Simon Birmingham: … technology network of universities, some of our most technology rich and intensive universities have agreed on principles around intellectual property arrangements that will make it far simpler for them to be able to engage with business, and importantly far simpler for business to be able to engage and collaborate with universities. And it is that type of engagement and collaboration that is central to our innovation agenda; because Australia is a country that already achieves some of the best research outcomes in the world, yet we have some of the poorest industry collaborative arrangements and outcomes in the OECD. So we clearly need to do much more to lift that level of collaboration between industry, and researchers, and universities, and that's exactly what the ATN universities are doing today. I pay credit to them for doing it. It demonstrates that universities, industry are all changing behaviour as a result, and informed by the Turnbull Government's innovation agenda, and I look forward to seeing many more reforms of this driven by our enhanced investment in research, changes to the way research is measured and incentivised, and our commitment to get industry more interested in investing in start-ups and venture capital.
Question: [Indistinct] reception today than what you had last night at the University of Sydney?
Question: Why do you think they were protesting, Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the Socialist Alliance has probably many causes they like to protest against. It is probably a never-ending list of causes that the Socialist Alliance likes to protest against.
Question: Do you feel safer here in a bunker at the University of Technology Sydney?
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I feel safe wherever I go on Australia's university campuses, in Australia's schools. I have- I have fabulous engagement with academics, researchers, students, teachers, and I continue to be committed to be very open in my engagements.
Question: [Indistinct] and 60 per cent blow-out in university funding over a decade, does that bolster your argument that reform is needed right now? Including deregulation?
Simon Birmingham: Australia has to live within its means. We have a Federal Budget deficit of $36 billion at present, and a range of cost pressures, including in the education portfolio. Since 2009, the cost to taxpayers of higher education has grown by around 59 per cent while our economy has only grown by around 29 per cent. That type of cost growth is not sustainable. So it is important that we recognise cost pressures to taxpayers, cost pressures to students in the level of student debt, but that translates into even greater cost to taxpayers when that debt is not repaid, and that we do have to be up-front about dealing with that. And that is why the Government is committed to ensuring the higher education budget, as with the schools budget, delivers what Australia needs but is also sustainable for the long term future.
Question: Minister, I have a really simple question. The student protesters are angry about student debt, and fee deregulation will lead to more of that. How much student debt did you graduate when you graduated university?
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, I couldn't recall what the student debt level was now because it’s a few years ago, but I went through university under the HECS system. I am a student who went to university …
Question: Was it more than $10,000? Were you paying it off as you went?
Simon Birmingham: Well, like everybody who pays back their HECS debt, you pay it off as you go. As I said, that was quite a few years ago now, so exactly what the level was is a bit of a distant memory. But I think what is important to appreciate is that university students do still achieve higher wage outcomes than other Australians do. So there is a real private benefit that comes from a university education. Australia has one of the most generous student loan schemes and most accessible and equitable university systems in the world though. We don't charge students a cent up front, we don’t make them repay until they're earning around $54,000, and we don't charge any real interest on those debts. So ours is a generous, accessible, and equitable university access system. I'm committed to keeping it generous, accessible, and equitable, but also determined to make sure that it's affordable for long-term so that we can maintain that generosity and equitable accessible.
Question: Part of the issue is that it’s too equitable, in some cases universities are letting students in without good marks. What are you doing about the consultation paper on that front?
Simon Birmingham: Really important reforms that have taken another step forward today in relation to university admission standards. It's critical that students have transparency around what it is that universities expect of them to be admitted to university, that students understand what it is that will be required of them to succeed at university, and that universities are held accountable for the types of standards they are applying and the students they admit. So the reform steps taken today through the release of the discussion paper by the higher education standards panel demonstrate that we are getting on with the job of enhancing that transparency around university admission procedures, holding universities to account, and trying to give students the best information upon which to make the most informed decisions in the future.
Question: Is the current ATAR system irrelevant in the demand-driven system that we have got at the moment?
Simon Birmingham: Well, ATARs should not be irrelevant at all. They are and should be a clear benchmark of student achievement in their final year at school. And whilst they are not and should not be an exclusive measure around access to universities, they have a place and I expect that place to be clear, understandable, and transparent for future students.
Question: Minister, given yesterday's report and the blow-out in HECS, are you quietly relieved that the Senate gave this Government an out on the very big bullet that would have been fee deregulation?
Simon Birmingham: Julie, as I’ve said before, my experience as the Vocational Education and Training Minister and the awful VET FEE-HELP scheme that the Gillard Government established and let blow-out, left me slightly scarred and was absolutely a reminder to me of why it is that we need to make sure in any form where we have fee deregulation that there are tight controls on those who can access it and there are tight controls in relation to make sure that fees are sustainable. Now, we are still, and I am still, consulting in terms of the exact reforms that will be taken forward. It is important that we give universities opportunity and incentive to differentiate between one another, to innovate in the products they're offering to students, the courses they're offering to students, to pursue excellence at a global level. And that means that having a system that boxes them all into one corner in terms of how it is they charge isn’t necessarily the best one for the future. But I am also very mindful of making sure that we protect the taxpayer from the type of fraudulent rip-offs we have seen in the VET sector, and that we ensure students have confidence and parents and families have confidence that they are not going to be exposed to fees that are not sustainable or affordable for the future.
Question: Minister, are we going to see a concrete reform policy before the Budget?
Simon Birmingham: There will absolutely be more information before the election. And I will make sure that that is there for all to see.
Question: Are you concerned though that we’re going to see the arguments again about the $100,000 degrees coming back up again? And obviously that was- that dragged down the Abbott Government significantly that policy.
Simon Birmingham: I have every confidence the Labor Party will run a scare campaign, and it won't matter what I say or do, there will be claims of $100,000 degrees from the Labor Party, there will be claims that are erroneous based on lies and false, just as we are seeing in schools funding at present. Of course the truth is we're committed to growing funding in schools, to having the funding support for universities to achieve world-class excellence, and for supporting students to go to university without paying one cent up-front, and that will remain a core commitment of the Turnbull Government.