Interview on ABC NewsRadio with Sandy Aloisi
University course completion rates; Turnbull Government’s measures to support uni students to make the right course choices; Turnbull Ministry composition

Sandy Aloisi: Australia’s tertiary education dropout rate is worsening. Government data released this morning reveals that completion rates are falling, with one third of students not graduating from their course within six years. The dropout rates are highest in Queensland and the Northern Territory. The Federal Education Minister is Simon Birmingham and he joins me now. 

Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Sandy, good to be with you.

Sandy Aloisi: Why is this happening do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sandy, the figures are up a little, but in fairness they have been sitting around the one in three mark for quite a period of time, bouncing up and down by small amounts. Now, there are a range of factors. Some of these students are students who simply change course and then go on and successfully complete a different course, sometimes at a different institution. Which is a reminder today, as many students receive their tertiary offers, to think long and hard about whether it’s the best offer at the right university for them, to do the research, to use the new resources the Turnbull Government’s made available in the form of our Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website that allows students to compare satisfaction levels and outcome levels across different institutions, and to make wise decisions about what is the best fit for them. But of course, there are other personal factors that get in the way, and then there are questions that are rightly asked about some of the admissions practices of universities, which this year we’ve sought to review- sorry, last year we sought to review, and this year we’ll be implementing all of the findings of that review into admissions practices. 

Sandy Aloisi: You mentioned the offers that are going out to students today; could one of the factors be that some students simply don’t get into the course that they want to get into because their score is not high enough, they take another course thinking near enough is good enough, and then perhaps find out that’s not the case?

Simon Birmingham: Well that could be one of the factors, and it is why I would urge all students today to take the time, to do the research, and to reflect appropriately on the offer that’s been made to them as to whether it really does fit the bill for them. Of course, many different things will change peoples’ lives while they’re at university and after university. So it’s not forming to be judgemental about students and the circumstances they place themselves in, but there is a call to really make the best use of the increasing number of resources and tools that have been made available to students so that they can make the best possible choice for their future.

Sandy Aloisi: What are those resources and tools? Where can students go for some good advice?

Simon Birmingham: The Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website, which is qilt.edu.au, has been developed by our Government and it does allow students to go on and very directly compare satisfaction of previous students, the outcomes of those students, employment outcomes and the like across different courses at different universities. And it is a very comparable tool which we will keep building upon in future years to make even more relevant, so that people can form their own judgements about the value and worthiness of a particular degree at a particular institution, and of course make ultimately a decision as to whether that is a good fit for them, consistent with all of the other types of research that they should undertake about where jobs exist in the labour market, good career counselling and advice and the like. 

Sandy Aloisi: Not always easy to do is it though, Mr Birmingham, when you take a course and perhaps it’s a course of three, four, five years; you’re not really aware of what the job market will be like at the end of it. I suppose any parent of a university entrant student knows that.

Simon Birmingham: Look, absolutely. There’s no exact science to being able to predict, of course, ultimately what the future job opportunities may look like. But students can at least do the research to see what courses are performing like at present, in terms of how well they’re going for their graduates getting jobs, how enjoyable and successful and satisfied current students have found their educational experience. And of course, if the current cohort of students are finding it to be a positive, satisfying experience, that means you’re more likely to find likewise and to go on and successfully complete the course.

Sandy Aloisi: Do we know how Australia compares with other countries? Is the dropout rate as high in other comparable countries?

Simon Birmingham: There is, of course, a significant rate like this across most countries. Some have differences because they have different pathway processes into university, and we’re seeing more of that in Australia as well, that it’s not nowadays just straight out of school leavers entering the university system, that people are coming from different directions. And one of the things we’ve been looking at as part of our higher education reforms for the future are the role of enabling courses and pathway programs and sub-bachelor degrees – so associate degrees or diplomas – in perhaps providing more valuable alternatives for students, or better pathways for them to go in and have a clearer understanding as to whether in fact doing a full degree is the right thing for them.

Sandy Aloisi: And Minister, while I have you it would be remiss of me not to ask you about the Cabinet reshuffle expected today. Are you able to give us any hints as to whether Greg Hunt might take over the health portfolio?

Simon Birmingham: Well I see plenty of speculation. I have no more knowledge of whether that is really the case than you, Sandy. But I worked closely with Greg when I was the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and he was the Environment Minister, and certainly he has a really great mind for dealing with complex policy issues, and that is exactly what you need in the health portfolio.

Sandy Aloisi: Do you expect Arthur Sinodinos to come into Cabinet?

Simon Birmingham: Well Arthur is around the Cabinet table as the Cabinet Secretary at present, and we’ll just have to see what the Prime Minister announces. 

Sandy Aloisi: And will you be Education Minister after the portfolio’s allocated?

Simon Birmingham: I have every expectation of remaining exactly where I am.

Sandy Aloisi: All right Minister, many thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Sandy.

Sandy Aloisi: The Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.