Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; Higher education reforms to drive better outcomes for students and taxpayers; James Ashby

Kieran Gilbert: Back home now on issues closer to home, specifically school funding. I spoke to the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.


Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks so much for your time. First of all, this Grattan Institute study on some Melbourne Catholic schools. What do you make of it? Are you surprised by the discrepancy that shows some of the well-off areas and the better-off schools are receiving more than they should be, really, compared to the poorer Catholic institutions?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, it’s really for Catholic education authorities to explain the rationale and basis on which they re-distribute money from one of their schools to another of their schools. This does appear to demonstrate that in some cases there are benefits flowing to schools in wealthier suburbs compared with schools in less wealthy suburbs. But the Turnbull Government is not proposing to change the autonomy of Catholic education in terms of the way funding works. We’re just proposing to make sure that every individual school in terms of the amount of Commonwealth funding received is received on the basis of the need of that school that we calculated according to the Gonski principles. And that’s what …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts]…Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute, though, says that this study raises serious concerns as to how the Catholic system distributes funds within their schools and to their schools, that some of the better-off schools are getting more than they should be versus the less well-off Catholic schools. That’s a joke, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think people would be very concerned if they thought that less well-off schools were subsidizing wealthier schools. But these really are matters for Catholic education to explain to its parents, to its constituent bodies. The Turnbull Government’s reforms endorsed by the Grattan Institute, endorsed by many other impartial stakeholders including David Gonski himself, are investing extra money in our schools, delivering needs-based funding. 

And to Catholic parents across Australia who might have read stories talking about fee increase, I’d say very clearly to them that we are investing an extra $1.2 billion over the next four years into the Catholic education systems around Australia, seeing growth rates in excess of 3.5 per cent across states around Australia, and there is no reason- no reason if the Catholic systems want to maintain their current funding distribution models that they can’t do that, and with that there’s no reason with the growth in funding they’re receiving that they should have to put up fees. No reason at all.

Kieran Gilbert: At any school, despite what looks like a discrepancy within the Catholic system about the way they fund- send their funds. Do you still believe that even despite this system which the Grattan Institute believes raises serious concerns; you still think that parents won’t have to pay more?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s up to the Catholic education authorities if they choose to change their internal distribution of funding allocations. That’s their choice, their decision. The Turnbull Government’s not proposing any special, differential treatment for them. It’s Bill Shorten who’s touring from Catholic school to Catholic school arguing for some type of special deal. What we want to do is do what David Gonski endorsed, which is why David Gonski has stood alongside Malcolm Turnbull and are supporting these reforms, which is to make sure that we have a true consistent needs-based model for funding …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So should the Catholic school system then stop squealing, given the inconsistencies are within their framework, not yours?

Simon Birmingham: Well I certainly think that we should see honesty and an honest approach would be to acknowledge that there is 3.5 per cent plus growth in systems right around the country except for the Can- the ACT sector which we’ve discussed before. But every state sees growth of 3.5 per cent plus, and funding into the Catholic systems $1.2 billion extra, there’s no need …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] So why should a taxpayer subsidize an elitist Catholic school approach which is what we’re seeing here essentially from the Grattan report? They shouldn’t, should they?

Simon Birmingham: Well our view is that- our view is that every Australian student deserves tax payer support for their education. So it doesn’t matter where their parents choose to send them, but yes, that that should be discounted from the tax payer in terms of those who choose to opt into the non-Government system and then go to usually high fee paying, but certainly schools where there is a large parental capacity to contribute, that’s discounted a lot under our proposal than low fee schools. But our view is that the government dollars that go to a low fee Catholic Parish school should be no different than the government dollars that go to a low fee Christian independent otherwise non-government school. We ought to treat them all equally, that’s what we’re proposing to do. It’s Bill Shorten who’s out there campaigning for some type of differential treatment, pitting school sector against school sector rather than saying we should have uniformity as David Gonski recommended.

Kieran Gilbert: The Australian today reports that they’ve done the numbers across the Labor, Greens, and independent positions on the Budget, $14 billion in reforms that look like they’re in trouble. Do you accept that number, given some of your own responsibilities are caught up in that, like the higher education reforms, like the school funding? Or are you more optimistic about those particular measures?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it’s premature at present. The only party that really has jumped to conclusions in a whole range of different areas appears to be the Labor party. They are the ones who are- if anybody is jeopardizing Budget repair. They’re also, of course, jeopardizing delivery of needs-based school funding; they’re jeopardizing delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I mean it’s remarkable that Bill Shorten is playing such a populist position or being so silly in his politics that he wants to play politics with the NDIS, wants to play politics with needs-based school funding and the implementation of Gonski, wants to play politics with Budget repair. I’m confident though that even if the Labor keeps that up, we will as we have done before be able to work constructively with the Senate.

Kieran Gilbert: So you’re hearing good noises out of the Greens, for example, in terms of the schools funding? They seem like they’re more open to it than Labor does.

Simon Birmingham: Well aside from the Labor party, every member of the Parliament seems to be keeping an open mind in relation to school funding. And so that says something too, doesn’t it, that we have David Gonski, we have the Grattan Institute, we have the Mitchell Institute, we have Anglicare, we have The Smith Family. We have a whole range of different impartial stakeholders who have endorsed and embraced the Turnbull Government’s school fundings reforms. And every member of the Parliament, except the Labor party, seems to be keeping an open mind.

Kieran Gilbert: But the higher education reforms are a bit different, you’ve got the university chancellors, vice-chancellors, saying they don’t support it. But they don’t have as many friends, do they, in terms of the Parliament or outside it. 

Simon Birmingham: The higher education reforms seek to put the higher education funding system on a more sustainable platform after enormous growth in recent years: 70 per cent plus growth in the costs around higher education since 2009, more than twice the rate of growth of the economy, vastly above the rate of growth of government revenue. We’re seeking to trim it, to trim universities by about 2.8 per cent. It’s really a very modest measuring …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] It’s still less likely to get through the Parliament isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: I’m still hopeful there.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally, James Ashby, the chief of staff to Pauline Hanson quoted on front of the Courier Mail today, saying we can make some cash out of the Queensland election. From what you’ve read in that newspaper this morning, what do you make of those remarks?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, in terms of staffing decisions for One Nation, they’re a matter for One Nation. But obviously all elections should be about ideas, fought about principles, and fought on the base of doing the best by the people you’re seeking to represent. That’s certainly the approach the Liberal and National parties take, and I hope and trust it’s shared across the Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.