Subject: (Free trade agreement with China and the effect on education and training; Marriage equality)


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let’s get to the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. He joins us live out of Canberra. We won’t ask you about Donald Trump, you’ll be grateful to know, but I do want to ask you as a first up question- the free trade agreement with China, is there anything in that in relation to exchange of university students and that whole issue? It is a massive export industry for us, anything in the free trade deal on that? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day Peter and Christina. Look, as I understand it, each of the free trade agreements negotiated to date with South Korea, with Japan and with China do have important provisions in there for services and of course education is one of our most important service export earners. It’s our largest service export earner in fact, it’s our 3rd largest export earner in totality and it’s really important that we actually are providing opportunities in two directions, one for international students to come and study in Australia and we’ve developed further frameworks and are developing a coordinated national strategy for that as a government to enhance that, but also for training providers of Australian origin and ownership to set up more overseas and provide and deliver training services within our region, especially centred around Australian qualifications. Each of the agreements helps provide a greater clarity of access and opportunity, as I understand it, for our training industry, for our education industry to really grow that huge international export industry that we have.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now Senator, it’s great that we’ve got the ability to grow, and it is a growth area for us, it’s an important one and despite a lot of talking down of Australian universities, globally by our rankings we’re actually pretty good particularly for our region, but how do you maintain standards? I’ve often talked about this and written about it. I worry that the fiscal push for foreign students is reducing the quality of the foreign student intake, the standards around English for example, how do you ensure that the fiscal crunch which your government is putting on universities, let’s face it in terms of their funding, doesn’t result in lowering of standards?  

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, it is absolutely essential that we sure the regulators, both of universities and of the vocational education and training sector, are applying robust standards. Now I have confidence that overwhelmingly our universities and our VET providers are doing the right thing and are providing high quality educational experiences and training experiences to both domestic and international students, but we do have to make sure those regulators continue to do a good job in that space, in the VET sector we’ve strengthened a number of the regulations. It’s important to know that there are many thousands of international students studying vocational education and training as well as going to university. So, we’ve strengthened the standards there to make sure that ASQA is well equipped to be able to deliver high quality training, ensure those standards are met whomever the provider, be it a public provider or a private provider around Australia. The same approach in universities, we have of course a better established or longer established regulator in TEQSA there, they equally need to make sure that the universities are sticking by the book in terms of the quality standards that apply, I’m confident they do and of course, in the end, it is to the incentive of universities and training providers to make sure they’re providing high quality training because otherwise the jeopardise the very market that they’re reliant on. So, we have great support from the sector as well in wanting to make sure we keep those standards high. 

CHRISTINA KENEALLY: Minister, regulation is one part of it, but we saw yesterday a report that said up to five million jobs could be lost in Australia over the next 10-15 years due to technology changes and indeed the head of SEDA, Steven Martin, came out and said that “governments must lead the way with clear and detailed education, innovation and technology policies that are funded adequately” are we prepared to meet this challenge?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think so, Christina. We’ve been laying out a variety of strategies and policies as a government ahead of that SEDA report. The increased focus on STEM subjects, the p-tech model for schools that we’re trialling is important about ensuring at the school sector, from the training of teachers right through, that you’re putting greater emphasis on those STEM subjects that equip for new technology jobs as such, in the vocational education and training sector we are changing the way training packages are managed and modified and developed to make sure that industry is in charge of setting the parameters for what needs to be in a training package and what type of qualifications there are because industry and employers are best placed to know what skills they need in their workforce today and in to the future and to help predict and ensure we are developing the type of qualifications and training content relevant to those new jobs. So, we’re very focused on making sure that all aspects of the education and training sector, universities, schools, VET, that they are all geared towards providing skills that are relevant to emerging jobs, whatever they may be and that the system is built in a responsive way so that employers and industry are helping to identify what is required for the future jobs that are there.

CHRISTINA KENEALLY: But Minister, what about the funding challenge? Because right now, as it stands, there are still billions of dollars being ripped out of the federal budget, ripped out of state budgets, and they’re going to have to find ways to make up that funding shortfall. So don’t we continue to have a funding challenge in our education system?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Christina, in my part of the portfolio, in the VET sector, we are providing around $6 billion dollars per annum support to vocational education and training. In schools, funding keeps going up year on year and its gone up quite significantly and in many cases…

CHRISTINA KENEALLY: …So those states that are complaining that they’ve lost funding, they’re just not being fair to the federal government? 
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s not true. States have not lost funding for schools; school funding has gone up quite significantly…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: …but they’ve lost funding, Minister, on what they expected to get via the increases going forward. I mean, you factor in population growth and cost of living increases and all the rest of yet, yes, it’s going up, I accept that as it is in other areas you’re being accused of cutting. So you’re not cutting, but you are cutting the size of the increase which they were reliant on. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well the increases that were beyond the budget forward estimates at the time we were elected that Labor had promised will not be delivered in full. There’ll still be increases, but all of the increases that were within the budget estimates are being delivered upon. We want to make sure that we’re actually not just talking about dollars, we’re talking about quality, which is why the reforms to teacher quality and to the national curriculum are also important because it’s not just about throwing money at this problem. We’ve been spending, as a nation, ever increasing sums on education over the last few decades only to see our comparative level of literacy and numeracy slip backwards in many ways. So, we need to focus on things more than just money, and focus actually on teacher quality, curriculum standards, parental involvement and engagement…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: …and I wish you, Minister, with that…sorry to jump in, but I wish you all the absolute best with that because I live and dream of the day that I’ll get essays from students that can string a sentence together when they arrive at first year university to mark because I lose the will to live reading the rest of them. Alright, I want to ask you about a completely separate subject, you’ve been quite forthright on this and power to you. On the issue of gay marriage, you were a strong supporter of it well before we saw the cascade of followers come along thereafter, more so on the Labor side but also on your side as well. Here’s my question, do you believe that we will get a Liberal Party to finally make an internal decision before the end of this year on whether or not to allow a conscience vote? Do you really believe that will happen?


PETER VAN ONSELEN: and you’re confident about that? I hope you’re right, but you’re confident about that? Because I get the impression that the conservatives, we won’t name names, but conservatives like Cory Bernardi are trying to stop that from happening, they don’t want that vote.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I believe the discussion will happen before the years out. I’m confident that will be the case, the party room is the right place for us all to have that discussion and that’s where I’ll be making my contribution. 

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now what will you do if it doesn’t happen? I mean if we start to tick in to November, we’re getting towards the end of the parliamentary year, will there be action from some of the moderates, if I could put it that way, within the party room to ensure that this discussion doesn’t get thrown of the table till next year where it may never get back on the table ahead of an election, leaving you bound to the same position as a party as you have now without the discussion?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m confident it will happen, Peter, and I’m confident that it will be raised and as the Prime Minister promised before the last election, we will have the party room discussion, I’m confident that will occur…

CHRISTINA KENEALLY: …what will the trigger for that discussion be? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think again, as the PM outlined in previous sitting weeks when he was responding to the opportunistic run of Bill Shorten on this topic, the PM said this is an issue that needs to be owned by the parliament. Now, I understand various colleagues across the aisle are talking to each other, that’s the type of approach that will see a proposal that is owned by the parliament and ultimately a proposal that is rightly discussed in our party room, presumable in the Labor caucus and with other crossbenchers and independents and minor parties.

CHRISTINA KENEALLY: Thank you so much for coming on the program…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Thanks, Senator.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, guys.