Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane

Topics: NAPLAN results, university reform, report into sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities, same-sex marriage

Sabra Lane: The latest NAPLAN results are out today and show school students’ results have only improved marginally since the tests were first introduced. There’s been a 0.72 per cent improvement in reading results and a 0.81 per cent increase for numeracy for students across years 5, 3, 7 and 9. But writing performance has dropped by half a per cent.

Senator Simon Birmingham is the Education Minister. I spoke with him a short time ago from Bunbury in Western Australia.

Sabra Lane: Good morning Senator and welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Government says the latest NAPLAN update shows a mixed bag of results. Overall reading scores across the country have improved 0.72 per cent since last year, but writing’s down 0.55 per cent and over the longer term it’s down by more than two per cent since 2011. What’s gone wrong there?

Simon Birmingham: Well the writing results are a real concern and we continue to see improvements as you rightly acknowledge in reading and numeracy and we should always acknowledge that Australia has a high performing education system by world standards with hard working principals, teachers and good school communities. So this is improvement in writing, in reading and numeracy off of a high base but the writing results are of course really a worry and I’ll be talking to state and territory ministers as part of our school reforms about how we can turn that around. And we’re implementing now true and consistent needs-based funding across the country, there’s record levels of investment in Australian schools. We have to make sure that we get the best bang for our buck in terms of that investment and that’s why we’re, of course, getting David Gonski to do a further body of work in really looking at how we use evidence based reforms to drive better practice in Australian schools in the future.

Sabra Lane: As you’ve just pointed out, you argue there needs to be a refocus now on teacher quality. David Gonski is leading a new panel on how to achieve excellence. Realistically, Minister, how many years before that is reflected in future NAPLAN results?

Simon Birmingham: So we haven’t been sitting still Sabra, we have already of course delivered a number of reforms to particularly initial teacher training, the teacher training in our universities that will see more specialist teachers coming into our schools, particularly into our primary schools. So these are positive reforms that will start to make a difference in the coming years. But this will be a continual process. Australia, to keep up with the rest of the world in education, must improve year-on-year. We must continually strive for the best evidence based practice. And so it’s not about just achieving improvements in one year or another, it’s about every single year working to be our best and to help every Australian student be their best.

Sabra Lane: Your most immediate challenge is the new tertiary education changes that you want through Parliament; the Group of Eight universities supported the last policy. It doesn’t support this revised policy now. In fact no one university favours it. Why do you think you’ll be successful in ushering this package through this time with less support?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, our university reforms are about making sure we have a fair university system in the future where we can continue to offer Australian students access to a wide range of degrees at high quality universities without any fear of upfront fees.

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] Sorry Minister, but you …

Simon Birmingham: Now we need to make sure the system is sustainable …

Sabra Lane: But the university sector is well against this. They’re warning – the Regional University Network, for example, is warning about serious perverse consequences. The Western Sydney University says it will be devastating. They’re all talking to the Senate crossbench. How do you think your changes will pass given those verdicts?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sabra, look I am confident we can work with the Senate crossbench. These are modest changes that ensure financial sustainability in terms of the equity of access to Australian universities. They slightly slow the rate of growth in funding to universities over the next couple of years, but there will still be a 23 per cent growth in relation to university revenue for teaching and learning over the course of the forward estimates period. That’s quite strong growth in terms of revenue those universities will get, and we’re guaranteeing continued access for Australian students without upfront fees. And we want to make sure that is locked in for the future, which is why we have to deal with a very significant cost rise in relation to universities over recent years, which has put real pressure on the federal budget. And that’s why we’re seeking to make it a more sustainable setting in the long term.

Sabra Lane: Minister, the chances of it passing in its current form are low – I know that you’ve beaten the odds on getting Gonski through Parliament and the child care changes, will this be your third big success or your first big failure?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, you can be the commentator – I’m going to do the work as the legislator. We have, indeed, delivered fair needs-based school funding around the country and widespread reforms to child care that from next year will help Australian families better meet the cost of their child care services, fixed the broken model of vocational student loans, and yes we’re going to work in relation to sustainability, standards, equity of access to universities for the future and we’ll keep working hard with the crossbench to get that through.

Sabra Lane: Should universities face the threat of losing their federal funding if they fail to improve safety, in the light of the report yesterday showing that many of them have experienced harassment and assault?

Simon Birmingham: This was a concerning report. There is no place for sexual harassment or assault in universities, nor anywhere else in Australia. The higher education scheme is very clear about the requirement for Australian universities to have a safe learning environment. Yesterday I wrote to all Australian universities asking them to provide the tertiary education regulator with their clear response to these findings, the actions they are taking, how they are upholding those standards, and I expect the regulator to enforce the standards properly at every Australian university.

Sabra Lane: On same sex marriage, you’re a strong supporter of it. In 2012, you wished that MPs had the right for a conscience vote. Is that still your personal view?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, as a member of the Cabinet I have a view of the Government, and my personal views on same sex marriage have long been known. I’m a supporter of change. But I do think that the Government has been very clear for a long period of time, including prior to the last election, that the Australian people should have a say in relation to this matter, and that it is optimal if we can find a way to give them that say.

Sabra Lane: There are a group of MPs who want this decided by Parliament, yet if there is a vote and Libs crossing the floor, it will be interpreted by some within your party as a loss of confidence in the Government and the Prime Minister. Potentially, it’s a very dangerous predicament for the Government.

Simon Birmingham: Well the Government’s not distracted by that. I realise that there are some out there talking about it, but I can tell you that the Prime Minister and the senior members of the Government are focused first and foremost on the national security threat we faced recently, as well as continuing to grow the economy. This is an issue where we have a clear policy on. And if the Labor Party simply got out of the way we could give the Australian people their say, have this matter resolved this year. And in that circumstance, I would welcome the change that would see same sex marriage available right around the country.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Education Minister Senator, Simon Birmingham.