Interview on SKY News with David Speers
VET Student Loans eligible courses; Future schools funding arrangements; Same-sex marriage plebiscite
4:27 PM

David Speers:                            Now, if you had been planning next year to take on a vocational education course in something, say for example, along the lines of circus arts or pilates or musical theatre, got some bad news for you: the Government wants to strip federal taxpayer funding from these courses. It’s put this hit list of some 478 courses, in fact, out for consultation but this is part of major reforms to the vocational education sector. With me now is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining me this afternoon.
Simon Birmingham:     Great to be with you, David.

David Speers:                          There’s a lot in this list, 478 courses, and some of them are, let’s say, a little quirky. Why have they been receiving funding up until now?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, the VET FEE-HELP scheme that was put in place and particularly expanded by the Labor Government adopted the same approach in a sense as we have for funding of university courses and that is once a provider was entitled to offer VET FEE-HELP loans, they were entitled to do so across any diploma that was recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework. So, all diplomas in a sense were in, there were no carve outs up until now. What we’re proposing for the new model that will start from 1 January next year is not only a model that has tighter restrictions on who the providers are tighter restrictions on what the loans can be worth, but also tighter restrictions on qualifications to make sure they’re better-linked to employment outcomes.

David Speers:                            Are you able to say how many students are studying these 478 courses at the moment?

Simon Birmingham:     It’s not a huge number, it’s around about 7000 or so, which out of the total pool of VET FEE-HELP enrolments is a very- is less than ten per cent. So …

David Speers:                            [Interrupts] It sounds like a lot but it’s actually only less than ten per cent of vocational courses being funded at the moment.

Simon Birmingham:     That’s right. So, it’s more than half of the courses on scope yet less than ten per cent of the enrolments so the vast majority of students in areas are captured by our decision to align to state skill priority areas or make sure that we encompass STEM skills, agricultural industries, those types of fields that we thought needed to be included.

David Speers:                            There are some of the ones I mentioned there, whether it’s circus arts or butler services, that aren’t going to get funding under your plan, under this hit list, but there are some others there as well … journalism?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, a diploma of journalism; most people who actually go into the journalism profession nowadays if they’ve gone through a university qualification are getting a bachelor level qualification. So, again, there’s not a recognised skills need by any of the states or territories for a diploma level qualification in journalism. So, I’m sorry to break it to you there, David, probably …

David Speers:                            [Interrupts] You’d have to get- the high marks in many cases required for a university degree now, I suppose, is the point rather than going through a diploma course.

Simon Birmingham:     That’s right and in terms of the actual likelihood of that leading to an employment outcomes, employment opportunities in journalism exist for bachelor level graduates.

David Speers:                            Another one there, though, teaching students with autism spectrum disorder. Why won’t that get funding?

Simon Birmingham:     So, you have to recognise in this space that the support for students is for students who have to pay their own fees up front. In many of these areas, that being one of them, others being some of the policing-type qualifications, they are for skills that and for qualifications that employers will support people to undertake. It’s unlikely that they’re sort of operating in that ‘fee for service’ environment.

David Speers:                            [Talks over] So in that case, it would be the school sector in a relevant state that would pay for that course?

Simon Birmingham:     That’s right. Now, we’re putting this list out for consultation so if we have it wrong in some of those areas, which are obviously very worthwhile areas in terms of looking after and providing additional skills to teachers caring and training children with autism, we then of course will heed those calls from the states or territories but in the main what we’ve tried to focus on are skills, areas where people would have to pay themselves without the availability of the student loan and where they link to employment outcomes.

David Speers:                            The whole point here is to clean up a system where we’ve seen enormous growth where students are able to borrow the whole amount and often aren’t even finishing the course, let alone doing some courses that really probably don’t deserve federal funding. In the higher education sector in terms of universities, though, today you’ve announced the makeup of a reform panel that you announced before the election to consider reform of university funding. Now, the people on your panel include the Chancellor of Charles Sturt University, a Victoria University professor, Grattan Institute Higher Education Program Director Andrew Norton, and a former Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University. No one there from the Group of Eight top universities?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, in the groupings of universities, and they align themselves in different ways – the Regional Universities Network, the Group of Eight, et cetera – the mix we have there is that we don’t have people from any of the aligned groupings, if I can put it that way, which has been recognised by some of the commentators today, but really the four people are there for their expertise. At the budget we released a policy paper that posed a range of different scenarios and questions that we sought feedback on. Those submissions are in, we’ve been analysing the submissions, the next stage in this process is to have these four eminently qualified people who understand the inner workings of Australian Government higher education policy, how that drives the incentives and behaviour of universities and higher education providers, and they’re not being appointed to produce their own report or their own recommendations, they’ve been asked to work alongside me and my department to form the basis of the recommendations that I will then take to cabinet. 

So this is really about progressing to the decision making point now. There’ll be a couple of other steps of consultation with vice-chancellors and other key stakeholders but I think they’re four people who the sector has generally warmly welcomed and acknowledged have expertise.

David Speers:                            [Talks over] But explain to me why you need them. You’ve got a whole department at your disposal, you’ve got the whole sector there willing to talk to you about all of this and, as you say, they’re not going to provide recommendations, they’re just going to help you with your cabinet submissions. Why do you need them?

Simon Birmingham:     Because I think it is a really good sense test and process arrangement to actually work through with people and say will this concept that is being proposed in a submission from the G8 or the Innovative Research Universities or Universities Australia or the Regional Universities Network, any of those different entities, will this proposal work; what would be the complications of it?

Now, yes, my department can provide advice on that but getting some external testing of those ideas and concepts I think is a really useful thing to help ensure that when we come back to the Parliament with higher education reform in the future, we’ve made sure that all of the complications …

David Speers:                            [Interrupts] When will it be, what’s the timeframe on this now?

Simon Birmingham:     Next year. So, early next year we will have resolution of this. Legislation, if required, as I expect it would be, during the early to middle part of next year for a start date in 2018.

David Speers:                            So, the new funding system will start in 2018?

Simon Birmingham:     That’s right.

David Speers:                            And that may include deregulation of student fees?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we ruled out in the budget full fee deregulation but we did leave open the possibility of creating some scope for universities to say this is an area of excellence that we want to have some fee flexibility in, we hypothesised up to about 20 per cent of their student load, there’s some interest in that in some of the submissions we’ve received, others not so keen on the idea, they’re of course the scenarios that we’re now working through.

David Speers:                            Can I ask you about school funding as well? Is it still your view that some schools receive too much taxpayer support?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s been a matter of clear, clear determination on the public record for at least a couple of years. I think it was evidenced by some of the stories over the last couple of weeks drawing on answers to senate estimates questions that date back to 2014 showing that some schools are receiving more than their entitlement would be under the model that Bill Shorten allegedly put in place. And that’s because the failings of what Bill Shorten did were numerous when he was education minister but they were really decisions to say that we will fund growth in every school, regardless of where they were in relation to the new schools funding model.

David Speers:                            So, right now though, that means in your view, some schools are receiving too much money?

Simon Birmingham:     Some schools are receiving more than the current funding formulas say they should receive.

David Speers:                            Yeah, but in your view, is it too much?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, in my view, we have to make sure that all schools are treated in an equitable way by the Federal Government and it is inequitable …

David Speers:                            [Talks over] But it’s a simple question, are some schools getting too much money?

Simon Birmingham:     [Continues]… for them to have – relative to others? Yes because it is inequitable to have some schools receiving more money when they are in identical circumstances whether they are independent, Catholic or in the Government-sector, to another school because there are simply 27 different special deals that have been struck in schools funding.

David Speers:                            So, it would be your preference, then, to take some of that money back from those schools.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s my preference to make sure all schools are treated equitably and if that means that over a transition period, there has to be some adjustment, that’s something that we are open to in our discussions to make sure that our record growing levels of school funding are distributed according to need, equitably across schools and across the states and territories.

David Speers:                            So, presumably that would include for example Melbourne Grammar which gets 143 per cent of the schooling resource standard, the Jesuit schools in New South Wales, some of which get 263 per cent?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, David, these, as I say, are details that have been on the public record for a number of years about the disparities that exist in relation to schools funding.

David Speers:                            These are the schools we’re talking about though.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, these are the schools that are on those lists that were produced- Senate Estimates, a couple of years ago.

David Speers:                            So, they’re the schools that are getting too much.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, they are the schools that, based on a comparison against what the current funding formula say they should receive, are receiving more than their entitlement …

David Speers:                            [Talks over] They’re getting too much.

Simon Birmingham:     [Continues]… other schools in comparable circumstances are getting less.

David Speers:                            Okay, but are these the ones that are going to lose funding?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, David, we’re still working through a process on that with the states and territories and the non-government sector …

David Speers:                            [Talks over] But your preferred approach would be …

Simon Birmingham:     I’m not going to pre-empt that. My preferred approach is that like for like schools in the Government sector, like for like schools in the independent and Catholic sectors, should be treated on an equitable basis, not be subject to historic deals that go back many years and have simply been grandfathered through different special deals by the previous Labor government.

David Speers:                            Finally, on another matter entirely, same-sex marriage. Tomorrow, we’re set to see the debate on the plebiscite – the Government’s plebiscite bill in Parliament. We’re also expecting Caucus tomorrow to make a final decision to vote against it. As someone who does support same-sex marriage, what happens then?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I hope that the Labor Party will make the decision to support the plebiscite, despite all of the posturing we’re seeing to date. I at least hold out hope that they and/or the Senate will respect the fact that this is the policy the Turnbull Government took to the election. We are simply seeking to implement our policy and as such it is the fastest, clearest way to then see marriage equality achieved in Australia.

David Speers:                            Is there still any prospect of compromise from the Government’s part on this around the areas of funding the yes and no camps and whether it should in fact be binding on parliament to support?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, if Labor wants to come back and actually say they are willing to support a plebiscite under certain conditions, we’d love to hear those conditions.

David Speers:                            But is the Government willing to make those concessions?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, let’s actually hear what Labor’s conditions are …

David Speers:                            [Talks over] I’m just asking you as – I’m just asking you as a government …

Simon Birmingham:     David. George Brandis invited the Shadow Attorney-General to a meeting which on multiple occasions he asked him what things we might need to change to get the Labor Party’s support and he was unwilling to offer any such suggestions. So, we of course want to hear them and then if they are viable and legally achievable, we would be open to them.

David Speers:                            But personally, are you – would you be happy to see a plebiscite that doesn’t fund the yes and no camps?

Simon Birmingham:     I think that’s a reasonable point of debate, I think we have worked very hard to try to keep the cost of the plebiscite as low as possible, to make sure there are safeguards around any government-funded advertising that occurs so that we can ensure it is respectful. Ultimately, if that is something that the Labor Party want to take out, in return for support from plebiscite, well they should say so and put it on the table …

David Speers:                            It’s a reasonable request is what you’re saying.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, it would be a reasonable request and then one that we could consider ourselves.

David Speers:                            Alright. Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you. Pleasure.