Interview on ABC News radio with Fiona Ellis-Jones
Topics: University completion rates and graduate outcome data; Same-sex marriage


07:23 AM


Fiona Ellis-Jones:        The Federal Government has released new data showing that students are dropping out of university in record numbers. The figures show two-thirds of university students are failing to complete their degrees within six years. That is the highest drop out rate recorded since 2005. The Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Fiona.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Why are so many students failing to complete their degrees?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, Fiona, we’ve obviously seen a massive growth in the number of students at Australian universities, particularly in the period since 2009 when the so-called demand driven system was introduced. And that’s allowed universities to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines they want. And what’s come with that, it seems, is a bit of a downturn in the number of students who are completing their studies, as well as a downturn in the number of students who are successfully securing employment. And that’s one of the reasons why the Turnbull Government has proposed that some of the university funding they receive for all of these students ought to be tied to performance payments. That there ought to be some consideration around the admissions practices, the student support, the practical assistance around learning and teaching, and ultimately the employment outcomes of graduates related to university payments.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Well, indeed, let’s not gloss over it. Only 70 per cent of them are actually securing a job when they graduate.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, only 70 per cent in the short to medium-term are securing employment. That increases over the longer term. We shouldn’t talk down the situation too much.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        What’s the short-term, three years?

Simon Birmingham:     No. Short-term employment outcomes are considered to be a shorter time than that. Three months it is. So, Fiona, we’re talking about a fairly short period there and that increases as I say, overtime to in excess of 80 per cent but that used to be in excess of 90 per cent. And it’s only fair to Australian students that we expect universities to really focus in on the ultimate outcomes for their graduates. And those ultimate outcomes relate to whether or not they’re going to get a job, particularly in the field or discipline that they’ve sought to study in. And of course, it ought to be a job that enables them to repay their student loans and succeed in their lives.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Is it a case, Minister, do you think, that just too many Australians are going to university?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I think we have to look carefully about the disciplines and the areas in which universities choose to enrol students. And that is, of course, a job for universities. They demand and have received the autonomy to enrol as many students as they want, in the disciplines that they want. But in return for that autonomy we believe that some of their funding, some of their payments, should be tied to the outcomes of their students so that there is a real incentive for everybody from the top levels of university management, right down through the system, to focus on maximising student outcomes and to help ensure that those students get the best possible results from their degree.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Can we turn to another issue now if we can? The same-sex marriage bill is expected to pass the Senate today, after very late debate last night. The majority of your party voted in favour of amendments to the same-sex marriage bill, yet a minority of Coalition senators joined with Labor and the Greens to block it. That’s some pretty serious disunity in your government, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, this was always going to be a free vote for the Liberal and National parties and that’s exactly what we’ve been exercising; a free vote debate in relation to the amendments that are proposed. Now, I see claims that somehow there are inadequate protections for religious freedoms. And I really want to reassure your listeners that the bill that is passing this parliament has strong religious protections. People will still be able to turn up, after same-sex marriage is legalised, to their place of worship, engage in their faith and their beliefs in the way that accords with that faith and their beliefs. Their church, their synagogue, their mosque will be able to turn away same-sex couples and say: we don’t want to have anything to do with your marriage. These are, of course, very clear protections that are in place. The educational institutions will still be protected by the same provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act, as they currently are, that allow them if they are faith based schools to teach according to their doctrine. So, strong provisions are already there, they will continue but, of course, what we will be delivering is equality to same-sex couples around the country who for the first time will be treated equally under all aspects of the law.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        But how do you actually balance the calls for anti-discrimination with the concerns from your colleagues?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I think a few people frankly are tilting at windmills here. That there are some arguments about aspects of religious freedom for issues that frankly don’t appear to be a problem now and won’t be a problem should same-sex marriage be legalised. Now, that’s coming from people who have often been long opposed to this change. And I recognise that there are people who will fight this change to the bitter end. That’s their right in the parliamentary democracy we live in but we’re getting on with delivering on the will of the Australian people. And that will of the Australian people was a clear majority wanting to see same-sex marriage legalised. They weren’t asking us to simultaneously deal with a whole raft of other extraneous issues that had barely been raised in this debate before. But the Turnbull Government has said: we will commission and we have commissioned Philip Ruddock, Father Frank Brennan, and other distinguished Australians to have a look at religious freedoms and religious protections in Australia. Not narrowly through the prism of same-sex marriage but comprehensively in terms of the adequacy of protection for freedom of religion in our country.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Finally, and just briefly, do you think it looks likely that it will pass the Senate today?

Simon Birmingham:     I think this legislation will pass the Senate today and that will be a great occasion for Australians in same-sex relationships. It will be a great moment for equality in Australia and that is something that we should celebrate as a nation and recognise that we will be a better, more equal country as a result.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Okay. Minister, thanks for your time this morning on those range of issues. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Fiona.

Fiona Ellis-Jones:        Thank you. That is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham.