Steve Austin: Well earlier this year it was revealed that nearly three-quarters of state high school teachers weren’t adequately qualified to teach maths and science. The Australian Education Union report which revealed this was rejected by the State Education Minister Kate Jones but the Queensland Teachers Union at the time said they weren’t surprised.

Well it looks like Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is going to do something about it. He’s in Brisbane and joins me in studio, thanks for coming in.

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

Steve Austin: I believe you’re going to do something about this.

Simon Birmingham:
Well Steven we’re certainly determined to make sure that all of the science disciplines, science, technology, engineering, mathematics have skilled and capable teachers passing on the knowledge and skills and curriculum detail that our students need and we do know from the research that there are too many either unfilled science and maths positions across classrooms around Australian and/or too many unqualified or underqualified teachers in relation to those skills and of course the teachers who are there are doing their best and doing a great job in many, many circumstances so I don’t want this to be a reflection on those who are in the classroom but we do have to make sure that we get more and better skilled science and maths teachers across our schooling system.

Steve Austin: You’re about to give a speech to the Australian Council for Education Research and the story in today’s Courier Mail says that you’re looking at this with a view to linking funding to improving the outcome for science and maths teachers in the system, are you?

Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull and I announced in the Federal Budget this year some increased funding for schools going forward over the next four years but we did also announce a whole series of particular reforms we wanted to work with the states and territories to implement in relation to school funding. Those reforms include putting in place some targets for the employment of new maths and science teachers. We want to work with the states and importantly with the universities of course who are responsible for admissions in the training of teachers to make sure that we get sufficient numbers of maths and science teachers coming through the unis who have confidence to enrol in those university courses because they know that the states and territories are employing people of their particular skills.

Steve Austin:
Will you be trying to… what’s the word… pressure, leverage the Queensland Education Minister to do more about this by saying look if… unless you do something about this, we’re going to look at your funding model?

Simon Birmingham: Look my hope is to be cooperative rather than having to apply pressure. I really want to work with education ministers from all of the states and territories regardless of their political persuasion. We’ve got record amounts of funding going into our schooling system, we have to use that funding as effectively as possible to improve our outcomes across the basics, literacy and numeracy as well as the skill areas those STEM disciplines that are essential to success in a modern economy.

Steve Austin: So what are you going to say over the road in about 20 minutes, half an hour from now to the educators that will be gathered in the convention centre?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s a really important gathering of educational researchers from around Australia and I’ll be saying to them as they focus especially on these science and maths related disciplines that we will commit to getting more people employed as science and maths teachers in the future, we will do that as I said before by leveraging the universities to make sure that they give priority to enrolment in those disciplines as well as working with the state and territories to ensure that they give commitments to employ people in those fields. We’ll of course also be explaining a range of other ways in which we are working already to make sure we focus on preparing students across those science and maths fields, already changes we’ve made particularly in relation to the teaching of primary school teachers, where in future there’s an expectation that they will have to undertake some form of specialisation so that you’ll actually get more specialists into primary schools, be they specialists in literacy skills or English skills, or specialists in maths and numeracy, we want to actually increase the expertise of those people in the teaching profession in our classrooms.

Steve Austin: Why has it been so hard to get them in there in the first place? What’s gone wrong where teachers have not been trained, taught properly in the science and mathematics area? Or do they simply avoid it?

Simon Birmingham: I think we have seen perhaps a degree of avoidance and that the universities in their enrolment practices have allowed people to opt for courses and disciplines that don’t always reflect these skills that we ultimately need in the classroom, now…

Steve Austin:
It’s been suggested to me that universities actually lowered the entrance score needed, in other words unlike countries like Finland and others where the university entrance score for someone who wants to enter the teaching profession is very high, up there with doctors and lawyers, it’s very low here in Australia, is that right?

Simon Birmingham: Well some universities have done that, what we’ve sought to do is make sure that we have guaranteed minimum standards of graduates, so we’ve put in place which has been applied across the country and I hope to see a greater uptake in Queensland over the next year or two, minimum literacy and numeracy standards for teaching graduates to guarantee that they are in the top 30 per cent of all teaching, of all Australians in terms of their personal literacy and numeracy competencies. So this is a test that we are asking and the states and territories have agreed to make mandatory and I wrote just last week to Kate Jones and all of the other state ministers and to all of the relevant university vice-chancellors, emphasising the importance of applying this so we can have confidence that all future teaching graduates meet this important minimum benchmark in terms of their personal skills and capabilities.

Steve Austin: My guest is Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham. It’s 22 minutes to 9. This, to me, says that the universities themselves have damaged the teaching of science and maths because they lowered the entrance score for teachers entering the profession. Teachers shied away from science and maths because it was too hard and those that went in had the entrance score lowered anyhow.

Simon Birmingham: I think in defence of universities to some extent, we have also seen sadly a significant decline in the number of students studying maths or sciences coming through the secondary schooling years, so you have a smaller proportion of students reaching the end of year 12 who actually have maintained those studies, so again one of the reforms that Malcolm Turnbull and I announced in this year’s budget was that we want to see applied and it will take a few years to get to this point but we want to see a requirement that to get a tertiary admission score or ranking, students have to study at least one maths or science subject so that you actually maintain a requirement right through secondary school to have that interest in maths and science that ensures those secondary school students who want to go on to university, not talking about every student but those who want a tertiary admission score actually keep more of their options open and that you get more students going into university who have maintained a background in maths and sciences rather than universities confronting a problem that students dropped those subjects some years before actually getting to uni.

Steve Austin: The Grattan Institute says the number of science graduates are growing now, but the jobs are not. Are you worried about that?

Simon Birmingham: Well this is reflective of a number of areas where the surge in enrolments over recent years is perhaps putting pressure on the employment outcomes for those enrolments. Now the Grattan Institute is talking specifically today in their report about generalist science degrees. Now a generalist degree in science is not unlike a generalist degree in the arts or other disciplines that don’t necessarily relate to a specific job qualification at the end, and often requires students to do some form of postgraduate study or to specialise in a particular field before they can then secure a real job outcome. Now I guess what I’d say to many of those who are undertaking science degrees at present and wondering what the next steps would be is if they’re unsure and they have the passion and the interest, well, the teaching profession provides a very good pathway given the discussion we were just having that we have a shortage of science-qualified teachers in the profession, and yet we appear to be having a surplus of science graduates coming out of our universities. We need to encourage those students to think about marrying that gap together.

Steve Austin: The Opposition federally and the State Government here in Queensland says that the Government of Malcolm Turnbull, or your Government, the Coalition Government, has cut funding for health and education. You’re not responsible for health, but you are responsible for education. Have you been cutting funding for education in Queensland?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not Steve. So, funding for Queensland schools has grown by 35 per cent under the Coalition Government since 2013. That is significant growth. People would remember that the Gillard Government promised lots of extra money for schools, Bill Shorten then actually cut that for Queensland because the Newman Government wouldn’t sign the agreements that he wanted. When we took office we had to put around one-point …

Steve Austin: [Interrupts] Wouldn’t sign the Gonski agreement in other words.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, but when we came to office we found that money had been taken out of the budget. We had to put $1.2 billion back in to ensure that Queensland got its fair share. We’ve done that, funding has grown by 35 per cent, and what we’re committed to do is to keep growing funding from around $16 billion in federal funding for schools this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. So it’s real growth. But most importantly, as we’ve discussed in this interview, we outlined a series of reforms we want to see to improve educational outcomes, because we know that money in and of itself doesn’t lift outcomes it’s what you do with that money that matters most.

Steve Austin: But the overall rate of growth in those forecast figures has been wound back by your Government isn’t it, in other words the rate of increase in the growth of education funding has been cut back.

Simon Birmingham: And that’s an accurate statement Steve, but of course it is not what the Labor Party says. So I think your listeners need to appreciate that funding keeps growing in real terms each and every year above inflation, above enrolments. There are no cuts to school funding that have come from the Coalition Government, we are delivering those increases. Yes, the Labor Party promised at the last election to spend more than us, but we were equally very transparent at the last election about how much we would spend. We will ensure it is distributed fairly according to need so that students in low socio-economic schools receive greater funding, so that those in small rural and regional areas or students with disability receive additional support. So we’re dead set committed to needs-based funding, we’re committed to funding growing, but I’m really really committed to working with the states and territories on reforms that can improve education outcomes rather than just continuing a debate purely about how much money is in the system when it’s already at record levels.

Steve Austin: I have to let you go for your function in just a moment, but a question about- in the lead up to the Four Corners program tonight. Do you support Tony Abbott’s call for reform to the Federal Liberal Party, particularly in New South Wales where he reportedly believes factional power brokers have too much influence?

Simon Birmingham: Look in my home state of South Australia we have a system of plebiscites for Liberal Party pre-selections where, with certain conditions, all party members receive a vote. That’s a fair system, but there are other models, including that applied in New South Wales, that give a representative sample of members a vote. It really is for the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party to work out its own business. I’d simply note that at a state level at least that branch has won two significant, significant majorities in consecutive state elections, so it’s obviously doing something right.

Steve Austin: So you think the South Australian Liberal Party model is better than the New South Wales Liberal Party model?

Simon Birmingham: No, I think we have different models across different states, and I’d note that the New South Wales model has certainly produced strong election outcomes at the state level for the last couple of elections.

Steve Austin: Do factional power brokers have too much influence in the Liberal Party?

Simon Birmingham: Not that I’ve seen. We are [indistinct] a model applied is, ultimately either one gives virtually every part member a vote, others give those party members a vote in who represents them on pre-selections. Either way it’s a long cry, far cry from the Labor Party’s model.

Steve Austin: Do you include New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party in that statement?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, I think across the board we are a very grass roots democratically-driven party, and that is a far far cry from the Labor Party who of course still give dedicated proportions of their pre-selection votes to union officials rather than to grass-roots members like we do.

Steve Austin: So I’m reading from you then that you don’t agree with Tony Abbott then that factional power brokers have too much influence.

Simon Birmingham: I think the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party, division of the Liberal Party, should manage its own affairs just as every other one does, just as the LNP does here in Queensland.

Steve Austin:
But do you agree with Tony Abbott’s remarks?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not a member of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, I’m a member of the South Australian division of the Liberal Party. I’m very happy with our pre-selection model there.

Steve Austin: [Talks over] Chicken. Chicken.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs].

Steve Austin: Are you worried about tonight’s episode of Four Corners that it may reopen some wounds in the Liberal Party?

Simon Birmingham:
No look I think parties of course have to always go through processes of talking about ensuring their internal management is appropriate, democratic, effective, there’s always an analysis of what happens in election campaigns. But ultimately, out of the last election campaign, we secured around 960,000 more votes than the Labor Party, we govern with 76, they only hold 69, so the Turnbull Government was clearly re-elected and we’re really getting on with business. And of course there’ll be shows like Four Corners that come and go, but I doubt it will occupy any time of the Cabinet tomorrow when we meet to get back on with planning the legislative program for the new Parliament.

Steve Austin: I would love to speak to you at some length about your overall philosophy for education in Australia and Queensland at a future date. Thanks for coming in.

Simon Birmingham:
Thanks Steve, happy to come back another day.

Steve Austin: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.