Interview on Sky News PM Agenda with David Speers
Topics: English language testing standards for international students; Higher education reform

David Speers: Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time this afternoon. So, how big a problem is this? How many students, foreign students, in Australia can’t really speak adequate English at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we believe this is an isolated problem, but it’s one that we have to take seriously because in the end our booming international education market, which underpins around 130,000 jobs around Australia, relies upon a reputation for high quality and good outcomes. And of course, to have high quality education, to have great outcomes, requires students to be able to fully participate in the classroom, which in turn requires good English language skills. So that’s why we’re taking this step to strengthen the standards around English language training so that our reputation as a quality destination for international education is protected and so that students, both international students and Australian students studying alongside them, get the type of quality experience and the capability to fully participate and engage that we would rightly expect.

David Speers: Alright, well let’s look at the standards as they apply right now. So, foreign students tend to undertake, generally, I think all of them undertake, the English Language Intensive Course for Overseas Students. They then generally have a placement assessment when they start up at the university, TAFE, or other institution and, look, most universities lay out on their website what their English language proficiency is and most of them, you know, have at least a six or 6.5 under the IELTS score, as it’s called.
So, where particularly is the problem? If all of this is happening already, what’s going to change under your announcement today?

Simon Birmingham: So there are two core changes that are happening. One is that, in terms of when students complete their English language course at an English language course provider, they will be formally assessed as to whether or not they are meeting the standard, the IELTS standard, as it is known in many cases, that is required for the course of study that they are progressing on to, whether it’s a university or a higher education provider, or whether it’s a TAFE or a VET provider. There are different levels …

David Speers: And so that assessment’s not happening right now?

Simon Birmingham: There’s not a requirement for a formal assessment there. So what that will enable is that the tertiary education regulator, TEQSA, will actually be able to better hold those English language providers to account as to whether or not their students are meeting the standards that are expected and required. So, it really is putting a safeguard in place to ensure that students are getting what they’re expected to get when they go into training at an English language course.

David Speers: But are you doubling up here on the assessment that the university then does when they take in the student?

Simon Birmingham: No, this should give universities absolute confidence that, when students come to them, they have the skills and standards that are required. Now, universities may still choose to make sure that they double check that, if you like, but what this will enable us to do, as I say, is really give confidence to the fact that, at the point of delivery with those English language providers, there is actually the level of quality and application of training to the standards that students expect and the institutions who are taking those students would be expecting as well.

David Speers: And if they fail that test or fail to meet the requirement for the course they’d like to do in Australia, what happens? Do they get to keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it or do they have to go back home? What happens?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it would depend on some of the individual visa circumstances. We would expect that English language providers would give additional assistance to help students who aren’t up to the requisite standard to be able to meet that standard, and of course that happens already in many instances.
I do want to emphasise, the cast majority of English language providers, the vast majority of the international education sector do the right thing already. Which is why Australia has a great reputation and attracts so many hundreds of thousands of international students to our shores. But we have to make sure …

David Speers: This is more of a problem then in some of the private tertiary institutions?

Simon Birmingham: Much of the English language provision occurs in the private space as it is. So in that sense they are overwhelmingly good private providers. But across the board, we want to make sure that reputation is preserved, students get what they’re paying for and then when they get to university, when they get to TAFE, wherever they’re doing their further studies, they are able to fully participate and of course the Australian students studying alongside them don’t have those anecdotal examples that I’m sure you’ve heard about and many listeners have heard about or viewers have heard about, of being put in group work scenarios and finding that they struggle to communicate through those group work scenarios.

David Speers: Well just on that, so- I mean anecdotally you do hear this sort of thing and concerns raised that some Chinese students in particular request course information and notes to be provided in Chinese. I mean is this happening from your understanding?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll there certainly are instances where higher education providers give additional assistance to international students that may be providing information in their mother tongue as well. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in terms of providing additional information that complements what is already provided to all of the rest of the student body. But what we need to make sure is that when it comes to actually participating in the tutorials, in the assessments, in the group work, in the ultimate assessment processes those students need to have the English language skills to succeed and to be able to participate successfully.

So that is really what the nub of this is about. Not to say you shouldn’t give extra support or make available resources that could be in other languages too, but the students do need to be able to undertake all the assessment standards, all of the areas of participation, in English, as is being taught to other students.

David Speers: Now you expressed concern this week, Minister, about Australian universities needing to be vigilant about their academic integrity and independence following concerns about too much Chinese influence at our universities. Do you have any particular concerns in mind and I’m referring specifically to the Australia China Relations Institute led by Bob Carr at UTS, University Technology Sydney. Is that a particular concern for you?

Simon Birmingham: Look I don’t hold particular concerns about that institute or necessarily want to single anyone out, but the most important feature that our universities have in terms of attracting students, both domestic students and international students is their reputation. Their reputation is crucial and anything that undermines that reputation for academic integrity, the responsibility in terms of providing the highest quality and independent education and training and learning environment that students would expect, well that …

David Speers: Yeah but this institute as you know is the subject of a lot of focus on this issue. It was founded in 2014 with nearly $3 million from two wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs who had only just migrated to Australia. Critics say it’s hardly non-partisan as a think-tank; that there is too much pro-China material coming out of the institute; it doesn’t disclose its finances so we can see where the money comes from, and so on. Have you satisfied yourself, Minister, that it is you know, all above board?

Simon Birmingham: We, as I say, have a strong regulator in place through TEQSA. We expect universities to be transparent about sources of funding to guarantee their independence. In essence it’s no different to political donations in terms of transparency about major donations to political parties so that everybody …

David Speers: And is this institute transparent?

Simon Birmingham: Well I believe the UTS applies high standards and I trust that the UTS is doing the due diligence to make sure that applies right across their institute as indeed all of our universities need to do because the driving point there is anything that undermines their reputation and integrity will then have a profound effect on their ability to attract international students, domestic students, and of course could rub off on their fellow institutions.

David Speers: Alright, well universities clearly are searching always for new sources of income, foreign students are a big part of that these days. At a time when you are hoping to make some further big savings in the university sector, the higher education reforms you’re pursuing would save $3.8 billion. Will you put that package up for a vote when Parliament’s back next week?

Simon Birmingham: It is listed for Senate debate next week. Now it’s a busy Senate program next week. There are important reforms to the energy markets listed. There are important budget measures around incentives for first home buyers listed as well. But I hope that the higher education reforms can and do come to a vote so that we can see implemented measures that will bring some budget sustainability, will ensure that the $50 billion worth of outstanding student loans of which some 25 per cent is estimated not to be repaid under current settings, becomes a most sustainable loans program in the future and from that of course that we’ll be able to continue to guarantee equity of access to university for students without fear of upfront fees but with a guarantee that whatever your background, you can walk through the door of a university and continue to access one of the most …

David Speers: Okay, but you’ve been having an uphill battle convincing the Parliament to support this. Last time parliament sat, a few weeks back, the Nick Xenophon teams, Rebekha Sharkie said their party’s not convinced this bill, as it stands, will assist the sector to reform. We agree that reform is needed but cannot accept that this is the reform that is indeed needed. Have you had any further talks over the last few weeks? Do you have any hopes that they have changed their position?

Simon Birmingham: Well talks are absolutely continuing. It’s not unusual for minor parties that are represented across both chambers to express their concerns in the House of Representatives but negotiate an outcome in the Senate. And clearly that’s what we’re…

David Speers: So the senators might have a different view in the Nick Xenophon team?

Simon Birmingham: Sorry David?

David Speers: The senators in the Nick Xenophon team might have a different view you reckon?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, I’m simply saying it’s not unusual if you look at minor parties that in the House of Representatives where the negotiations don’t tend to take place, they might express their concerns but in the Senate they might negotiate an outcome. Now that’s what we’re working towards in relation to higher education. I continue to find cordial and constructive discussions with the cross bench. I hope we can find satisfactory areas of agreement to be able to see this pass because what it will do is give students better choices in relation sub bachelor or associate degree-type courses, better choices in relation to post graduate courses, hold universities more accountable in terms of an element of performance funding and, yes, bring some budget sustainability particularly around the student loans program which is very important to underpin that free access to university that people have without upfront fees.

David Speers: Well we will see how it goes next week. A lot on the agenda as you indicate there. Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, I appreciate your time this afternoon. Thanks so much.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much David.