Sky News Live, Peter Van Onselen
Addressing problem gambling; Higher education reform; Redesigning VET FEE-HELP; Focus on apprenticeships; Immigration policy  
23 August 2016
2:32 PM

Peter Van Onselen: Alright, well as promised, I’m joined now by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham live from Canberra. Thanks very much for your company.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Peter. Good to be with you.

Peter Van Onselen: I want to just start, I guess, maybe with some of the news of the day. Gambling reform; I asked Tony Burke about it on To the Point with Kristina Keneally – in fact, I think she asked him – he basically poured scorn on the idea that Labor would show any interest in what the crossbenchers are pedalling here. Would the Government be likely to offer a bipartisan approach with Labor on this, ending gambling reform before it even starts?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we do have certain priority areas of gambling reform that as a government we’ve been looking at, particularly in the area of offshore online gambling activities and we have a review that we will be responding to in due course in relation to that and that may well see a number of changes in that space which is an important and potentially growing area of gambling activity that we want to make sure appropriate consumer protections exist around and appropriate taxation and other protections for Australia. There are other areas that are overwhelmingly within the domain of states and territories and largely I would expect that they will remain in the domain of states and territories. But, look, we’ll always listen to the ideas of the crossbench and seek to work constructively where we can.

Peter Van Onselen: Let’s talk about education policy. The Government can’t hold out much hopes, can it, of any sort of higher education reform after what happened in the last parliament?

Simon Birmingham: Peter, I wouldn’t say that. We are going through a process now where I released in the Budget a higher education policy position paper that outlined a range of areas that we need to consider in terms of the excellence and standards in Australian higher education, access and equity for students, and budget sustainability measures, and they’re the metrics against which I and the Government will judge the reform proposals. A lot of universities and other institutions have made submissions into that process. Some of them have been very good and thoughtful, that have put ideas forward about how we can achieve greater budget transparency and accountability, how we can improve admission standards into universities, how we can make sure that there are better pathways for students in sub-bachelor or associate degree-type places. So, a range of quite positive and constructive ideas that I’ll now work through in a consultation process and we’ll see what we bring back to the Parliament following the conclusion of that policy making period.

Peter Van Onselen: You’ve also taken over direct responsibilities now for what your former junior minister, Senator Scott Ryan, as vocational education minister had responsibility for. I’m talking about VET FEE-HELP; that was a bit of scheme that was getting some pretty negative headlines. Let’s call it a poison chalice, shall we? What are you going to do to be able to fix that sector up?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the VET FEE-HELP scheme, undeniably, is a failed and broken scheme. We made a commitment earlier this year that we would introduce a new scheme effective from next year and that is still the Government’s intention and ambition. So, again, I’m working through some submissions that have been received from a process that Scott Ryan initiated that look at the different ways that we could build a new scheme that stops what has been an appalling rorting of taxpayers’ money and stops the abuse of students, or disadvantaged or vulnerable Australians by dodgy registered training organisations who are simply rorting this scheme, leaving people with bad debts, leaving the Government with bad debts.

This is something that has to come to an end. It was essentially a program that was opened up by the Labor Party around 2009, when they were in government. We’ve seen astronomical growth in the volume of loans, both the number of them and the value of them and yet, tiny increases in the number of students actually completing the courses in which they’ve been enrolled. So, we are determined to fix it, that will require us looking at a range of different measures which I hope will result in legislation ideally during the course of this year but if not, then sometime very early next year.

Peter Van Onselen: In a broader sense, we talk about this distinction between tertiary education and vocational studies which often include apprenticeships and trades and the like, we’ve got a shortage in this country of people that are doing trades, you know, there is a skill shortage in that space, yet we have an oversupply a lot of people would argue of people studying everything from education to broader-based arts degrees courtesy of years of pushing people into university study as though it’s some sort of panacea to a job or some sort of better thing to do than a trade, how does the Government recalibrate the culture in this country to make people understand that you know what, doing a trade is not only more likely to get you a job but is probably more likely to give you a more prosperous job in many respects than some of these generalist degrees?

Simon Birmingham: And I think you’ve hit in your question there on a very important part of that but it is a cultural factor that we really need to address here that …

Peter Van Onselen: Yeah, it’s snobbish.

Simon Birmingham: … students who- well, people who leave school and undertake an apprenticeship get paid while they do their apprenticeships which isn’t the case for a university student so you’re better off from the outset in that you’re actually brought in to a model of employment that gives you an income from the very beginning of your apprenticeship. Then, yes, employment rates for people who successfully complete a trade-based apprenticeship are stronger than employment rates for people who complete a university degree on average. The long term prognosis is you’re more likely to end up being self-employed, owning your own business if you’ve completed a trade-based apprenticeship [indistinct] university degree …

Peter Van Onselen: [Talks over] Well, let me jump in then there if I can Minister, exactly what you’re saying. I mean, doesn’t all of that play into the Government’s argument about enterprise and agility at every level? What are you doing as a government or what are you planning to do to move the pendulum on this? Less people studying broad-based arts degrees let’s say and therefore more people filling these skill shortages via trades which include a job at the apprentice level as you point out and then go on to include higher pays and therefore greater agility.

Simon Birmingham: So Peter, what we’ve done is firstly had a look at- well, trying to understand what some of the impediments are in the apprenticeship model and what is- what is failing that used to work in that space. Yes, there is a cultural factor of more university students and people choosing that pathway. There seem to be some other reasons about the differences in the model so we’re funding three different pilot programs in relation to how apprenticeships work and different structures and apprenticeships that elect the- the Master Electricians in Queensland I think it is and a couple of other providers across the country, are going to run slight adaptations of the apprenticeship model to see if they can make that more attractive for both employer and apprentice to actually get a greater take up and more people passing through there.

Because we have to really try to see well, what types of changes could we make to a model that, as I said before, should theoretically look more attractive to a lot of students than a university pathway in any event because you have that reality that people do get paid, they are more likely to get a job, they’re more likely to go into a small business in the long-run. So, I’m trying to see what we can try to actually shift the pendulum on that- is something we’re working hard to do. To my Assistant Minister who’s got particular responsibilities and skills in vocational education, I’ve said to her that I think apprenticeships is really the number one priority area there, and apprenticeships can be broken up into two areas; the traditional trade-based apprenticeships which most of this conversation’s focused on, and then the sort of new apprenticeships, the trainee-ship type model which, grew rapidly during the Howard Government, then when we saw some employer incentives removed under the previous Labor government we’ve seen a real drop-off in numbers there, and we have to think about well, in those categories of students how do we make sure that sufficient numbers there are getting a go and not just you know, a traineeship that gives them a qualification but most importantly in terms of office jobs and retail jobs and the like, those students are also getting a year or two of real work experience which future employers will value in terms of the types of skills and soft skills that will provide them with.

Peter Van Onselen: On another [indistinct] Senator, back in medieval times, enemies’ heads were mounted to pikes outside city states to ward off enemies, to act as a very strong deterrent. Is your conscience clear that indefinite detention is being used in the modern era as a sort of form of human repellent to ensure that the boats don’t open back up again?

Simon Birmingham: Peter, we don’t have and don’t want to have indefinite detention, we want to see people who are processed as refugees settled in other nations and people who are not processed as refugees ideally returned to their original nation, and that is what the Government is working incredibly hard to do. Now, this is a challenging policy area, and I, in all honesty, my views on this have evolved over time as I’ve seen the different ebbing and flowing of policy and the results of policy decisions but we do know that when the types of policies, including off-shore processing were unwound by the Rudd Government, we saw a huge surge in boat arrivals into Australia and that of course has given us the legacy of people who are in detention today. We know though, that since we put in place the types of policies including off-shore processing under the Coalition Government, that those arrivals have stopped and when we can clear that backlog of individuals in those detention centres then we actually will be in a position where we don’t have people arriving and we don’t have people in detention. So the priority is, of course, to work on helping people to return to their host country where that’s possible, or to be resettled in other nations.

Peter Van Onselen: Well, hopefully the indefinites of that approach is sorted out sooner rather than later, otherwise we’ll have to keep talking about it apart from anything else. But Senator Simon Birmingham, always appreciate you joining us on News Day, thanks again today, cheers.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Peter, cheers.