this year’s Budget alone, the Turnbull Government announced a new $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund. What that’s doing is it’s actually levying anywhere where businesses bring foreign workers in. As many people would recall, we’ve tightened the ways in which people can bring foreign workers into Australia. We’re also putting a levy in place that will then help to fund investment in apprenticeships and traineeships. States will be able to bid in different projects for that. It’ll be a very competitive arrangement to make sure that we’re stretching that $1.5 billion of extra investment as far as we possibly can to really boost and lift apprenticeship numbers in the areas where there will be jobs in the future, and that of course is critical as well. It’s not just training people for training’s sake, but training them in the industries that have strong growth potential, and obviously, in Central Queensland, we really hope that that will be in terms of a further mining boom and significant additional investment in mining activity through the region.

Aaron Stevens: And you’re getting the reaction, the desired reaction?

Simon Birmingham: So work’s underway with the state to really nail down the ways in which these programs will be developed, but there’s really strong enthusiasm from industry. We’re going to put an industry reference panel around this to make sure that it’s employers who are helping to assess requests so that we can, as I say, be really confident the money is being spent on training, in qualifications that actually relate to where the jobs will be. So getting industry and employers around the table to have a look at the way in which they propose to spend that money, what extra investments state governments can put in alongside it so that we can really drive those dollars as far as we can to help lift training outcomes, which are, of course, so critical. We already have record and growing investment across universities, record and growing investment across schools, but we want to make sure that in that vocational educational sector, and especially with apprenticeships, that we are driving the investment in the areas that are most necessary for the future economy.

Aaron Stevens: How did we get to this stage? What do you think the reasons were for us to get to this point where we really do have a skills shortage?

Simon Birmingham: Back in 2012, there were a series of major cuts to some of the incentives for employers to take apprenticeships, so that was essentially the Gillard Government’s last budget, and it took off the table a lot of incentives for employers to employ trainees and apprenticeships. Since that time, we’ve seen relatively static numbers around trade-based apprenticeships, and a real drop in some of the traineeship areas. What we’re hoping to prove in pursuing this is that we can be able to recover some of that, particularly in apprenticeship areas. We need to make sure that support is there for employers who have to make a commitment to an apprentice, to help them last three to four years duration just to get them through the apprenticeship; as well as, of course, the support that need to be there for apprentices, young people, people taking a career change later in life to be able to stick at the apprenticeship through to completion as well. That’s another of the things we’ve done during our time in government, we’ve put in place a new apprenticeship support network that does a couple of things. It tries to reduce the paperwork, administrative burden on employers handling and managing apprenticeships, but it also tries to provide more targeted mentoring support to help make sure that apprentices stick at it to completion.

Aaron Stevens: The frustrating thing for many employers going back a number of years when we were going through such strong growth in the mining industry, is an employer particularly in a local business, would take on an apprenticeship, take them through those four years, and then lose them to the mines. How do we make sure that those apprentices put in for that business after their apprenticeship’s done?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and obviously that is a challenge in terms of a free labour market. People of course are able to pick up and move to follow different jobs. I’d hope that there is perhaps a bit more of an understanding of the benefits of sticking with a good employer, a stable employer that provide long-term security for individuals. I think as well, though, recognising that yes, we need to make sure that those businesses such as the mining industry where a surge in activity are playing their role in terms of training people themselves, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re funding this Skilling Australia Fund via a levy on any foreign workers that are brought in under certain visa categories, because that’s reinforcing to businesses that if you’re not going to play a role in helping support the training system in providing apprenticeship opportunities, well then, you’re going to be paying more for your labour because we will be taking the cash off you to help those who are going to help train our future apprentices.

Aaron Stevens: I’m joined this morning by the Federal Minister for Education and training, Simon Birmingham. The other figure that Tanya Plibersek told us about yesterday when joining us in the studio was the $30 million being taken out of funding for CQ University. That’s obviously a big hit for the region.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Aaron, funding protections for Central Queensland University really do show very strong growth. The reason for the Turnbull Government’s proposed reforms which, yes, are seeking to try and make higher education funding more sustainable for the future and to help repair the Budget deficit that we inherited, but even with those changes under our protection, CQU will go from receiving $193 million in funding this year to receiving some $273 million by 2021. So that’s growth over the next four years, that’s up 42 per cent in funding to CQU, and part of that’s driven by increased enrolments but it’s also a reflection of the fact that there is additional support that will flow through. That funding growth doesn’t even include support for research fund or for equity programs that could be available to them. So I really want us to put to bed – to your listeners – concerns that there might be some cut in the actual amount of funding or support that the likes of CQU would receive. The truth is that there will be strong growth, even under our reform. Maybe not as fast as the university would have liked, but still significant growing levels of funding to support their very good work and critical work in Central Queensland.

Aaron Stevens: You said their very good work, I mean, CQU – and especially since they merged with the TAFE here in Central Queensland – it’s been such a beneficial force in this region.

Simon Birmingham: Look, absolutely. They are a very good, what we call a dual-sector provider in terms of providing vocational education as well as providing higher education, and that’s a great model for regional centres like Rocky, because it gives, in essence, an equal platform for people when they’re thinking about their career pathway, they can see CQU, the common provider, offering both of those important vocational skills that can align with apprenticeships such as [indistinct] as well as the higher education qualifications and the opportunities to go to university, but to do so studying locally, get a well-recognised qualification, and without having to move away from the region.

Aaron Stevens: I appreciate your time this morning, thanks for your response.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Aaron.

Aaron Stevens: The Minister for Education and Training, the Honourable Simon Birmingham joining us this morning.