Interview on Triple M Hobart, breakfast with Dave Noonan and Al Plath
Topics: English language testing standards for international students

Dave Noonan: We’ve got a surprise early morning visitor; the Minister for Education- Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham. Good morning, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning guys, great to be with you.

Dave Noonan: Thank you very much for popping in. This is very unusual. Do you get down to Tassie much?

Simon Birmingham: I get down to Tassie a few times a year, usually with the chance to have a bit more of engagement with schools, TAFEs, higher education providers, but on this trip it’s pretty quick – in and out – just to speak at a conference.

Dave Noonan: So what’s the conference?

Simon Birmingham: The conference is the Australian International Education Conference, which really brings together providers of international education from right around Australia. It’s a very big conference being held at the Grand Chancellor here in Hobart.

Dave Noonan: And it’s really important for Tassie, because Tassie’s tertiary education system relies a lot for its funding upon international students, doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the whole country now relies very much on the wealth generation from international students. It underpins around 130,000 jobs across Australia. It’s our third largest export earner, generating about …

Dave Noonan: That’s remarkable, isn’t it.

Al Plath: That is, that is absolutely…

Dave Noonan: Yeah, people don’t think about it like that.

Simon Birmingham: People do not think of it in terms of the foreign dollars that it brings to Australia, but it’s really part of that transition of our economy that – from a manufacturing-type base that used to exist to a services industry now– and whilst we think that tourism is a services export, education is now a very large services export for us, to us. As I say, our third largest.

Al Plath: And everything that comes along with that too, in hospitality, and – yes, like the extra transport services that are needed to facilitate that.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. The $28 billion we estimate it contributes to the economy is, of course, driven in large part by not just the students themselves, but then the travels they undertake while they’re here, the visits from other family or friends that are undertaken. So it stimulates a whole lot of other activity.

Dave Noonan: And you’re introducing a requirement that they improve their English skills. Because up to now there was a test, wasn’t there? And if they passed the test then they were okay to come here and study, but now you want there to be ongoing tuition for English.

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s always been a standard for different levels of courses of English that’s meant to be required.

Dave Noonan: Do you sometimes worry that Australian students couldn’t pass that? I’ve had people – I’ve had teachers who may not be able to pass that test.

Simon Birmingham: You get those stories sometimes, and I guess in a different way as Education Minister, there’s a range of things we’re trying to do including with teachers, where for those going through uni – just to stray for a second – to undertake teaching qualifications, in future, they will have to pass a mandatory minimum standard for literacy and numeracy skills to guarantee that they’re in the top 30 per cent of Australians. So we can have confidence in our teaching skills in the future. But in terms of international students, we’re putting in place a process before they start at university or a TAFE course or the like, when they’re finishing up with an English language provider who might be giving them an English language course, to make sure that they’re assessed as being of the standard to start that uni course or TAFE course.

Dave Noonan: Talking about uni, we are very close to what could be one of the great uni projects in Australia. Infrastructure Australia have identified it as the only education project they want to fund. STEM – which is just over there behind the McDonalds sign – is that going to go ahead? What’s your understanding of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve been briefed on the project. What the Turnbull Government has said to UTAS, is that we’ve already made commitments in terms of millions of dollars of funding for the upgrade and transformation of their Launceston Precinct and their Burnie Precinct. We want to see the deal inked and signed for those, and actually the money flowing and the works proceeding before we necessarily get onto the next multimillion dollar project, if there are to be funds available. But I know those conversations are also being had with Angus Taylor, the Assistant Minister for Cities and so on. So there’s absolutely live conversations, it’s an exciting project, but there’s a little way to go.

Dave Noonan: Well, thank you very much for popping in. I know you’re a busy man today. Thank you very much. The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, thanks so much guys.