Patricia Karvelas: School is back, Parliament has returned, and education policy is squarely in focus. The major parties have major differences in the areas of schools funding now, with the Gonski announcement by Labor, child care, and also TAFE, and at most six months until an election campaign. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. Welcome back to the program and happy New Year.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia and happy New Year to you. It’s great to be back.

Patricia Karvelas: I imagine you’re a Kate Bush fan.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, of course.

Patricia Karvelas: Of course you are.

Simon Birmingham: Naturally. Sorry that I missed the interview before though, that’s foolish on my part.

Patricia Karvelas: You might burst into song at any moment, but let’s get into the meaty issues.

Simon Birmingham: I think the previous Education Minister was more likely to do that.

Patricia Karvelas: I think that is very true, and that of course is Christopher Pyne. Everyone would get that reference. Firstly, some good news for you: modelling from Goodstart Early Learning shows your child care package, if you get it legislated of course, will bring $3 billion economic benefit by 2020. But there are still concerns about disadvantaged families. Are you willing to address those concerns? Because I know there are Senators – there’s an inquiry at the moment – who are very concerned about those impacts on those disadvantaged families.

Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, we think that this is a very robust package as it currently stands; that it is effectively recalibrating our child care support system so that it supports those parents and families who are working the longest hours or who are earning the least amount of money in the most generous way possible. So it really drives the system where it is most responsive to the hours that parents need in terms of child care, and to making sure that for those that are on lower incomes, they get the greatest support – up to 85 per cent off their child care fees paid back for them to help them participate in the workforce. But there is also a really strong safety net aspect that is built in there already. There’s a guarantee that for low income families, even if they don’t meet the activity test, which is only four hours a week of working, that those families can access 12 hours a week of child care, of early learning opportunities.

Patricia Karvelas: But the current scheme gives them 24 hours a week. So it is a reduction, and it will affect children because the people who benefit from this are children.

Simon Birmingham: Well we are making sure that there is a minimum benchmark there for children in those instances, and that is in addition to the guaranteed 15 hours of universal preschool access that is there for four year old children in the year before they start school right around the country. And this is indeed a case of trying to get the balance right to make sure that there is sound opportunities for early learning, for young children, but also that our child care system is supporting families who need the child care to access the workforce. The reforms will cost around $3 billion extra, so it is a very generous package in that sense. But I think we do have a system where most people would think, under the reforms we’re proposing, that it is not unreasonable to expect four hours of participation in the workforce, studying or volunteering to access more time.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talking over] But there is a Senate inquiry into this. There are pretty significant groups that provide these services; that analyse this system who say that this is a problem. Are you prepared to negotiate on this activity test, given so many groups now are saying- really, they’re all agreeing that it’s not fair? Do you plan to negotiate on that activity test?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m always willing to look at evidence and talk to people, but you do need to appreciate that if you change the activity test and weaken the activity test then the type of benefits that the Goodstart Early Learning research demonstrated today would likely be weakened. So the additional 29,000 people in full-time roles, the additional $3 billion of economic activity – all of those returns would be weakened if you changed the activity test, because you would be changing the incentive that is there for people to be in the workforce, or studying, or volunteering. 

What I do want to have a look at, Patricia, though is making sure that the activity test – which is only four hours for entry – is also really encouraging people and parents, especially in the volunteering space, to be engaging in the learning of their children, to be engaging in the child care environment, or if they have older children in the school environment. And they’re things in the volunteering space that I’m eager to look at, because that is how we can not only make sure that we get people out of the home and engaging, but of course more engaged as parents in the learning of their children.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, I want to move onto another topic. On schools funding, there was some confusion earlier this week when you said the Government’s funding estimates to 2018 onwards were indicative only, and then Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said no, the funding is worked out based on CPI plus enrolment growth, and if you want more money, you’ll have to find your own savings. So were you mistaken?

Simon Birmingham: No Patricia, what the indicative reference refers to are some of the published information about how the future budget projections might be carved up between the states, territories, and non-government sector. What I’ve been clear about, and Christopher Pyne before me has been clear about, is that we will talk to the states, the territories, the non-government schooling sector about how it is that school funding from 2018 onwards can be delivered in a way that best meets the needs of children and the needs of schools…

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] But are you heading into an election with no education funding plan beyond 2018? Is your promise going to be just that you will negotiate something after the election? What will you take to the election?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no Patricia, it will be clear at the election, I’m confident, in terms of the approach and the principles that the Coalition will be taking, and those principles will be seeking to make sure that we have funding that is needs-based, that really focuses on the areas of greatest need, that supports every student where they really do need it right around the country, that drives quality and excellence in terms of student outcomes, but that is also sustainable for the budget. And that is an important differentiator between where the Coalition is and where the Labor Party is, that they have promised enormous sums of extra spending…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talking over] Look, I accept…

Simon Birmingham: The credibility behind the savings that they say are there for that really doesn’t stack up.

Patricia Karvelas: I accept your criticism of the Labor Party is your criticism, but I’m interested in what you might do. I want to ask though on TAFE, if I can. I know you have a draft…

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Can I also just make the point, Patricia, because it is important, that we have record funding levels in schools right now, and that any future indexation formula is built on the back of that existing record funding.

Patricia Karvelas: You have a draft plan to take over the funding of TAFE from the states. They’d be deregulated and funded at the same level as private training colleges, but there are doubts about your ability to do this given recent problems that have been really unveiled in the vocational education sector. Here’s the NSW Skills Minister.

John Barilaro: I have little confidence that they could run a national vocational education and training sector that actually meets the needs of students and industries, and delivers it in a way that makes sure that it’s driven on quality, not price.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s coming from a Coalition MP in NSW. Would you be asking TAFEs to put profits ahead of teaching quality?

Simon Birmingham: Certainly not. Firstly, we have no intention of taking over the running of TAFEs. TAFEs are run by state governments and it is my expectation that as long as the states wish to do that, they will continue to do so. Secondly though, I think it’s important that people understand we already have a national qualifications framework, and national regulation around how training organisations work. 

So we have largely a very national model. The only area in which it is not consistent across the country comes to really how students are practically supported in accessing vocational education. And here I think we have a great, great discrepancy, in that when you’re finishing school and thinking about your pathways, there’s a very clear and consistent pathway into university that many- most teachers and families understand in terms of how you access it, how students are supported, that there is Commonwealth grants that support students and generous student loans that are available to them. But in relation to vocational education and training, the systems differ dramatically from state to state, the support for students differs dramatically from state to state, and often within states it seems to be subject to constant changes. 

So the discussion that has been underway as part of the federation reform agenda is could we have a more cohesive and coordinated approach to how it is that we support students, and I think then importantly really elevating the status of vocational education til it is set alongside the university sector. Now, that outcome is far from predetermined; it is subject to continued discussions between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, and the paper that was released or leaked out this week is just a discussion paper between Government departments. But it is at least trying to explore options for how we might manage to structure a system that could really make vocational education something that I think is more highly regarded and respected right around the country.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, many thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: And that’s Senator Simon Birmingham; he’s the Federal Education Minister. 

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:                  James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                   Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media: