Subject: Higher Education Reforms; Labor’s Higher Education Policy; National Curriculum Review


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, good evening and congratulations.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening Patricia and to your listeners, thank you very much.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How was cabinet?

Look, cabinet was a good and positive meeting. Obviously very exciting to be there for the first meeting as a new Minister of the new cabinet and wonderful to see many of my contemporaries and a great mix of experience around the table as well as people with fresh ideas and plenty of vigour in terms of the positive direction we want to take the country in.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, you’re now in cabinet, how much of this was a reward for backing Malcolm Turnbull? You’ve backed Malcolm Turnbull for some time…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, it would have to be up to Malcolm to explain the merits of what he saw in terms of the different individuals he has put in the cabinet. From my perspective, I’m very delighted to be there, obviously I’ve been working hard in my outer-ministry portfolio for the last nine months pursuing reform in areas of vocational education and training and skills and apprenticeships and prior to that, of course, with a long background and record working in environmental policy areas, especially around water policy so, I think, like many other members of the cabinet, I’ve done the hard yards, but I’ll leave it to the commentators and others to talk about the merits of individual appointments.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You’re taking over from Christopher Pyne as Education Minister, another South Australian, what will you do differently?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think every cabinet Minister and every Minister brings their own style to office, obviously, Christopher has a wonderful energy, great intellect and certainly brought great passion to the areas of reform especially, I think, in school education where he really focussed in on teacher quality, on issues around school autonomy and on changes to the national curriculum and I think Christopher has many reforms that he can be very proud of there. My approach in my portfolios has been always to reach out to the different stakeholder groups, to listen to them very carefully, to solicit their ideas and policy proposals and from that, to wherever possible try to build consensus and a collaborative approach for policy reforms. Ultimately, governments have to make their decisions on what they think is in the best interests of the country, but in so far as we can take people with us and build support for those decisions and those reforms and I think that’s very critical and that’s the attitude that I’ll be taking. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well despite telling us he was going to fix it, Mr Pyne couldn’t get his signature university funding reforms through the Upper House, here is what Malcolm Turnbull said on AM this morning… 


MALCOLM TURNBULL: Clearly, we’ve got political realities to deal with in the Senate and so we’ve got to-

JOURNALIST: So it is possible you could change? You could change that position?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well If you can’t get something through the Senate, I would say it is highly possible you could change it to something that will get through the Senate 


PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you’re fresh out of cabinet, have you dumped that policy?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia, I’m obviously not going to talk about the discussions had in cabinet, I think Malcolm was correct there as Prime Minister in identifying the fact that there have been political difficulties. Now, Christopher has long acknowledged that, long indicated openness and a willingness to negotiate on the policy, to listen to other ideas and to take proposals for amendments to it. Those offers, of course, still stand, but as a new Minister I’ll be going out and talking to the universities, speaking with industry, speaking with education stakeholders and experts and getting all of their perspectives as well as, of course, all of the crossbench Senators and making sure that I hear those views-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you are starting from scratch on university reforms?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, we have policies and proposals that remain the government’s policies and proposals until such time as the cabinet chooses to vary them, but obviously, once I’ve undertaken proper consultations and discussions, then I’ll go to the cabinet and present an informed perspective from my position and that will then lead to a cabinet decision that I can happily talk to the world about.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Labor announced its own higher education policy today, it’s worth $2.5 billion and includes a $2,500 funding boost per student which they say is 27% more generous than your scheme, what do you make of their scheme that they’ve announced today?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think Labor’s scheme, and I’ll have a closer look at it in coming days when I have a little more time to assess what they’ve had to say, but it does seem in many areas quite scant and short on details. There are discussions in it about trying to increase completion rates and worthy though that sounds, it is important to recognise that the attrition rate has not varied much from 2005 to 2013 which are the latest figures so, we haven’t seen a lot of change there and you need to be very cautious, and I certainly recognised this in the vocational education and training space, very cautious about just putting incentives on the table to increase completions because the outcome of increasing completions, if you structure those incentives the wrong way, is that either universities take students who may not succeed which means they become more discriminatory against students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds or the worst case scenario even is that you see softer marking and a degradation of the standards of the training in education that’s provided. So, I think you need to be very cautious about just coming up with a new incentive type model because that can drive the wrong type of behaviour. I’m also very concerned about reports that seem to suggest that Labor’s proposal is funded by somehow limiting the growth in the number of demand driven places for students at universities. That, of course, is code for saying they are expecting fewer students to go to university in the first place so, there is a lot of detail to try to unpick here and I’m not sure that Labor’s policy has much detail to it, but I’ll take a good look through it and see whether there are any worthy ideas, but there are certainly some areas of concern to start with. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just last Friday, the recommendations of the National Curriculum Review were endorsed by the states and territories. The changes will see some indigenous issues dropped to concentrate more on western and Christian perspectives, how does that sit with your intentions portfolio and Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, you’ll have to forgive the fact that I’ve only been sworn in today and haven’t had a chance to look fully at schools and university matters. Obviously, I was responsible up until today, exclusively for vocational education and training, but I note that reforms to the national curriculum are matters that broadly have been agreed across the states, with the Commonwealth and broadly agreed across party lines given the difference of state and federal governments and really the driving factor there, from what I understand, it has been a desire to unclutter the curriculum, to allow a focus on core and key areas of public policy outcome and particularly core and key areas for students to learn and the manner in which those students learn. Now, in the question you have asked about the place of indigenous heritage and knowledge compared with other issues of history, I would have to say, and take this as a broad response, but I think it is very important that Australian students do have a sound understanding and appreciation of our indigenous heritage and a strong respect for indigenous cultures as they exist in Australia and I would hope and trust that that is an integral part of what we are teaching and learning, but of course, it is also important to recognise the different values and history upon which much of our operation as a democratic society is founded, many of our social morays and institutions are founded and much of that rests upon a lot of history and experience of Christianity and its influence over the evolution of society and those institutions so, let’s recognise there is a place for all of these things in our teaching and, of course, it is a case of then how that is taught in the classroom and how you make sure that students ultimately are getting the type of skills and knowledge that equip them to do well in life.

Simon Birmingham, congratulations again, I imagine you’ll have lots of fun in that cabinet room.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well hopefully we get an awful lot done for the country, that’s the main thing, Patricia. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you, Simon.