Interview on Triple J Hack with Tom Tilley
Issues with Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP; New VET Student Loans program; Higher education reform; Australians being detained in Malaysia

Tom Tilley: Let’s find out more about how the new scheme will work and whether it will really stop the rorting in this sector. As you heard in Shalailah’s story, Simon Birmingham is the man of the moment. He’s the Minister for Education, and he made the announcement earlier today. Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you again, Tom.

Tom Tilley:
So the big announcement today is that you’ve replaced Labor’s VET-FEE HELP scheme with the Coalition’s VET Student Loans program. You realise that sounds a bit like an episode of Utopia, don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs]. I do, Tom, and as you’d appreciate having followed these debates closely, we’ve worked pretty hard over the last couple of years to try to fix the old VET-FEE HELP scheme that the Labor Party introduced. But I was still concerned and the Government was concerned that we weren’t getting the really bad providers our of the system and that we couldn’t have complete confidence in the integrity of it, and so the simplest way to do so is to shut it down, start again with the new bottle, build it from the ground up, and make sure that then we’re only letting into the door those in whom we can have absolute confidence that they’re high quality, reputable providers.

Tom Tilley: Could you imagine this could be a little bit difficult or uncertain for people in Year 12 now who are trying to decide what to do next year? They don’t even know if your changes will come through in time.

Simon Birmingham: I do appreciate that there would be some concerns there. Now, what I would hope that people can do is over the coming week we will be publishing the list of courses that we expect that will still attract a subsidy, because we are going to rationalise the qualifications that attract subsidy to those that are on identified skills needs lists. So students will be able to cross-check against that. The TAFES …

Tom Tilley: [Interrupts] So when’s that list coming out? Because this is really important; you’re basically restricting the type of courses that you can get government student loans for, and you singled out a few today. You said people won’t be getting support for energy healing courses. Doesn’t sound like you’re a big fan of that one. Fashion styling was another one you singled out. When will people know, and what’s guiding you here?
Simon Birmingham: So we’ll use as a benchmark the skills needs lists that the different states and territories publish, and on top of that, we’re going to have a look at some other areas of national economic need. We’re trying to make sure that it is as flexible as possible, but focused on courses that actually optimise employment outcomes, because there’s no point in spending taxpayers’ money or encouraging students to spend their time or waste their time pursuing courses that have poor employment results.

Tom Tilley: Simon Birmingham, last time we had you on the program, we spoke about the huge debts that some people had racked up after applying at colleges that were so dodgy they couldn’t even finish the courses, and we brought up one example of a guy who was $12,000 in debt for a course he never got to finish, even though he tried to pull out before the census date. And we asked you, were you going to do anything specifically for those people to help them get those debts waived, and you offered them to get in touch with your office. As part of this new plan, you haven’t offered anything new for those people struggling to get those debts waived. Why not?

Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, we are absolutely working as hard as we can with the ACCC to prosecute those providers who we have evidence have done the wrong thing, and in those instances that is resulting in the waiving of debts. We do need to have evidence to be able to waive debts, though. There are many cases where students may not like the debt that they’ve got, but they knowingly and willingly signed up to it, and did so in accordance with the laws and the provider was acting in accordance with the laws of the day as well. 

Tom Tilley: You’re listening to Simon Birmingham, who’s the Minister for Defence, and today he announced a new loan scheme for the vocational education sector Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted in this sector over the last few years because it was too easy for dodgy operators to sign up students, whose fees were all paid with government loans.

[Unrelated items – talkback]

Tom Tilley: Let’s go back to the minister. While all this has dragged on over the last few years, so has the policy black hole in the university sector. After your Government failed to ram through its higher education deregulation reforms in 2014, there’s been no clear direction on how you will reform the university sector. So that’s dragged on for two years as well, and all we have is a consultation paper which floats the idea of partial fee deregulation. Any chance of some action or certainty in the university sector any time soon?

Simon Birmingham: Tom, I’m working through all of the big issues in my portfolio space, and higher education reform is absolutely one of those. Shortly after speaking with you, I’ll be going and meeting with university chancellors to talk to them about the future direction of higher education reform, to hear more of their feedback. We are trying to go through a thorough and proper process of actually considering all of the options for how we can make higher education funding sustainable into the future. We’ve seen growth in funding since 2009 into higher education at more than twice the rate of economic growth. That’s not a sustainable thing for the long haul, so we have to make sure that funding is sustainable, but I also want to ensure that we improve access to some Bachelor and postgraduate places where we possibly can and that we enhance equity of access across universities. We have too many instances where admission standards are unclear, where students seem to be being enrolled without clarity about what it is that’s expected of them. So there are a raft of different changes that I hope we can sensibly work through with the sector.

Tom Tilley: Well minister, everyone wants you to do a thorough, thoughtful job of this. I guess they want to know how long it’s going to take. What is the timeline?

Simon Birmingham: So there are no plans for any changes to higher education funding until 2018 or the types of models that might be applied. What I would anticipate is that we will seek to have resolution and clarity in this space early next year, so there’s then sufficient time to be able to legislate any changes, and that’s the timeline I’m working towards.

Tom Tilley:
Alright, last question. In a moment on the show we’re going to talk about the Budgie Nine, the nine Australians arrested in Malaysia, and one of them is a staffer of Christopher Pyne, your South Australian Coalition colleague. They were at the Malaysian Grand Prix, as you know. Got arrested for stripping down to budgie smugglers. If that was one of your staffers, what would you do? Would you give him a stern talking-to, or would it all be about support at this point?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Government’s focus is on support at present, as it would be for any Australians in these circumstances. We provide strong consular assistance. It’s a reminder to every Australian, though, that actions that you think you can get away with in Australia may not be things that you could get away with overseas, and that much more caution needs to be applied, especially in countries like Malaysia.

Tom Tilley: Alright, Minister Birmingham. It’s been great to have you on the show to talk through your policy changes in detail today. We look forward to speaking to you again and getting into more detail about the university sector.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Tom. Much appreciated.