Subject: Overseas Debt Recovery Bill; Newspoll


PETER VAN ONSELEN: We’re going to talk now to Simon Birmingham. He joins me live from Canberra. Thanks very much for being there.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day Peter, good to be with you.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now, what is this education legislation that you got through the Parliament late last night?

Last night we passed the Overseas Debt Recovery Bill in relation to the recovery of student loans, HECS or HELP debts from students who may upon graduation or finishing their course, or leaving their course with a student loan, travel and work overseas and this will essentially ensure two things; one is that students or former students will be treated fairly and equitably wherever they live in the world, having to repay their debts to the Commonwealth Government, whether they’re living and working in Australia or living and working overseas…

How much will it help the bottom line?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … the other is of course – look, over the forward estimates it’s about $25 million so it’s a modest amount but we would expect it would grow over time as our tax and data sharing arrangements with other countries gets strengthened and ultimately it’s all about making sure that we have a more sustainable student loan program into the future, the HECS and HELP program is one of the great reforms of the Hawke Government, credit to them, that has stood the test of time through the Howard Government and time since then as well and it’s an important way of providing equitable access to universities and vocational education nowadays as well for the students, but we need to make sure that it’s done sustainably and of course that sustainability requires the maximum number of people to be repaying their loans.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: How important is it to you as the new Education Minister to be able to find a way with whatever sort of branding of reforms that you take forward from here that you still have the HECS version that you had as part of the previous reforms for TAFE? That was always something that looked to me as being both costly but also a great thing to try and find a way to fund, simply because that was always a bit of a hole in the TAFE system as opposed to the university system.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So I think having equitable access and support for students who are pursuing non-university pathways is critical, even with the surge in university uptake in recent years, we still only see about 40 per cent of school leavers going into university, 60 per cent going off into the workforce or some form of vocational education and training. They deserve equal access to support that university students get but we have seen problems with the way the VET FEE-HELP scheme was put in place by the previous Labor Government. It has been rorted by some unscrupulous providers.

The taxpayer has been ripped off and we’re working really hard to try to clean that up and it provides a very salient lesson that whatever you do in expanding that support elsewhere in vocational education or in providing greater access to non-universities to provide support to their students. You have to be really confident that you can guarantee the quality of the training and that people will only be signed up where the intention is for them to undertake genuine credible training or education that leads to ideally a qualification at the end of it.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Don’t you think that 40 per cent of Australians going to university is just too high? I mean, it’s not about trying to keep it an elite domain, it’s more about just trying to be realistic that what we need from a workforce is people with more vocational skills and yes, universities are developing more vocationally orientated courses, there’s no doubt about that, but surely, a rebranding of TAFE and the value of vocation through a non-university education is something that the Government really needs to make a priority.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, Peter, that’s just it. I think providing more equitable access and putting TAFE and vocational pathways on a more equal footing from a government perspective with universities could provide students with greater incentive to consider the relative merits of those courses and we do know that particularly for trade-based apprenticeships, many will go on to have higher salaries, better commencement wages than some university graduates do and we need to get that information better out to students and parents and teachers so they can make more informed decisions about the relative pathways that are available and I think in terms of university choices, we do need to look at how our universities are encouraged and how they react to incentives so that it’s not just about packing more kids into a lecture theatre …
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, on exact …

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …it is about excelling in certain areas and delivering reforms …

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Sorry to interrupt, on exactly that. I mean, I think that’s the issue here is that there’s this sort of standard public service mentality at some universities amongst some vice-chancellors that it’s all about growing, it’s about trying to be in charge of a larger organisation whereas really what a university should be about is making sure that the people that are getting siloed into particular courses or particular learning outcomes are suited to it and that are therefore maximising the quality of those courses. At the moment, my worry, when I look at the university sector, is that they are trying to shovel too many people through particular degrees, the quality of what anyone learning through those degrees is actually being diminished.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah and look, I am happy to see as many people going to university as will get good, high quality jobs at the end of it, as will be able to make good use of the qualifications and the degrees they’ve got. So, the idea of having a demand driven system is great in that sense but it has been operating in a way where huge growth has occurred and there are questions about whether we’re getting the right employment outcomes, whether students are taking on debt that they shouldn’t necessarily have and these are all factors that we have to sensibly look at and considering where the Government goes in future around university reform. I’m very conscious of making sure we structure incentives in a way where both sides of the market, both sides of the supply and demand equation for university’s students and the universities themselves, are behaving rationally and making sensible decisions about whether – how many students should be in a given course, whether a student wants to apply for that course, what the employment outcomes will be.

Christopher Pyne put in place a new framework called QILT – the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching, which provides some improved and enhanced data that will allow parents and teachers and students to sit down and compare the outcomes of university courses. What I’m really keen to see is build that in the future so that there’s really good and credible employment outcome data and salary outcome data that not only would help to make students when choosing to go to university make a more informed choice, but of course will also have universities thinking that their reputation is on the line if they aren’t getting good employment outcomes for their students once they graduate.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, let me ask you about today’s Newspoll – some conservative commentators are concerned that this is simply a result of Malcolm Turnbull and the new Government not making any tough decisions, not being prepared to do anything that might upset certain quarters of sections of the electorate. Your response?

Ah look, I think the Government is tracking relatively well at present based on the reception I get out there. I think Malcolm Turnbull’s optimism is quite infectious around elements of the community, and that is of course feeding through into consumer optimism and business optimism, which is critically important for our economy. But we are absolutely focused on taking difficult decisions for the future. While work is occurring on an innovation statement, we equally are continuing to work around tax reform, which is a discussion that’s taken off in the last couple of weeks. Now that could be a [indistinct] reform…

You mean the suggestion that there could be a GST …

Well that’s one option of tax reform. The GST is one component, or one possibility in any tax reform equation, but tax reform is about of course economic reform, about having a tax system that encourages people to work more, businesses and individuals to invest more, creating that system that allows the economy to grow more, and by the economy growing more of course then that can help out budget deficit problem into the future. So we are having the right conversations I think about how to position Australia for the medium to long term future, to ensure strong economic growth, to get the budget under control, to deal with all those difficult challenges we have. We started the conversation talking about getting debts back from students who go overseas to work. It’s a modest budget measure, but it’s another thing that helps to underpin the long term sustainability of our student loans program, and it’s an important thing that we got through the Senate just last night.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Labor Party used to mount the attacks against Tony Abbott that he was Mr Three Word Slogan, they’re now trying to shift that against Malcolm Turnbull, that he’s a waffler, that he’s hard to shut up, to say the very least. What’s your reaction to that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [Laughs] over what rod? I think the Australian people are finding it incredibly refreshing and pleasing about the fact that we’re a government that’s trying to have sensible adult conversations with people, that we’re willing to explore issues, we’re willing to explain the reasons as to why we will or won’t do certain things. I think this is exactly the type of thoughtful and considered government the Australian people want.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: On that though, there are sections of the conservative wing of your party that believes that this is a honeymoon that won’t last. Are you realistic about it? It’s 53-47 in the two party vote, the primary vote is above even what it was at the 2013 election. Do you seriously think that you can take a tax reform package that may or may not include a GST to the next election without losing an awful lot of skin in the process?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it’s cliché to say polls go up and down, but of course it’s also a cliché that’s quite true. And so we take absolutely nothing for granted, and we will work every single day between now and the election to earn the trust of the Australian people, and once we’ve had a proper analysis and consideration of all the options around tax reform, got the views in from the states, given assessment to how you make sure that lower income families and people on fixed incomes like pensioners are not disadvantaged from any tax reform, then we’ll take the package out to the people, explain it carefully, and of course then we roll with the election.

And election campaigns are always hard fought in Australia, they are nearly always relatively close in percentage terms, so we take nothing for granted, as I say, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got. But importantly, our focus will be completely on the long term future for Australia, and how we make sure we set Australia up for that economic growth, to deal with the type of transformation in the global economy, to ensure our education system in my portfolio is delivering people with the type of skills and abilities to adapt to changing economic circumstances over coming decades.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I know you’ve got a meeting to get to, but just as quickly as you can; do we have a date, or a rough date for when this innovation statement will be released?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it will be released later this year, and this year is fast slipping away, Peter. So no, I don’t have a date that I can give you exclusively, but this year is a relatively finite period now, mate.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Yep, well within the next seven weeks I suppose then, probably less than that. Alright, Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time, thanks for your company.


Senator Birmingham’s media contact: James Murphy 0478 333 974
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