Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland
Topics: Same-sex marriage; University completion rates and graduate outcome data




Del Irani:                      Now, students are dropping out of university at record rates according to new data released by the Federal Government.

Michael Rowland:        Yes, research from a survey of graduates found that only 71 per cent found a job straight out of uni and an alarming 15 per cent were still unemployed four years after finishing their degree.

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. He joins us now from Parliament House. Minister, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Michael.

Michael Rowland:        What do you put these record drop-out rates down to?

Simon Birmingham:     Michael, obviously we’ve seen an enormous growth in the number of students admitted to universities over the last few years, in particular since 2009 when the so-called demand driven system was put in place which allows universities to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines they want and to receive automatic, per student taxpayer funding. So there’s a real incentive there for universities to maximise their enrolment numbers. Now, one of the reforms that we have proposed as a government, is to put in place a performance payment system for universities, that part of their guaranteed per student payment ought to be linked to student performance, to improving completion rates, to ultimately improving employment outcomes, because they’re the things that matter to students.

Michael Rowland:        Separate to your problems with this demand driven approach by the former Labor Government; can you put this problem down to, I guess, a lack of support for struggling students by universities?

Simon Birmingham:     That’s, really why we want to make sure that there is a clear incentive for universities to make sure they are admitting the right students into appropriate degree courses or programs and that they are giving those students the maximum support and appropriate assistance to successfully complete their course and that they’re making sure those courses best align with employment outcomes and helping students to get work-integrated learning opportunities to transition into the workforce. These are the types of things that ought to be central to our universities. And many, many of them do a very good job. I don’t want to sound like I’m besmirching all of Australia’s universities. Many do a great job, but we want to make sure the incentives are there in terms of payments they receive from government to really focus on lifting those student outcomes, because that’s about being fair to the students and giving them what they’re signing up to.

Michael Rowland:        The studies also show that it differs depending on what degree you study, Simon Birmingham. Medical graduates, I guess not surprisingly, have a 98 per cent strike rate in getting jobs more or less straight out of university, but if you’re studying in an area like creative arts for instance or hospitality, science and maths, you will struggle. So, are some of those courses in those latter areas oversubscribed or perhaps not aligning to where the labour market is?

Simon Birmingham:     There are really two messages out of that. One is a message for students thinking about what courses they’re going to do. And of course, pretty soon, Year 12s from this year will start receiving their university offers. And they need to think carefully about the outcomes from those courses. They ought to do research. We publish all of this data on the QILT website – Q-I-L-T: Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching – for those who want to go and Google it and have a look at that information. But also there’s a responsibility on universities when they decide the number of students they’re going to admit into a particular discipline or program, they ought to be mindful of the labour market outcomes and the probability as to whether or not those students will successfully secure employment.

Michael Rowland:        Okay. Let’s go to the same-sex marriage Bill which more or less passed through the Senate unamended – it’s got to go through a couple of procedural issues this morning – last night. Do you expect that though, to survive next week’s meeting of the Liberal party room?

Simon Birmingham:     There are a few amendments still to come, but I expect that this Bill will pass the Senate, will likely pass the Australian Senate today. And that will be an historic moment in terms of delivering equality to Australians in same-sex marriage relationships right around the country. Now, in terms of next steps, it will go to the House of Representatives. The Government has committed that when the House of Representatives resumes next week, it will firstly deal with citizenship declarations and then secondly, get on with the business of legislating for same-sex marriage. We’ll see, I imagine, a debate in the House of Representatives that may again see some amendments proposed. That will be a matter for members of the House as to what they choose to support; but I am very, very confident that by Christmas, indeed quite probably by the end of next week, we will see same-sex marriage legislated in Australia.

Michael Rowland:        But there’s still a bit of anger, as you well know. Some of your conservative Liberal colleagues in the Senate accuse you and a clutch of other more moderate Liberals who voted to block some amendments, of denying religious protections.

Simon Birmingham:     Let’s be very clear about this, because I think it’s important for viewers at home to know that there are strong religious protections in the Bill that is passing through the Parliament as it is. People will still be able to turn up to their place of worship as they choose once same-sex marriage is legislated. They’ll be able to believe in whatever God they believe in, to worship in the way they choose to worship. Their church, their synagogue, their mosque, will be able to turn away same-sex marriage couples. Their ministers of religion will be able to say: I don’t want anything to do with your marriage. These are strong, clear protections that ensure as we change the marriage law, that those who are of faith are able to exercise their faith as ought to be the case.

Michael Rowland:        We also are seeing this drip, drip of increased criticism of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership this morning coming from Andrew Broad, a National Party member in in Victoria, who has accused Malcolm Turnbull, in his words, of showing a complete lack of leadership in bringing the different arms of the Coalition together on same-sex marriage. Has he got a point?

Simon Birmingham:     I think Malcolm Turnbull’s shown very strong leadership in ensuring that despite opposition to there being a process for the Australian people to have their say, he found a pathway through. He delivered it. It was incredibly successful; 80 per cent of Australians had their say, 62 per cent said: yes, get on with it, do it. And then, despite some who still sought to derail the process following that by putting in place a whole range of extraneous conditions on top of what had already been contemplated, Malcolm Turnbull said: bring the legislation to the Parliament. Get the debate under way. Get it done by Christmas. That’s strong leadership.

Michael Rowland:        Okay. So you’d expect the same-sex marriage Bill to pass the Senate today at some stage?

Simon Birmingham:     I think that’s most likely based on the way the debate has played out to date. And that of course will be an historic moment for equality in Australia. A moment I’m sure that will be celebrated by many same-sex marriage couples around Australia. But a moment that we should acknowledge that for the vast majority of Australians who are not in same-sex relationships, their lives won’t change. They’ll be able to keep on getting on with their business, their lives, including practicing their religion, their worship as they choose.

Michael Rowland:        And I guess a lot of supporters of same-sex marriage would say to that: gee, it’s a shame the House of Reps isn’t sitting this week so it could more or less immediately pick up debate.

Simon Birmingham:     I expect it will still take a few days of debate in the House of Reps, they have twice the number of members as the Senate does, so there’ll be a lot of speeches to get through …

Michael Rowland:        You could have started today, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham:     … and we wanted to make sure this was done in an orderly, sequential manner. We’ve said let’s get it down in the Senate this week and then the House has all of next week and if need be the week after to get it done.

Michael Rowland:        Okay, we’ll leave it there, Education Minister Simon Birmingham in Canberra. Thank you very much for joining News Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Michael.