Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; Careers Australia

Fran Kelly: Well as you’ve been hearing this morning on AM, the Federal Government’s $18.6 billion Gonski Mark 2 package has cleared the Lower House and will now head to the Senate where the real battle over school funding will play out. Large parts of the Catholic sector remain offside, with warnings more than 600 systemic Catholic schools will face funding cuts from next year if this legislation is passed. The fight over Gonski comes as more than 1500 students in the vocational education sector have been left stranded by the collapse of one of the country’s largest private training colleges, Careers Australia. 

The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, is in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran.

Fran Kelly: So, as we’ve heard on AM, Labor won’t support Gonski and the Greens are unlikely to in quite the current form; that means you’ll need 10 of the 12 crossbenchers to back in your package. Do you have any hope of that while this dispute with the Catholic sector rages?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, I’m very pleased that in the Senate all members of the crossbench are talking seriously in detail about the facts, the figures, the true impact of the Government’s reforms to truly implement David Gonski’s vision for sector-blind, needs-based funding across Australian schools. It’s disappointing that the Labor Party have checked themselves out of that conversation in favour of running a scare campaign, of pursuing or defending special deals, but ultimately that’s for Tanya Plibersek and Bill Shorten to defend why it is they think that some states should get a better deal than other states, or some school sectors should get a better deal than other school sectors. Our approach and our belief is that every state should be funded according to the need of the schools within it; every non-government school sector should be funded according to the need of those schools without distinction between different sectors or different states.

Fran Kelly: And yet, the Catholic education sector still cries foul. Yes, the Archdiocese of Brisbane has written to parents assuring them of no fee increases next year, but the National Catholic Education Commission has calculated 617 Catholic schools will suffer, quote; an immediate reduction in funding next year before receiving slow increases in subsequent years. So how are these schools going to absorb these cuts without lifting student fees?

Simon Birmingham: Well Fran, the fact is that we continue to fund Catholic education systems as systems under these reforms. So the New South Wales Catholic education system would, over the next four years, see around $332 million in additional funding go into that system authority who are then entitled and able to redistribute that funding across their schools as they see fit. Similarly, in Victoria, there’s a $375 million increase to the Victorian Catholic Education Commission; or in Queensland: $265 million. And so the point …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Sure. With respect, Minister, those numbers sound large but unless we know how many schools we’re talking about and what that is on a per annum increase, they make no sense to us.

Simon Birmingham: Well I can happily tell you, Fran, that for Queensland it’s 3.7 per cent per student, for New South Wales it’s 3.8 per cent per student, for Victoria it’s 3.5 per cent per student. So per student …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Every year over the next 10 years?

Simon Birmingham: That’s per student growth over four years figure I was quoting, but I can happily roll out the 10 years if you’d like. But the point there is you have annualised growth on a per student basis still going to the same system authority in the Catholic education system who retain the autonomy to distribute their funding across their schools within their system. Now, I’ll continue to have discussions with the NCEC and other representatives. But I think it’s important to be very honest and frank with parents of all Australian schoolchildren – but in this case, those who send their children to Catholic schools – that there are increases in funding, real increases in funding above current measures of inflation or wages growth going to those Catholic education system authorities who retain the autonomy to fund each of their schools next year and the year after, if they choose to, exactly the same as they’ve funded them this year plus at least 3.5 per cent per student growth.

Fran Kelly: Well why then did some schools in Canberra in the ACT get letters from the Government acknowledging that their overall funding was going to dip in the eight years? And last night, in Estimates, the Education Department says they would have their funding maintained – this is Catholic schools in the ACT – over the next four years under, quote; a temporary assistance package. Doesn’t that suggest that there was a problem with the ACT…

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] So the Education Department wasn’t in Estimates last night, but the ACT is a unique case because there was a uniquely special deal done for the ACT where the socioeconomic status of ACT households was determined not on the basis of ACT data, but Australia-wide data that included remote Indigenous schools in the Northern Territory or Catholic parish schools in regional Tasmania, which of course is hardly reflective of the reality that Canberra has the highest household income in Australia. So as part of our process of taking away special deals and differential treatment, yes, we’ve taken that differential treatment for the ACT system that assessed that socioeconomic capacity to contribute to school fees based on something that bore no relevance or resemblance to the ACT and instead, are now going to apply the same measure as it is across every other non-government school around Australia. Which I think most Australians think is fair that Canberra schools should be assessed just the same as schools anywhere else around the country.

Fran Kelly: We heard from Tanya Plibersek on AM this morning; she said some Catholic schools which charge $3000 a year face thousands of dollars in fee increases, at the same time some very wealthy schools are going to see funding increases – like Kings School in Sydney or Geelong Grammar. She calls that an anomaly. It seems like an anomaly.

Simon Birmingham: Fran, what we’re doing is putting everybody on to the same consistent formula which means, yes, using the same methodology for each and every school. Now, as you well know there are around 24 schools – mostly high fee, independent schools – around the country who will lose funding under our model. Yes, there are a handful in the ACT Catholic system who we’re providing transitional support to, but of course there are also 9000 across the country who will see significant gains; more than 4500 of those schools will see growth of more than 5 per cent per student per annum over the decade and those 4500 schools are schools of high needs who have- particularly are dominated within the government schooling sector – as people would expect it to be across the country. And so this really is about putting in place consistency across the board and, yes, it means that some high fee schools will lose some money, it means some high fee schools might gain some money as you put them all onto the same consistent platform. But the real point here is that if these reforms are legislated and implemented, every non-government school across the country would have their funding assessed by the same needs-based principles as David Gonski recommended; every government school across the country, regardless of state barriers, would have their federal funding assessed by the same needs-based principles that David Gonski recommended and that’s why David Gonski stood alongside Malcolm Turnbull and I three to four weeks ago endorsing these proposals.

Fran Kelly: So, just finally, on this subject it’s been a pretty ferocious war of words between the Catholic school sector and the Government; it’s worried people like John Howard, for instance. Is it true to say that the Prime Minister has got directly involved in discussions with the Catholic leadership on this?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Prime Minister and I have both maintained conversations since the proposal was announced – just as I had numerous conversations and consultations prior to the release of our policy – and that will continue, and that’s exactly as people would expect it to be.

Fran Kelly: Okay, and will- You’re listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

On another issue, Minister, late last week Careers Australia was placed in voluntary administration because it was stripped of its federal funding; 1500 students are now in limbo. What are you doing to help these young people continue their studies elsewhere? I give you the example of Gail Winters on the Central Coast who was one week away from obtaining her nursing diploma, she paid $30,000 in fees and says she can’t get a credit for the study she’s completed.

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks, Fran. So Careers Australia, like all providers, was required to have tuition insurance protection – essentially an insurance scheme for students. Theirs was with TAFE Directors Australia. So my Department has been working closely with TAFE Directors Australia and indeed with the TAFE system around the country and other training providers to make sure that there are pathways for students. And indeed, the case you gave of Gail, we’ve been making sure that the New South Wales TAFE system understands that her training should be recognised and credited because it has been appropriate – if it is appropriate, up to the standard that needs to be met – for the nursing degree or the diploma which is a well-regulated one by other authorities. And so, we expect all of those students will be supported and they will be getting further information over coming days.

It is important though to remember here that the reason this has occurred is because the Turnbull Government has put in place a far tougher student loans program in the vocational education sector. The old one blew out from just a few hundred million dollars to a few billion dollars and saw completion rates – including at Careers Australia – below 20 per cent in many instances. And so we make no apologies for putting in place a far more rigorous regime for student loans and for vocational training providers, but of course we will do everything possible to assist those students impacted by this action.

Fran Kelly: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training.