Subject: Higher Education Reforms; Submarines; School Funding; Teacher Quality


GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Great to be with you, Richo.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Now, you’ve had one hell of a promotion, I mean, I don’t think ten days ago you would have been sitting there dreaming that you’d be the Minister for Education today.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s true and I must say it was quite a surprise on the weekend to get the phone call from Malcolm Turnbull and be invited in to the cabinet. I frankly didn’t think there’d be room for little old me, but I’m honoured, flattered and have a big task ahead of me.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Now obviously, you had a role to play. I’m told most of the South Australians were voting for Malcolm Turnbull and you had a bit to do with that, would that be a fair comment?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think all of my colleagues came to their own conclusions and decisions, I spoke to some of them, that’s being entirely frank and honest with you but, ultimately they made the decision, as did I, that Malcolm was the best option for the nation, the best option for the party and in particular for South Australia because in this state, where unemployment is the highest in the nation, where the loss of old jobs in old manufacturing type industries is really the worst in the nation, we need that sense of vision and perspective that Malcolm has about how Australia adapts to some of those global challenges of dislocation of old jobs, impact of new technologies and how we build new growth sectors like advanced manufacturing in the future.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Well you are going to be pretty reliant on getting the right decision on submarines though, aren’t you? Just in terms of confidence in South Australia, to make sure people can see a reason for it being there, people can see that there is a future, it is a pretty important decision, isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, the submarine decision is an important decision and it will impact on confidence in SA. Now, confidence got a lift out of the decision to have a continuous shipbuilding strategy that Tony Abbott took, it could get a further lift with the right decision on submarines. I’m hopeful and optimistic, but we have to go through the right process to get the best submarine for our Navy, first and foremost, to get value for money for the taxpayer and yes, to maximise Australian industry involvement. I think on that third point of maximising Australian industry involvement, the issues I was talking about before of Malcolm Turnbull’s desire to build sectors like advanced manufacturing will, of course, play in to his thinking I’m sure when it comes to submarines because it is not just about building submarines, it is about what you can leverage off of that submarine work to support and sustain other industries, other export activities in to the future.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Yeah, there is a whole range of inputs in to a submarine and obviously you’ll focus on those. Will it be enough to compensate for the loss of the car industry?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think we could see a much bigger impact in terms of defence industries in South Australia in to the future than we actually have at present in the car industry. The car industry has been fading, of course, for a long time. Mitsubishi shut up shop in SA a number of years ago now, Holden has been decreasing its workforce so, there is of course a real potential out of the continuous shipbuilding strategy, out of the sustainment of a new fleet of submarines that this government will deliver. All of that creates extra work, but it is really that value adding and Christopher Pyne’s new role as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science will be really critical to making sure that Australia, in particular South Australia, does get that value adding from major projects like shipbuilding in the future.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: There will indeed. Now, let’s turn to education, your new job. I note, interestingly, that you’ve said that you’re prepared to compromise on higher education, what exactly does that mean? What is the bottom line? What will you rule out on compromising and what will you rule in?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well you’re an old hand at this, Richo. I’m not going to, in the second or third day in the job, simply set out the negotiating strategy right now. My approach is going to be to talk to the Vice-Chancellors, talk to the universities, speak to business and industry, speak as widely as I possibly can to get the perspectives of others about the priorities in higher education, about their views on the reform package and, of course, engage with the Senate crossbenchers as well and hear their perspectives on it and then I’ll take something to cabinet that we can have a talk about based on all of that intelligence and information, but right now I’m not going to play the rule in rule out game of where we go on higher education. I think it is important that we, first and foremost, have a look at what some of the issues we’re trying to address are and there are clear issues in terms of the sustainability of university funding that we’ve got to front up to and then there are challenges and pressures on our universities coming from increased global competition. Australian students will, in the future, increasingly be able to study through any university around the world and we need to make sure that our universities are the best they can be, not just to continue to secure international students, but to be the universities of choice for domestic students too.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Innocently enough though, you did not mention the one area I think Christopher Pyne failed in and that is you didn’t take the public with you. You didn’t take all the students and their Mums and Dads and their brothers and sisters; you didn’t take them with you. You might have got the Vice-Chancellors and that’s good, but it is not enough. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And look, I think that’s a fair point, Richo, that to get the support in the Senate to be able to legislate you’ve got to be able to carry a decent level of public support as well. That is clear by the way the crossbenchers have spoken to date and I’m conscious of that and that’s probably why you will see me trying to, over the coming weeks, talk more about the problems and the issues we’re trying address and where it is we want universities to be in future because we need people to understand, not just what the reform is, but the reasons for the reform and that’s really the case that we’ve got to start and build in a much stronger way in the future.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Yeah, see whether Labor is right or wrong, the $100,000 degree line really rang bells out there in the real world and I remember last year when I had a few days in hospital I had nurses coming up to me all the time saying how worried they were about whether or not they’d be able to afford their courses; I mean it really did scare the horses, didn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, it was an effective scare campaign. It might have been misleading, but absolutely, you even had Bill Shorten out there suggesting that people would somehow be having to pay upfront, which of course, is a complete falsehood and the one guarantee I can certainly give is that we will maintain the HECS style system where access for students is guaranteed without them having to pay a dollar upfront because that’s really important to ensure equitable access to universities for students right around Australia, regardless of their financial situation so, that stays. That stayed under Christopher Pyne’s reforms, it stays under the reforms that the government has before the Parliament at present and it will stay in the future. It is a matter of how, beyond that, we structure funding arrangements and student loan arrangements so that universities have sustainable funding for the long haul.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: If we move away from higher education and get down in to our younger kids, our performance in maths and science is really poor by international standards, very poor by Asian standards and so, if you’re trying to attract people from overseas, don’t we have to lift that game very considerably?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We do and we have to be honest as a nation that we’ve tipped a lot of extra funding over the last decade in to education and in to our schools in particular and in that time we’ve seen our global achievement in terms of science and maths slip and diminish and that’s not good enough and it is a demonstration of why the government has been right to date to put much more emphasis on how we lift the quality of teachers and teacher standards in the future, how we lift the autonomy of schools and give them the capacity to innovate and making sure we get the curriculum right which, of course, is so critical so yes, funding is important and I will talk to the State Ministers sensibly about funding agreements beyond 2017 and how they’re structured, but we’ve got to talk about much more than funding if we are to ensure that kids are learning to read and write, learning maths and science and getting all of those basics right and that Australia is not slipping behind the rest of the world in that regard.

Look, I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area because I’m certainly not, but this is a matter of logic. It seems to me that a lot of the extra money that we’ve spent in the last 10-20 or whatever has been to make sure we get smaller and smaller classes and we’ve got the smaller and smaller classes, but we haven’t got the results. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think you point to a good issue there, Richo and it is one that I want to hear what the State Ministers have got to say, I know the unions pushed damned hard to get smaller and smaller classes, but if it is not delivering us the best student outcomes and not getting us better results in science and maths, then we need to have a look at how best to do so because right now what the international data is telling us, is that we have fewer students performing at the absolute top levels in terms of student outcomes and more students performing at the lower levels in terms of student outcomes for science and maths and that obviously demonstrates a failure in terms of how increased funding over the last decade has been used.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Well now, I now that when I started school we had 56 in my class, 56! We seemed to manage; we didn’t come out without an education.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Indeed and look, while my class sizes weren’t that large, I started out at a fairly small school and recall being in a mixed year level class where a single teacher was teaching year fives and year sixes at the same time and ultimately, most of those kids got a good quality education and, of course, most children in Australia do, it is just that relative to where we are in the rest of the world and relative to where Australia has been in the past we’ve been slipping. It is not just a case that we’re slipping in global rankings, we have been slipping in absolute standards as well and that is something that we’ve really got to be worried about and really make sure we do turn around.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Alright last question, when we talk about teacher training it seems to me that one of the problems here, and I don’t know how you rectify this, is that teacher salaries are simply too low to attract the best and if you look at the past at what you’ve got to get in the HSC or whatever its equivalent is around Australia to get in to teachers colleges, they tend to be pretty low; you’re not getting those top students. Don’t we need to get some of the top students to stop wanting to be lawyers and accountants and all the rest of it and come over and do a real job for the future of Australia? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think we do need to have a look at the status of the profession. My Grandmother was a school teacher and back at the time when she started out, which was before World War II, I think you could say that teachers sat there alongside the professions of lawyers and accountants in terms of people thinking of them as the respected individuals in whom our future was trusted and it was something that students definitely did aspire to be. Now, we get some great people who go in to teaching for all the right reasons and are there to give their heart and soul to it, but it is clear that we need to get more high achievers in to our schools and that is something that I want to talk to the State Ministers again about as to how we elevate that status of teaching, of course, the conditions that teachers have, some of the leave arrangements and otherwise when you package it up do make for quite attractive conditions in many places and cases, but we do need to make sure that students, as they’re leaving school, thinking about where they’re going, are thinking of teaching as an attractive profession and one in which they can see a long term career path or opportunity for themselves. 

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Yeah and we haven’t got that yet, but I mean I don’t want this to go too long but, I guess one last question and that concerns the Gonski reforms. Now, you’re not funding the last part of that, what does that mean do you think? What are we missing out on because you’re not funding the last part of Gonski?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well firstly, we’ve seen huge increases in real funding to the schools during the course of the four years of Gonski increases that have been funded by this government and that is going to see a dramatic lift in terms of money that is available, but we were just having the discussion before that money is not necessarily the problem because money has been increasing for quite some period of time. We will, in 2017, have to negotiate new arrangements with the States and Territories in terms of the forward funding profile for schools and that is something that I’ll sit down and do and look at how we can build on the needs based approach that already applies. It is important for people to understand out there that money isn’t just determined on the basis of giving it to the States and that’s the end of it. We do actually have many needs based criteria in the existing funding formula and, of course, looking at any ways we can improve that in to the future is something that I will do, but there is not a bottomless bucket of money there and there is particularly not going to be a bottomless bucket of money if we’re spending it and yet not seeing improvements in student outcomes so, that’s what we’ve got to be having a look at, what is working and how do we invest more in the things that are working to make them pay off in the future.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Yeah perhaps it’s just not the global amount, perhaps it’s the way we spend it. I think there is a lot of truth in that and I wish you well! A new job, a big job and no doubt we’ll check in with you again in a few months and see how you’re doing.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you very much, Richo.