Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne Drive with Rafael Epstein
University course completion rates; Turnbull Government’s measures to support uni students to make the right course choices; Turnbull Ministry composition

Rafael Epstein: Uni offers are out today. I do want to know if you’re doing what you were first given the opportunity to do. But, listen, one in three students don’t finish their uni degree within six years. That’s a fair number. It’s a concern to the Federal Immigration- sorry, Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, is part of Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Cabinet. Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Raf. Nice to speak with you.

Rafael Epstein: Look, can I just ask you about homelessness first? Everybody who works on the homeless says we’ve got to do something about housing affordability. Do you need to rethink something like negative gearing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, in many ways, arguments against any changes to negative gearing centre on the fact that by taking away negative gearing, as Labor proposed at the last election, you would risk creating less investment in housing and therefore create more unaffordable rental markets, which is the experience that’s been seen in the past when some of that tinkering has occurred. So, there’s a real risk that if you’re looking at homelessness being driven by people unable to even access rental markets, let alone housing deposits and purchasing a house, that tinkering, as Labor proposed at the last election or abolishing, in fact, as they proposed at the last election, negative gearing for investment properties could actually make the situation worse rather than better. So, that’s why you need to be very careful about how you approach it.

Late last year, the Turnbull Government committed around $117 million in extra funding over the next 18 months for homelessness work with the states and territories who really are in the prime position to deliver programs and services with local communities there. And over that period of time, of course, we’ll be working to try to work out how we can even further enhance programs and services to more effectively deal with this problem.

Rafael Epstein: Why did you put out the notification, or I guess the warning, to people today they need to think very carefully about choosing their university or college course? The National Union of Students feel like you’re belittling or not really understanding the choices that most students make.

Simon Birmingham: Well, many students today and over the coming weeks are confronted with a significant choice in their lives as they receive offers from universities to undertake certain studies. And it is important that they think carefully about undertaking those studies. Not because those studies aren’t of value; in the vast majority of cases, of course they are of value and we know that Australian university graduates are more likely to be employed than non-graduates, more likely to have higher salaries than non-graduates, and that data is clear. But as you also pointed out in you intro, around one in three students in the data we’ve released today do not actually go onto to complete their first degree. And for every non-completion, even if they’ve subsequently transferred into another degree or program that they’ve successfully completed, every non-completion is lost time by that student, an expense to that student, as well as an expense to the taxpayer. And so, the better informed … 

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yeah, can I just ask you, Minister …

Simon Birmingham: … and the more careful the decisions are, the less loss there is to everybody involved, particularly the student themselves.

Rafael Epstein: Is that a drastic increase? Quite a few people texting saying they were warned 20 years ago one in three people didn’t finish their degrees. Have those numbers changed drastically?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not a particularly drastic increase. The numbers bounce around a little bit and they’re a bit up on this latest report that’s out, but I don’t want to say this is not a problem that hasn’t existed for a long time, because of course it has. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to minimise it and a couple of the things the Turnbull Government’s done is firstly to provide more information to students, so what I’ve been encouraging students today, or prospective students at university to do is have a look at QILT website – the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching – quilt.edu.au, where they can compare the satisfaction of existing students across different courses at different universities, the outcomes for those students, and make a more informed decision themselves about whether or not the course they’ve got an offer for at the university they’ve got an offer from is the best fit for them or whether they ought to consider one of the other options or a totally different option dependant upon what their ambitions and dreams are.

Rafael Epstein: One of the numbers that really interested me and surprised me, I think you’ve got a more of a risk of not finishing if your score is lower, but half of the students with an ATAR between 95 and 100 did not complete their course four years after they started. Half of the students in that … in that upper echelon from 95 to 100 didn’t complete their course within four years. That really surprised me, is that a change?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’d have to take that on notice as to whether that particular point is a change. I suspect given the very high entry standards for a course like medicine, for example, that you’d have a number of med students in that category, which of course is a five-year degree. So that would explain …

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Okay, so they just might not have finished.

Simon Birmingham: … some of those statistics. Whereas most degrees are only three or four years in duration. So, we need to sort of unpack that a little more but that’s one instant assessment that I could come up with. But I guess my message today is not to try to scare people off university or to say there’s anything wrong with the fact that students in a year’s time might change their mind. But if they can do as much research as possible today, think about it carefully, then hopefully they can make the wisest possible decision for their future. And I want to highlight the fact that we do have those tools available for them.

Rafael Epstein: Did you finish the first course you got an offer for?

Simon Birmingham: No I didn’t, so that’s why I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s been around …

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] What were you first offered?

Simon Birmingham: Economics initially, and so I’m very conscious of the fact that there are a multiplicity of reasons for students – and for mature-aged students they can be family reasons, they can be employment reasons – a whole raft of things that interfere with people successfully progressing through all of their studies. But we want to minimise that as much as we can, that’s why we’ve got more information out there. It’s also why we’re implementing reforms to make sure that university admissions processes are more transparent and comparable in future than perhaps they’ve become, as there’s been this drift away from use of ATARs in a number of instances.

Rafael Epstein: If I can just ask you, the changing of the hats in the federal Cabinet; Greg Hunt, who was Industry and Innovation for a short time, had been in the Environment portfolio for a long time, he is now the new Minister of Health. Can I ask you to respond – I had Richard Di Natale and Tim Watts, the Greens leader and the Labour backbencher, essentially saying – and I think Richard Di Natale’s words were that Greg Hunt helped destroy the Great Barrier Reef, or certainly didn’t do anything to help it, so it’s a terrible idea to put him into health. Can you respond to that and tell me how you think he’ll be in the Health portfolio?

Simon Birmingham: Well I had the pleasure of being Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment whilst Greg was the Cabinet minister, so we worked very closely together. And he has, I think, a very astute policy mind for complex issues, which of course is critically important in the health area. He also established a significant new Reef Trust to support the Great Barrier Reef; he worked through the process with the World Heritage Commission to make sure that they were reassured of the policies that the federal and Queensland governments have got in place to protect the Great Barrier Reef in the future, whilst increasing that investment in support and protection for the reef. So I’d completely dismiss Richard Di Natale’s criticisms there, but more importantly, in terms of the future I absolutely think that Greg brings the skills, the policy prowess to be able to succeed in what is obviously a difficult, challenging, but incredibly important portfolio.

Rafael Epstein: Are you embarrassed there’s one less woman in Cabinet?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the number of women in Cabinet stands still at an historic high, and I’m confident that over the years it will continue to trend upwards. But that won’t always be a linear movement, because on any given day, at any given point, you’ve got to put the best team on the field and that’s what the PM sought to do today. 

Rafael Epstein: Thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Raf.
Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, he’s Malcolm Turnbull’s federal Education Minister.