Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Topics: Budget 2018-19; University funding; Release of Gonski 2.0 report; NAPLAN

Kieran Gilbert: Now, earlier this morning I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham and discussed the fact that the government is balancing a lot here in terms of commitment to return to surplus ASAP, the tax cuts and also this infrastructure spend.

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, look, it’s a Budget that I think Australians will see where the plan is coming together, after five years of hard work and spending restraint, by focusing on getting economic growth, jobs growth, all of which then stimulates revenue, people can see that our plan is working. That we are successfully repairing Labor’s budget deficit and coming back to surplus. That we are investing in the services that people care about. And we saw that yesterday, with greater investment in key pharmaceuticals and drugs to help young children, in support for services like Lifeline. So, we’re delivering those services. We’re building the infrastructure for the future, which will underpin future economic activity and more jobs growth. But all of that is also coming at a time now where we’re able to potentially give Australians some of their money back, some of their hard-earned income and that indeed is a great position to be in, but it’s only come about because we’ve stuck clearly to a plan over the long-haul, and we’ll stick to that plan into the future as well.

Kieran Gilbert: On your portfolio, the university sector has done some research and it says that the freeze on funding – on course funding – announced last year that could reduce tax and GDP by billions of dollars. In fact, reduce $12.3 billion from the GDP and lower tax receipts of close to $4 billion. What do you say to that, because of the lack of growth in terms of skilled workers coming out of the unis?

Simon Birmingham: Well, my plea to the university sector is to seek efficiencies within their sector, just like every other area of government spending has had to do. We’re in a good position coming into this Budget because, in part, we’ve shown spending restraint in government. Now, for universities, they’ve seen in the period between 2009 and 2017 growth in their revenues of around 15 per cent per student, and yet their cost base has only grown by around 9 per cent. There’s clearly a dividend there they can invest back in in terms of being more efficient, continuing to support growth in student numbers. That’s what we want to see them doing.

Kieran Gilbert: But they’re saying this reduction in course funding will reduce productivity, reduce the skilled workforce and come back to bite you.

Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re making some assumptions that they can’t find efficiencies and that they will just take it out of students. I don’t think that’s acceptable. My view is that universities ought to be able to find the types of efficiency dividends that other areas of government spending have been able to find.

Kieran Gilbert: So you’re saying that this analysis if flawed because it simply just takes the easy option?

Simon Birmingham: You have to look at the assumptions underpinning it, and the assumptions underpinning this are essentially that unis will keep spending without actually seeking to find efficiencies in what are large administration budgets, large marketing budgets, large advertising budgets. There are areas of spending that are quite unrelated to investment on students, educating students, and I would urge the unis to [indistinct].

Kieran Gilbert: You still need to be able to promote yourself. You say you talk about the advertising budget, but they need to compete, don’t they, not just among Australian unis, internationally?

Simon Birmingham: Of course internationally, unis need to be out there and selling their message and international education is a very valuable earner for Australia. But I think people would question the various sponsorships of sporting stadiums; the various billboards they’d see on Australian roads as to whether Australian universities really need to be advertising to Australians that much.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you recognise you haven’t obviously won across that sector? Any part of that sector- that none of them are supportive. Why haven’t you been able to convince them of the merits of this if it is simply about tightening their belt?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I appreciate that everybody would much rather not have to tighten their belt, but we’ve gone through a process in all the areas of government spending, and indeed as you’d well recall, in the university sector, there were various attempts to legislate in a way that might have had a different impact on the universities, but were still trying to keep the lid on what is a record level of government spending. Taxpayer funds flowing into Australian universities grew at twice the rate of the economy over the last seven or so years. So, that’s a huge area of growth in terms of taxpayer costs and investment. Unis deliver great outcomes in many ways, but they can be more efficient.

Kieran Gilbert: And they’re boosted by Labor, the Opposition- knowing that the Opposition will also increase funding. That’s their commitment.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Opposition will spend …

Kieran Gilbert: So, they’re encouraged by that, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: The Opposition will spend more in many different ways and of course stakeholder groups might like to see that, but they need to think long and hard about the negative consequences of Labor’s record tax plans. The extra $200 billion plus of taxes that Labor will levy on Australians, and universities will feel that too. They will feel that because Australian businesses will be less able to partner in research undertakings. In fact, jobs growth will be weaker, so there’ll be fewer jobs for university graduates. These are the things that universities ought to reflect upon, as well as all Australians, about the consequences of Labor’s higher tax plans for wages, for businesses, for savings, for houses.

Kieran Gilbert: You met with your state and territory counterparts last week. Are you confident you’ve got them on board in terms of the broader needs-based Gonski approach?

Simon Birmingham: I think there is a real recognition across the states and territories that we can’t keep doing the same things when we’re seeing declining outcomes in terms of students’ reading skills, writing skills, numeracy skills; understanding of science and indeed some dissatisfaction from universities, TAFEs and employers about the skill set of people who leave school. So, going back to make sure that kids are getting the basics. That we track, in a way, the literacy and numeracy skills of Australian students. That we better arm teachers with tools to develop them. That we have clear expectations that by age eight or by year four, children are clearly developing and have the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy that are needed to succeed…

Kieran Gilbert: Are the states willing to push back against some of the sectors, like the Catholic sector, which have been very strongly critical again last week, not just the Victorian diocese, but the New South Wales, various dioceses’ threatening to can it?

Simon Birmingham: Two things there Kieran. Firstly, by and large, the states and territories last week had a conversation with me, not about funding, but about how we use funding. How we ensure the record and growing dollars going into Australian schools are getting the best possible outcomes for Australian students and it’s high time that that’s the discussion we had. Australia has been spending ever more on schools for a long time. Now we have to make sure we get value for money out of that spending for our children for our future.

In terms of Catholic ed systems, in a month or two’s time we’ll receive- well by the end of June, we’ll receive the report of the National School Resourcing Board looking at the way in which social economic scores are calculated and how that works with the capacity to contribute mechanism for non-government schools, that’s a review that the Catholic education…

Kieran Gilbert: So you haven’t given up talking to them?

Simon Birmingham: I keep talking to Catholic education leaders and other school leaders all the time. We’re going to get that review back in less than two months and we will then act on that review and I’m confident that given the constructive way Catholic education has engaged with that review process that will have a good outcome for everybody.

Kieran Gilbert: So you’re very confident of a compromise on that with the Catholics?

Simon Birmingham: I’m confident that we’ll get an outcome that is fair for everybody, that isn’t about doing a deal or creating special treatment elsewhere. That’s not what Catholic education wants either. They want something that everybody has confidence in in terms of the robustness…

Kieran Gilbert: You can’t have a fight with a major sector like that in the lead up to an election, surely?

Simon Birmingham: But you can’t compromise your principles either and our principles are about ensuring consistency, fairness across the board in school funding. Concerns were raised about the way some aspects of the formulas work, some of the data that flows in. That’s what we’re reviewing. That’s what Catholic ed has engaged constructively with and we will act in terms of the recommendations that come back based on the evidence, not the politics.

Kieran Gilbert: And just finally on NAPLAN because a lot of schools like NAPLAN for the parameters it provides and a focus on the basics. Are you giving up on that as part of this Gonski approach or are you still committed to it?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, emphatically not. The NAPLAN testing provides transparency and information to parents about how their children are progressing, how they’re benchmarked against others, whether they’re meeting minimum standards. That’s…

Kieran Gilbert: So regardless it remains, yeah?

Simon Birmingham: …important information for parents. It remains if sometime a long way down the track we’ve built systems that can give even better information to parents, well then we could talk about it then.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks so much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Kieran.