Interview on Triple J Hack with Tom Tilley
Topics: Higher education reforms and vocational education and training

Tom Tilley: There’s a big chance that our next guest is making decisions that directly affect your life. Over 1.3 million, mostly young, Australians are at uni and over 4 million are doing some kind of vocational education or training. So, the Education Minister and his decisions affect millions of you, and he’s here in the Hack studio. His name is Simon Birmingham, he’s a Senator from South Australia, and right now he’s back in Canberra for the first sitting week.

Welcome back to Parliament, Simon Birmingham, and welcome back to Hack.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Tom, great to be with you again.

Tom Tilley: You’ve got a lot of responsibility, don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: There’s a fair bit on the portfolio – everything from early childhood education for our littlest learners, right through to outstanding research centres around the country in our nation’s universities.

Tom Tilley: Yeah, well, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of those people listening right now. And if you have a question for the Minister, you’re welcome to text in and I’ll put it straight to him; you can text in on 0431 75 7555. Let’s get to the first issue with the Minister. Just a week before Christmas, the Government announced the university sector would cop a $2.2 billion spending cut. Now, we’ll ask the Minister why he made that decision in just a moment.

First, Shalailah Medhora looks at the reaction to that decision.


Tom Tilley: Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister, is in the studio with us and, as you just heard, the Government announced $2.2 billion in cuts to universities just before Christmas, so let’s ask the Minister why he did that.

Simon Birmingham, was it a deliberate strategy to drop this bad news a week before Christmas in the hope that people wouldn’t kick up a stink?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no, Tom, that’s the normal timing for the mid-year Budget update, and what we did was decide that we needed to bring what had been a very long period of uncertainty to an end. Government budgets, right back from when Labor was last in office, have carried projected savings in relation to university spending because of the phenomenal rate of growth that there had been in terms of taxpayer costs going into universities. So the Rudd and the Gillard governments, in their final couple of years, put forward some $6.6 billion worth of cuts; a number of those Budget savings measures were not legislated, including proposed efficiency dividends. Now, we sought to see the Budget implemented, to make sure that it could, of course, be fixed, to make sure that we could bring the nation’s Budget back into balance. And this year- sorry, last year, in last year’s Budget, what we proposed was a batch of efficiency dividends that largely were pretty close to what Labor had proposed in the past.

Now, unfortunately, Labor, having not implemented their efficiency dividends, decided to block the Government’s efficiency dividends. We didn’t want the uncertainty to go on any longer, so we made the decision in the mid-year Budget update to do what we could in terms of ensuring that Budget savings were realised, because the federal taxpayer, the Commonwealth Budget, has to live within our means, and that means universities, who have record levels of funding, that still grows in a range of other areas – their research funding still grows; a range of equity funding programs still grow; addition support for regional campuses is still there – but they also have to live within their budgets too.

Tom Tilley: Okay, speaking of living within our budgets, how do you justify taking $2.2 billion out of higher education at the same time as trying to sell $65 billion worth of corporate tax cuts?

Simon Birmingham: It’s pretty simple, Tom. I think people who are at uni, or choosing to go through other pathways to get a job, deserve a job in the future; that Australia has to be a competitive place for businesses to grow. We’ve got to be a place in which internationals want to invest and that Australian businesses want to invest and grow, and so our company tax agenda is all about growing jobs and growing wages and, of course, to be able to do that, we have to make sure the Budget is in a reasonable position. It’s all about striking a balance, and university funding is at record levels and still growing. It’s grown by 71 per cent since 2009 and, as I said before, it continues to grow in a range of other areas.

Tom Tilley: Hersha’s called in with a question for the Minister. Hersha, go ahead.

Caller: Yeah, well, I think that you can say efficiency dividends all you like, but students know what they are: they’re cuts. They’re billions and billions of dollars worth of cuts to higher education. They take away people’s quality of education and, in this specific instance, taking away the ability of more students to go to university because it’s capping places. And like a lot of students, I’m pretty disturbed by the fact that these efficiency dividends – A.K.A. cuts – are coming at the same time, basically, that Turnbull has announced a Defence plan – i.e. subsidising weapons industries in Australia, to the tune of $3.8 billion.

Tom Tilley: Okay, interesting point. I’ll get the Minister to respond.

Caller Hersha: [Indistinct] I think [indistinct] it’s disgusting that the funding [indistinct] …

Tom Tilley: Okay, Hersha, we’ve heard what you have to say there. Minister, how do you respond to that comment?

Simon Birmingham: Well, a few points for Hersha there. Does she really believe that Australian universities can’t find some efficiencies? You know, estimates are they’ve spent around $1.7 billion on marketing and advertising over recent years, so frankly, the message there for university administration is find some efficiencies, because even some of your own academics have published reports saying that there are many hundreds of millions of dollars of savings to be found in universities, and that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to efficiency dividends.

When it comes to defence industry expenditure, well, we make no apologies as a Government for deciding that we want to invest in building Australia’s sovereign capability to build our submarines and our naval ships here in Australia, rather than having to buy them from overseas, and that’s what the Turnbull Government’s doing, building that capability, which again comes back to the point of having jobs – jobs for uni graduates, jobs for TAFE graduates, jobs for school leavers. That’s what this is about, of course, ensuring that you don’t just pump all the money into universities; you actually make sure, as well, you’re sustaining an economy that creates jobs for graduates, school leavers, TAFE graduates, et cetera.

Tom Tilley: So, will these cuts mean a drop in student numbers? We just heard from Universities Australia saying 10,000 places couldn’t be funded now because of the freeze in government support for university students, and we just heard Tanya Plibersek from Labor saying that these cuts will mean less places for regional and disadvantaged students.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that would be a very defeatist attitude from the universities if they said that they couldn’t manage to find what would be the equivalent of about 1.5 per cent of efficiencies across their $17 billion budgets – $17 billion of taxpayer support across a range of different funding streams going into universities, and they’re saying that with all of the growth they’ve had, with the big advertising and marketing budgets, that they really couldn’t find 1.5 per cent efficiencies across their spending to be able to sustain those places.

Tom Tilley: So, you’re saying they’re not spending their money in the right way?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we believe that universities absolutely have room for efficiencies, and you don’t just have to take our word for it. As I say, university academics, like Professor Keith Houghton, have themselves highlighted that their own institutions could be much more efficient, re-direct that funding back into supporting their students. And in terms of regional students or students from disadvantage, the things that we left untouched in the Budget decision were indeed the Equity in Partnership and Participation Program, so that that funding targeted to disadvantaged students is still there. The regional loading, so that additional support for regional university campuses, is still there. We were absolutely ensuring that we prioritised those areas to make sure that equity participation was, indeed, guaranteed.

Tom Tilley: You are listening to Hack and with me today is the Minister for Education. His name is Simon Birmingham, he’s a Senator from South Australia. Great to have him on the program as we look out into 2018 and wonder how things are going to pan out in the higher education sector. We’ve talked a bit about universities, and there’s around $1.3 million Australians at uni, but around three times that number of Australians are actually enrolled in some kind of vocational education and there’s been a fair bit of controversy in that sector over the last few years.

You might remember the stories of free laptops for people enrolling in colleges that turned out to be dodgy. Well, the Government is trying to clean up that sector and, as Shalailah Medhora reports, part of that led to the Government to stop supporting a whole range of TAFE and college courses.


Tom Tilley: On the text line: Many of the people I know that went to university are now working in industries unrelated to the degrees they did. I want to know what the Minister’s doing to promote the other pathways into the workforce that aren’t based in a university. And that’s what we’re talking about now, vocational courses, and you just heard there about some of the changes.

The Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, is in the studio. Simon Birmingham, we heard a little bit about the mess you had to clean up in the private vocational centre; the debt was getting out of control. But it’s ended up punishing people at TAFE as well; they can no longer get support for a range of courses, both in terms of their fees and Centrelink. Is that really fair on TAFE students?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, there are still 354 courses on the new VET Student Loans list and, indeed, in arts-related disciplines there’s around 20 courses that are still supported, all of them because they’ve been identified, not by the Federal Government, but by the states and territories, as being areas of skills needs across their jurisdiction. So we’re absolutely there not deciding on any prejudiced basis as to what’s in or out, but deciding on the basis of where skills needs are, where jobs are likely to be, what the employment situation is likely to be, to ensure there’s a real incentive there for students to be able to pursue those pathways and to know that, in doing so, there’s a fair chance they’ll get a job at the end of it.

Tom Tilley: Alright, we’ll go to Ben. What’s your question?

Caller Ben: G’day, guys. I just wanted to know- I think the budget cuts for uni is probably a good thing because of the jobs that are available for uni students – you know, there’s a shortage of jobs. But I’d like to know what the Government’s doing to ensure that the now-limited spaces are prioritised to Australian students, and also what they’re doing to kind of buffer that for people who want to go into tertiary education in other avenues.

Tom Tilley: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: So, Ben, I can absolutely guarantee that international students are not allowed to be taken if they are taking any places from domestic students. In fact, unis can only accept international students on the basis that they are fully recouping the costs associated with those international students. So every taxpayer dollar that goes into supporting domestic students are about having Australian students studying at Australian universities.

Tom Tilley: Alright, thanks so much for the call there, Ben. Minister, we’ve been talking about the cuts to universities, also heard just there about the cost savings you’re making in the vocational sector, and the idea is to have people studying a range of courses that basically have a skills shortage. If you look back at your legacy so far as a Minister, it seems that the main things you’ve done are around saving money. What about growing our education sector? What about, I guess, steering it in a direction that really serves the jobs of the future?

Simon Birmingham: A couple of things there. One is that in vocational education last year we announced a new $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund, which is not about the VET Student Loans type courses, it’s more about areas of apprenticeships and traineeships and encouraging state and territory governments to create new opportunities there, and I was thrilled today, in the lead up to a South Australian state election, to see the state Liberal Party there commit $100 million to match the funding out of our Skilling Australians Fund to be able to create more apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities.

But elsewhere, what we’re trying to do is get, I guess, the best bang for our buck for what, in the end, is taxpayers’ dollars. And many of your listeners paying their taxes are of course funding universities, funding vocational education or schools, and we need to make sure that the performance and the priorities of those institutions are right; that we give universities almost full autonomy in Australia to enrol who they want in whatever disciplines they want, whatever courses of study they want. We want to make sure there’s, though, some performance checks and balances there because it’s about putting the students first to ensure those students are actually getting training and education in areas that’s relevant to their future employment or career prospects, and of a quality that will ensure they get the type of world-class education people in Australia should expect.

Tom Tilley: Alright, Simon Birmingham. We’ll keep an eye on your portfolio, as it affects so many of our listeners throughout the year, and speak to you again very soon. Thank you so much for making time for us today.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, mate. Any time.