Subject: Higher Education Policy


TOM TILLEY: The new Education Minister joins me in the studio, Senator Simon Birmingham congrats on the promo.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day Tom, thanks very much.

TOM TILLEY: Cool. Great to have you on the show for the first time, now have you been brought in to fix the work of ‘the fixer’ himself?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No indeed, ‘the fixer’ Christopher Pyne did a great job in many different ways and it should be recognised that he had very broad support, particularly from the universities with some forty out of forty-one Vice-Chancellors supporting the higher education reforms that Christopher had put forward, but of course, he didn’t manage to secure the numbers in the Senate, but I think Christopher deserves praise for trying to pursue reforms that were very much focussed on how it is we manage to make sure we have a world class education system, a world class university system with sustainable funding in to the future and the challenge for me now is to go and talk to those Vice-Chancellors and to others across the education sector and consider exactly what it is that we need to move forward with and how it is that we do that. We still have the legislation before the Parliament, we still have that policy sitting there, but of course, I need to have a conversation with people about what exactly is in the best interests of the universities and the Australian education system and students in the long term and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

TOM TILLEY: Ok. Are you actually going to listen to them without considering changing the plan to deregulate universities? Because by the time it got to the Senate the second time, Christopher Pyne had stripped off the 20% cut in funding, he’d stripped off the plan to up the interest rates on student debt, it had pretty much come down to whether or not people supported the deregulation of university fees; is that now off the table or at least open to reconsideration?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it’s certainly not off the table, Tom, but I will listen to all good ideas from people, but they must be good ideas that face the reality that universities are going to enter an increasingly competitive global environment where they will be competing, not just with each other for Australian students, but with universities right around the world for Australian students who will have increasing choice thanks to a global digital transformation and new technology platforms about where it is they study and how they study in the future. So they need to be ideas that demonstrate how our universities can modernise, can be world leaders in their fields as well as ideas that demonstrate how it is our universities can be funded in a sustainable way rather than some of the challenges that we’ve faced over recent years with the significant growth in student numbers and, of course, the real drive by universities to get more Bachelor level students in the door because that’s the way they’re guaranteed the best level of funding.

TOM TILLEY: Ok, interesting to hear how you’ll approach those ideas and how you’ll formulate policy because, as we mentioned, Christopher Pyne’s deregulation plan was voted down twice in the Senate and last week you said that there is no point trying to talk about reform, there is no point just talking about reform, there is no point trying to ram it through, you’ve got to build consensus in the community and then the Parliament. Are you insinuating that Christopher Pyne was just trying to ram it through without consultation?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, Tom, as I said before I thought that Christopher did an amazing job getting forty out of forty-one Vice-Chancellors to agree to a reform proposal. It may be that, hypothetically should I be pursuing something different in future, that I struggle to get that same level of support from the university Vice-Chancellors. Hopefully, I can replicate his feat in the university sector and have their support as well as ultimately get the support of the Senate for whatever reforms are proceeded with in future, but I think it is important to recognise that he had that broad support, it didn’t of course translate in to the political support in the Parliament and the Turnbull government will be a government that is, of course, true to our beliefs, but also is pragmatic and actually wants to get things done and so our focus, indeed, will have to be on the reforms that are achievable and attainable in the political environment that we face because we want to do as much as we possibly can, as quick and reasonably as we can to position Australia for a world in which technologies are changing, jobs are changing and therefore the nature of our education system needs to be keeping up with that changing world.

TOM TILLEY: Interesting to hear you talk about the political reality and the fact that you still want to make change relatively quickly because it sounds like there is no chance you’ll get six crossbench Senators to agree with deregulation so, if you want to move quickly, you’re going to have to come up with something else; do you want to make big change before the next election?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Tom, I will talk to those crossbench Senators, I will talk to the Greens, I’ll even talk or listen to the Labor Party if they’re willing to have a sensible conversation-

TOM TILLEY: But the crossbenchers have made their position clear about deregulation…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tom, let’s understand the policy package that was taken forward is much more than just deregulation-

TOM TILLEY: But he stripped it right back to that, he stripped it right back to that when-

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No he didn’t because one of the most important aspects of this that is so often overlooked is that the policy package was also about providing Commonwealth support and greater access to sub Bachelor places, to pathway courses, to Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas-

TOM TILLEY: Sure, but that wasn’t the element that stopped people voting for the reforms, the argument was about deregulation, are you trying to avoid that fact?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, Tom, I’m simply saying that I have to have a conversation with people about more than one element of the reform package because it was a multi-faceted reform package and I think it is very important, if we’re to talk about completion rates and we’re to talk about improving university outcomes, that we have a discussion about whether the current model, which the Labor Party seems to say is essentially the best model, which really drives the incentive for universities to cram as many people in to lecture theatres for Bachelor degree courses as possible, is the best way forward and what Christopher was putting on the table, and the government has as policy, is that we should provide support to universities to offer those lower level qualifications, those pathway qualifications which sometimes will be perfectly adequate for somebody to get the job and career they want, other times will be completely necessary for somebody to get the skills and knowledge required to succeed in a Bachelor degree.

TOM TILLEY: You’re listening to Simon Birmingham who is the new Education Minister and I imagine, Simon Birmingham, this is one of your first grillings in your new role, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!

TOM TILLEY: Great, I wouldn’t want you to be anywhere else either. Isaac has called in from Victoria, you’ve got a comment to make about Vice-Chancellors supporting deregulation.

CALLER ISAAC: I did, but I’ve kind of reconsidered my position on that while I’ve been listening. I generally sit on the left side of politics and I did an exchange over in the Netherlands where I spent a year over there and I got familiar with their university system works and they basically let anybody in to any course for the first year, but the first year is very difficult and about two-thirds or maybe three-quarters of the students then drop out, but they all pay for that first chance to get in and considering that all those dropping out, they actually pay for the one-quarter or the one-third that make it through and that one-third or the one-quarter benefit a lot because they’ve put a lot of work in and they get really high quality students coming out of that because they’ve had to, I guess, go through the rigours of making it through that first year. I’d just like to put it to the Education Minister that that might be an option to consider.

TOM TILLEY: What do you think of that, Simon Birmingham?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’s an interesting option. It’s one that I’m happy to go away and get a bit more information on, of course, we have to deal with the budget problems we face too, it’s not a never ending bucket of money that can be thrown at any issue across government and that includes university education so, whilst it might be nice to say we could provide an opportunity for every student to start out at university, I think there is an appropriateness to say that there has got to be some gateway check on the way in as to whether it is right for the student, whether they are ready and up for it and that’s why I was talking before about the importance of those pathway and lower level qualifications because as we’ve seen entrance scores decline over time, the real answer to that, if people are worried about the calibre and quality of students entering degrees, is to provide alternatives to them. Now, there are alternatives in vocational education and training that exist, but if somebody is really wanting to pursue a university qualification, then perhaps they need support to do that type of bridging level course first and foremost.    

TOM TILLEY: On the text line “universities only exist because of the students” – Mal. Someone else says “support form Vice-Chancellors? My uni hated Pyne-O-Clean” interesting nickname there. Someone else says “no shit the unis were behind deregulation, they’re the beneficiaries”. Someone says “go Tom, grill him like a hamburger”. Someone else says “Minister did you pay for university?” – Josh from Newcastle. What’s the answer to that question, Simon?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I went through under the HECs system, just the same as, of course, the reforms proposed any future student would go through under the HECs system. So, not a cent of upfront funding would be required from any student under the reform proposals that Christopher Pyne presented and I can absolutely give a rock solid commitment that the government won’t be considering proposals that would remove that opportunity that Australian students have and enjoy to attend university without paying one dollar in upfront fees.

TOM TILLEY: Last question, Christopher Pyne said our universities would slide in to mediocrity without his reforms. Now, those reforms haven’t happened, so are we sliding into mediocrity as we speak?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think we have real challenges that we have to face for the university sector. The sustainability of funding, the dealing with increasing global competition that I spoke about before are real challenges and we’ve got to face-

TOM TILLEY: [inaudible] in the Shanghai rankings we’ve moved forward over the last ten years, so it seems like a far cry from sliding in to mediocrity.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are different rankings, so I’ve discovered, it is a bit like lies, damned lies and statistics it seems some of the different ranking approaches that are taken, but I want to make sure that our universities are, as much as possible, recognised as being global leaders and I want to make sure our policy settings get us there and I think one of the real objectives that we have as a government, under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, is to be clear about where it is we’re going, what it is we want to achieve and yes, then you have to think about the policy steps to get you there, but first and foremost you have to know you want world class universities, fair access for Australian students, sustainable growth programmes-

TOM TILLEY: We’ve got both of those don’t we?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And let’s make sure, let’s make sure that that is what we have well in to the future as well.

TOM TILLY: Alright. Simon Birmingham, it is going to be great to speak to you along that journey as you learn more from the sector about what people want and come up with a policy solution that will move us beyond the impasse that we’ve been witnessing since last year’s budget; great to have you on the show.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Tom. Thanks so much, mate.