Interview on ABC Central Coast Breakfast with Scott Levi
Enabling courses at university

Scott Levi: Yesterday you may heard us speaking with Deputy Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek – she’s also the spokesperson for education for the Labor Party – who visited the Central Coast Campus of UON as part of the ALP’s national campaign against Federal Government’s changes to university fees. 

This is a little of what she had to say and we’ll catch up with Simon Birmingham to balance up the discussion in just a moment – the Government’s Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham – but this is a little bit of what Tanya Plibersek had to say and particularly about enabling courses. I guess for many they understand if fees have to be increased, so be it, they’re already paying a fair hefty whack at the end of getting their degree. But enabling courses really are a bit of a try before you buy, if you like, to see if people are good enough to have a crack at university and this is what she had to say about the thing that really has been a huge winner for our local university, its accessibility. The fact that people can get there if they have a smarts and the guts to work hard. 


Tanya Plibersek: They will start charging up to $3200 a year for these enabling courses. So this is not a decision of the university, it’s a proposal from the Federal Government that would apply to all universities. And I think it’s particularly unfair, because we know the people who are making use of these pathways into university, there’s a reason that they struggled at high school. There’s maybe family reasons at the time. Sometimes you’re talking about mature aged people who’ve worked in a particular field for a long time and, as we know, the economy’s changing, some jobs are disappearing. They’re looking to go back and get the skills that would help them go onto continue to have a successful working life. Why would you stop those people getting an education?

Scott Levi: But they don’t know, they’re not going to spend $3000. Because they’ve been told- they might have dyslexia or whatever, they’ve fallen through the cracks, they’ve been told they’re dumb, they haven’t been able to finish high school and all of a sudden they want to try themselves out and take that leap of faith. They’re not going to spend $3000 – well they wouldn’t have $3000 I would think. 

Tanya Plibersek: No. That’s right. To put this additional barrier in people’s way, I just think is incredibly short-sighted. We know that people who’ve gone to the University of Newcastle, they’ve gone in through one of these enabling courses, they’ve gone on to be nurses, accountants, whatever, they’re earning a good wage to support their family. We’ve had Indigenous students, as you point out, who’ve gone in through one of these pathways, who’ve gone on to become doctors. I mean what a fantastic achievement. Why would we put roadblocks in the way of that?

[End of excerpt].

Scott Levi: Tanya Plibersek there on the program yesterday. The Federal Education Minister is Senator Simon Birmingham. Great to have him on the program. 

Good to talk to you, Senator. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Scott, it’s good to be with you. 

Scott Levi: Yes you’ve heard that these accessible course, it’s the real point of difference for our local university; which is in the top 3 per cent in the world. And this fear that $3000 fees could be brought in to do the Open Foundation for example. Can you allay those fears? Because that seems to be a very retrograde step.

Simon Birmingham: Well Scott, I can allay the concerns. There’s won’t be any upfront fees for students going to universities as part of enabling programs. We are looking to overhaul enabling programs where across the country we see fairly low rates of transition from completing those programs into undertaking further study. So what we’re trying to do is make sure that for the money that’s spent – both by taxpayers as well as by universities and by students – that we get the best return in terms of people who clearly have an ambition and interest to undertake further studies, actually getting the best support they can, while at university or a higher education provider to complete that enabling program and go on to further study. 

But it is really important to stress that in the changes we’re proposing – which will put a bit more competition between universities and higher education providers for who offers enabling programs. We’re not proposing that students will pay upfront. They may be asked to make a small contribution that can be put on the HECS or HELP program – the student loans program into the future – which they only repay if they then reach the income threshold. But there’s absolutely no barrier such as the type of upfront fees that Tanya was implying. 

Scott Levi: Aren’t those figures that you’re quoting suggesting that universities are being stringent? They’re not letting anyone in. They’re saying, while you must be up to the standard and it’s a way for people to try themselves out to see if they are up to the standard. I mean I’m not shocked by those statistics. I think that’s quite a good thing that they’re saying no, you’re not going to make it unless you do some more work on your literacy or your numeracy our whatever. Surely that’s showing that the universities aren’t accepting everyone for fees, they’re making sure that they pass those tests through the open foundations and accessibility programs?

Simon Birmingham: Well we absolutely want to make sure that university admissions practices are strong and robust. And our Government’s doing quite a lot in terms of overhauling admissions practices to make sure they’re also a lot more transparent to people, and that universities ultimately are held to account for only enrolling students where they’ve got a likely chance of success, and they get support to complete their degree or their program, and they also have a good prospect of getting a job at the end of it. But in terms of the enabling programs themselves; the intention there is absolutely for a university to prepare a student for further study. To help them in terms of areas of skills deficit they may have. 

Now we’re expanding some of the areas that unis can do that, too. So it won’t just be about the types of enabling programs that Tanya specifically discussed. And we’re expanding the capacity for unis to offer sub-bachelor degrees or diploma-type courses that could also be enabling in their nature. And so in that pathway, there’ll be a new, lower qualification of perhaps only 12 months in duration that more universities will be able to offer more places at, that they better suit many people seeking to undertake a level of tertiary study in the future. So there’s a range of increases in choices, I guess, that we’re trying to provide in something that is about empowering student choice, not wanting to turn anybody away who seeks to change their work direction, who seeks to overcome issues in their lives. But about trying to make sure that also the taxpayer is getting a fair deal out of it, and a good deal out of it. And that means that you want universities to be giving the maximum support, and students to be taking it seriously. And a small contribution, but doing it by no up-front fees and with a student loan program, is a good way, proven way, of trying to lift some of those outcomes. 

Scott Levi: So when would they pay, if they’re not paying $3000 up front to have a crack? Because that really would be a great deterrent to young people doing this. I interviewed a young woman who won the university medal, and she fell pregnant very early in life, and now has a far better life for her kids here on the Coast because of the degree, and her job that came from that degree. So she would have been excluded if she had to fork out $3000. There’d be no way that she’d have the life that she’s got, and her children have the chances they have.

Simon Birmingham: So somebody like that, they’d have no upfront fees, they’d be able to foot what on average might be around $1300 under current arrangements in terms of the duration of enabling courses. To be able to put that onto a student loan program, and they don’t pay it back until they’re earning at least, under our reforms, around $42,000 per annum. And they’d pay it back then at a rate of about $8 per week. So it’s a very modest rate of repayment at that level of income. It’s about making sure that nobody in those circumstances feels turned away from the scheme, and the likes of Professor Bruce Chapman who designed, really, the student loans program for the Hawke Government all those years ago has been clear that all of the evidence in Australia and around the world, is that this type of income-contingent loan program for students where you don’t pay it back until you earn a reasonable income, doesn’t have any impact in terms of participation. Because people do see the value of undertaking university studies, and they recognize that they get a return for that investment.

Scott Levi: What if they don’t finish? If they do one semester and realize: I’ve got to go back to TAFE, or something, or go to night school and work on my literacy skills or whatever. I’m not going to be able to cope. Because it’s very much a first year university course with lots and lots of help, really, it’s very much the same. Same marking processes, same essay writing or exams in science or maths or English, or whatever you’re doing. And some people won’t cope, as your figures are suggesting. There are a lot of people who don’t make it, but there are many who do. What happens if they drop out? Do they owe $700 for that semester, or something?

Simon Birmingham: Well it depends how far through if anybody studies they progress. But if people pass a census date, as such, then yes, they do incur some level of fees as part of the student loans program. But really, this is, these programs are about preparation for being able to undertake further university study. Of course universities need to make sure – in terms of their assessments of the people that they enroll – that those people are capable of undertaking the enabling program, that they’ve got sufficient skills that they’ve staged to be able to succeed in that enabling program, and sufficient motivation if they succeed, if they are wanting to take those skills onto further studies as something that is then a benefit to them, as well as to the country overall.

Scott Levi: Do you think this change will lower the number of people enrolling for enabling programs?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t believe so, but we certainly hope that it will see more people being more successful in those enabling programs, by – as I say – changing the way we also allocate the places for them between institutions, is something that better rewards institutions that have higher success rates in terms of the assistance that they provide to their students. That we want to make sure there’s an accountability there for universities and higher education providers to help their kids succeed, or their older enrollees succeed when they enroll in these programs. And so we’re hopeful that what we will see is more people being more successful as a result.

Scott Levi: Alright. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us again on the program.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Scott, a pleasure.