Subject: Newspoll; Higher Education; Radicalisation 


KIERAN GILBERT: We have the new Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, now a member of the Turnbull Cabinet; Minister thanks so much for your time. The point that Phil Hudson made there about the fact that it’s only 50-50, does that reflect that there has been a bit of brand damage done to the Liberal Party?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran look, polls will move particularly within the margin of error up and down a little bit. What I have been really heartened by is the fact that the optimism that Malcolm Turnbull has for the nation and the outlook that he is purveying in a positive way is really quite infectious across the community and I think that is doing wonders for confidence across the business community for investment confidence. Hopefully, that flows in to jobs growth, but really I’m sensing across many Australians the real desire to see the government succeed and us succeed in setting this optimistic vision for Australia and delivering the type of transformation our country needs to succeed in the years ahead.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are you encouraged by the fact that 50% of Coalition voters surveyed support the change, that they say you got it right?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ve been very encouraged by the people who I’ve spoken to over the last few weeks and that includes at many Liberal Party events where they have been very positive, very energised by that sense that the change is delivering a renewed focus from the government on how we deliver things for the future on how we make sure that our tax policies, that our industry and innovation policies are all structured in a way that set Australia up to meet those global challenges we face.

This comparison though between Turnbull 57% preferred PM to Bill Shorten 19%, there is daylight between the two of them, but on the party comparison it is neck and neck, it is quite a discrepancy, why is that?

Look Kieran, that’s one for the analysts to talk about. For us, it is about getting on with the policies of government and really delivering on Malcolm’s vision for Australia and we are already seeing that take shape in terms of the commitment to the development of a real innovation strategy. We’ve seen, of course, the change in policy focus that’s enable the $95 million commitment yesterday to the Gold Coast light rail link, an important demonstration of how we’re going to work to make sure that our cities are as liveable and sustainable as possible. These types of measures are, I think being recognised by people, but of course, they’ll want to see the government get on and deliver in that space and Scott Morrison is working very hard as Treasurer now to make sure that he frames the types of economic statements over the coming few months that help us to get on with that job, but also recognise that we do still have budgetary pressures, we do still have big challenges as a nation that we have to equally confront.

KIERAN GILBERT: One of the things though, and this is in your portfolio area, your responsibility in terms of an innovation agenda, is higher education. To this point you haven’t achieved a lot, the Coalition not you, you’ve been there only a few weeks but the Coalition in terms of its deregulation agenda. I know you’ve given them certainty for next year, but the question I want to ask you is do you accept that there is a flaw, a fundamental flaw in the system where we have a situation of uncapped places for university students but a capped price. That is inevitably going to lead to a reduction in quality isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Universities are like any other institution, business or otherwise. They will respond to the incentives that are on the table and at present the incentive as it is structured is one of uncapped places that they can offer at a fixed price and so that means that the only way in terms of undergraduate degree students at least that they can manage to increase their revenue, is to put more people in to lecture theatres. So, I think we do need to have a look at whether that incentive is working in the right way and in a way that makes sure that we are having universities of excellence because they will face increased global competition. Universities, to be excellent, need to have sustainable funding streams in to the future that encourage them to specialise and pursue research and other opportunities in those fields of excellence and ultimately, of course though, maintaining equity of access and that is a core consideration for me and for the government to make sure that every Australian feels that they have the opportunity to access a university education and that nobody, as is currently the case and was the case under the reforms before the Parliament previously, that nobody faces one dollar in upfront fees to access their university education.

KIERAN GILBERT: Will you take a policy which relates obviously to a deregulation, whether it’s as comprehensive as what Christopher Pyne had suggested or something else, will you take a deregulation agenda or a reform plan to the next election?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So what I’ve said to date is that we will defer the start date on the currently proposed reforms till 2017, giving students and parents and universities certainty for the next year and also giving me and the government greater opportunity to talk to universities and students and parents, to talk to academics, to talk to Senate crossbenchers as well about the nature of the problems we face, how we create the right sustainable funding equation that has the right incentives for excellence and is equitable and then I’ll see what we can achieve in the life of this Parliament. I’m not going to sit around for the next 12 months just talking about reviews-

KIERAN GILBERT: So it might still happen? You could legislate before the next election on this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: If we can get sensible reforms and achieve support for sensible reforms then that is absolutely what I would hope to do and that is indeed the government’s intention, but of course, if there are measures that we can’t get through the Parliament, then we’d always reserve the right to take them to the people at the next election as well. So it is a matter of doing all we can now, going to the people with measures that might require additional support later on. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Have you met with the crossbench already or is that your plan over the next fortnight? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ve been in touch with all of the crossbenchers, but I’m not going to rush things with them. We’ve got this extra time now and so it is important to really go back to first basics, talk about the financial sustainability problems we have, talk about the vision we want for excellence in our universities and then work out the road map for how we achieve that and address those problems and get that vision delivered.

KIERAN GILBERT: And deregulation still will form some part of that obviously, it has to doesn’t it, as we discussed at the start of this conversation there is a fundamental flaw when you’ve got an uncapped part of the system, those going in, but in terms of those…the ability to charge, it is capped it just…that does not stack up-

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don’t want to pre-empt where the conversations will go, but of course, talking about flexibility around fees, around product differentiation for universities and how they can consider where they specialise, how they value add to their courses, how they make sure that what they’re doing is about helping students skill themselves and equip themselves for jobs and careers at the end of it.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well it’s obviously going to be central to what the Coalition is about under the innovation agenda that Mr Turnbull has been talking about. I want to ask you, just before you go, on this other story which is around today that the Prime Minister is going to throw his support behind a campaign for seriously ill children who miss a lot of school, some 60,000 children apparently in that boat, do you know what this campaign is about? Can you fill our viewers in exactly what this is about given the Prime Minister is going to be lending his support to it? Is it greater flexibility for these young kids or what’s the situation there?

Look, it’s something that I want to sit down with the proponents of that campaign and talk through what measures they think they need and, of course, the delivery of those types of measures has to happen at the ground level which is through either the State Government run schools or the Catholic or Independent sector schools and so working out the types of measures they need. We’re very committed to making sure that disability support is there for children in a school environment and making sure that that disability support is tailored where necessary for student’s individual circumstances. The on ground delivery of that is something that we have to work to make sure delivers for those kids, but will happen through the States or those non-government schools.

KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister on Thursday is convening a summit on the issue of radicalisation of young Australians. Given this killer a few weeks ago was 15 years of age and at school, another arrested from that school, as an Education Minister you’ll be wanting obviously to be listening to those security agencies as to exactly what is going on, how that radicalisation can be prevented at the school level.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And Kieran I’ve spoken to the Prime Minister and Justice Minister Michael Keenan and the New South Wales Government about some of these issues since those terrible events. I think firstly, it is important that schools always have to provide a safe learning environment for students, but secondly, we do need to recognise that schools, whilst being aware of external factors that are influencing students, can’t be responsible for all of those factors so, we should make sure that schools empowered and given all the resources possible to be able to identify problems, to help with interventions where necessary, to ensure other students and parents and families and teachers are given the necessary information to help with that identification and intervention, but we cannot think that schools can be the sole solution here and it is why we need to work so closely with the rest of the community, particularly the Islamic community, and why we need to make sure that we’re targeting parents and other external factors as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: The schools are obviously a part of this as well. They need to keep a very close eye on what’s going on as well.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Schools are absolutely a part of it, but I don’t want to have teachers out there feeling like they are expected to be the solution because teachers have many things on their plates at present. They are a key part of it, they have a role to play, but they are not ‘the’ solution and schools are not ‘the’ problem. Schools can be part of the fix and I really hope that we can give them all of the resources they need to do so.

KIERAN GILBERT: What about prayer groups? Have you had any briefing on that as to whether prayer groups at schools might be exacerbating this issue as well?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Again, I think we need to step back from this particular issue and recognise that school principals and school communities are going to be best placed to make decisions about what extra-curricular or external activities are appropriate to take place in their school environment. Many different groups exist across schools right around the country and to simply say we’re going to knock out prayer groups I think would be an overreaction in this space. What is important is that we, again, give those school communities the information to make informed decisions and the power to make decisions that if it is an inappropriate activity for their school, they have the authority to make sure it doesn’t go ahead.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks so much, appreciate it.

A pleasure, Kieran.