Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast with Robbie Buck
University course completion rates; Turnbull Government’s measures to support uni students to make the right course choices; Higher education student debt

Robbie Buck: Do you have somebody in the house or in the extended family who is a little twitchy and nervous today? Not just because of the heat last night but perhaps because they're waiting on their university offers. They come through at 6 o'clock this evening. But as we're hearing today, there's a few other figures that are around this morning to do with the rate at which students stay in their courses. Of those offered a place, one in every three will drop out within six years. 

The Federal Education Minister is using today's release of main round university offers to warn students to carefully consider your options before commencing study. And the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, is with me this morning. Good morning.

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

Robbie Buck: Yeah, so it's getting worse, the drop-out rate?

Simon Birmingham: No not necessarily, there is a bit of bouncing around that occurs at a very small level from year to year, but the statistic of one in three has been fairly comparable for a few years now. But really of course we're eager to drive that down as best we can, because what each of those non-completions reflects is a lost opportunity in terms of time of that student, money for the student, and money for the taxpayer, and so really, we're very eager to do everything possible to make sure the wisest initial choices as possible can be made.

Robbie Buck: Okay, so what does that mean, in real applicable approaches to things, what does that actually mean? I think many of us can remember getting out of high school and having ideas about what we wanted to do with our lives, and I guess a lot of us look back and go, well that wasn't exactly the way it turned out. It's hard to make the decision at that age thinking about what the rest of your life is going to be spent doing.

Simon Birmingham: It’s not easy Robbie, and of course I wish every student who is anxiously awaiting offers, and so on today, all the best, and hope that they do receive their first preference. But they also need to do as much research as possible to make sure that what it is they’re thinking about studying comes with a good reputation. So, are other students, who have undertaken that previously, satisfied? And you can get that information from new websites that we've established, the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching website, which has a range of data on student satisfaction, as well as outcomes, employment outcomes and the like, or different courses at different universities that students can compare, to make a more informed decision.

Robbie Buck: You do have- I mean look, I guess the thing about university courses today, even compared to just 30 years ago, is that there are so many more options. But also, the reality is that a lot of industries are changing so rapidly – I mean media is a good example of it but there are plenty of others, too. So you do have to, I guess, send some kind of level of sympathy to those students trying to make these decisions in this kind of environment. It's probably harder than it used to be.

Simon Birmingham: Robbie, I think that's probably right. The very linear relationship of saying, well you’re going to university in this particular qualification, you end up with a job in that particular industry is not necessarily as linear as it used to be. And certainly it's unlikely to be a job that you have for the rest of your life. 

So people need to prepare themselves, the fact that they will return to study at later stages and a range of other factors there. But it is important when making this first choice, right now, that people are at least comfortable that they've done all the research they can, that they know that it's a good course that has a good reputation at a good university, and where we know that previous students have gone on to do well. And if they do that type of research, use the data and the tools that we've made available to them, then that gives them the best chance of success.

Robbie Buck: Okay, how does New South Wales rate compared to other states? We have the second highest retention rate of any university in Australia – that’s the University of Sydney. Western Sydney University is the lowest in our immediate patch. They’ve still got a completion rate of 73.7 per cent, judging by these figures that are around today. It doesn’t look too bad, does it?

Simon Birmingham: New South Wales does pretty well, I think, in that sense. If you look at the top ten completion rates, you’ve got the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, UTS, University of Wollongong, all sitting in that top ten list. So that’s an impressive collection of New South Wales institutions. And as you rightly say, going down there, UWS. 

Some of the regional universities have lower completion rates, but there are a range of different factors that come into play there that can effect some of those regional circumstances. And there can be many instances and reasons in a person’s life as to why they don’t complete; including that they change course part way through and go into a different field and then might go on and successfully complete that. 

Robbie Buck: Yeah, yeah. 

Simon Birmingham: It’s not about being judgemental on the students themselves, or indeed necessarily the institutions. But it’s just about sending the right message, which coupled with our reforms to improve transparency around admissions processes, it means in future years students will have even better data to compare and to understand what the admissions practices of universities are, how tough a course necessarily is, and how well prepared they are for it, can hopefully ensure we get more people making the best and wisest choices. 

Robbie Buck: Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister, with us this morning. Just before I let you go, we’ve been hearing about these burgeoning study debts around the country. It’s being reported today that’s sitting at around about $52.5 billion, which is a lot of money. Do those figures call into question that scheme, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well they demonstrate what we’ve been talking about as a Government for a couple of years. And that is that we need to make sure the student loan scheme is sustainable in the future. And that means we have to make sure that the vast majority of those debts are effectively repaid. And there are concerns that with the rate of growth we’ve seen, there could be higher instances of non-repayment, leaving taxpayers with a much bigger bill to pick up. And they were thoroughly canvassed in the policy discussion paper that I released last year, and which we’re now finalising responses to after receiving more than 1000 submissions. So we’re eager to make sure that taxpayers are well protected from bigger future liabilities. 

Robbie Buck: Okay, Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning. 

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Robbie. 

Robbie Buck: Our Federal Education Minister, on the figures that are out this morning about two third of students who enrolled in 2016 – I think is what the year that they’re looking at – two thirds of those will have dropped out of their course that they enrolled in.