Interview with Ashleigh Gillon on Sky News PM Agenda

Topics: Higher education reform, same-sex marriage



Ashleigh Gillon:           Welcome back. Well, today we’ve seen the release of a Senate report into the Government’s higher education legislation. Joining us now is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham.


Senator, thank you for your time. This Coalition-chaired inquiry recommended the Senate pass your planned cuts to universities, but as you know, a Senate inquiry is one thing, the reality of the Senate is quite another. With the Labor Party and the Greens very critical of these changes, are you confident you will be able to get the support of the crossbench to actually pass this legislation? It looks like right now you’re struggling to get the numbers.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Ashleigh, there’s a way to go and as a Government we’ve demonstrated that we can work successfully with the Senate, even just this week with securing further industrial relations reforms to give greater integrity around the operation of unions and stop corrupt dealings from taking place, and many others including our schools funding reforms and childcare reforms that have been critical parts of my portfolio. We will work very hard to get the support of the Senate, because really it’s only through a Coalition Government that higher education funding and support in the future can be put on a sustainable footing.


We know in the past that, when the Labor Party introduced the demand-driven system to higher education funding, they never had any plans as to how to pay for it. That’s why, just before the last election- sorry, the 2013 election, they proposed some $6 billion worth of cuts, they proposed efficiency dividends, many of the measures that they’ve since walked away from. Measures, some of them – like application of a modest efficiency dividend – that we now propose and yet the Labor Party, having advocated for it previously, stand in the way of things that can actually make our higher education system financially sustainable, as well as other measures that can ensure we get a better outcome for students in terms of the relevance to jobs, a focus on the quality of delivery; the types of things that are very critical in terms of guaranteeing we get good value for money for taxpayers, but ultimately set students and our economy up for success in the future.


Ashleigh Gillon:           You mentioned the word sustainable there a couple of times; that’s often a code word for cuts and we are seeing a significant amount of funding being cut here – some $2.8 billion. The dissenting report by the Greens and Labor members of this panel claim that your changes is going to disproportionately impact regional universities, which can have more teaching intensive campuses, could cost jobs in those places, and even see some of those campuses close. What sort of safeguards are in place to prevent that sort of outcome?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’re not seeing cuts in terms of what universities will receive. There is a slightly slower rate of growth in funding over the next few years than would otherwise be the case. Universities will still see, over the next four years in total, growth of around 23 per cent in funding for teaching and learning. Now, that’s a growth rate that many businesses would love to have such confidence in as the university sector would enjoy. So there is absolute capacity there for universities who have, nowadays, record numbers of students enrolled in them, have seen strong growth in their funding over recent years, at more than twice the rate of the economy in terms of growth in many circumstances, to be able to find some efficiencies to deal with a slightly lower rate of growth for a couple of years while efficiency dividends are applied, but ultimately, still seeing them in a very financially sustainable position, still receiving, on per student terms, funding higher in real terms than in several of the last few years. So we actually have a model that we’re putting forward that yes, gets financial sustainability, but really does not jeopardise or threaten the operation of our successful universities.


Ashleigh Gillon:           So you can guarantee that no campuses will be forced to close as a result of your proposal?


Simon Birmingham:     As a result of our proposals there is absolutely no need for such things to occur. As I say, there’s continued growth in funding to universities, purely a slightly lower rate.


Ashleigh Gillon:           You are also lowering the HELP repayment threshold to $42,000, meaning students will start paying back their loans sooner. Is it really fair to impose those sorts of changes retrospectively to students who are already in the system or have already graduated?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we think that this is a fair way of guaranteeing that the student loan scheme – which is one of the most generous in the world, one of the most generous in the world – is something that can be continued well into the future, thereby guaranteeing that no student has to face any upfront fees. Now, across the ditch in New Zealand, students start to repay their student loans at around $19,000. We’re proposing to lower it to something that is more than double that and we’re implementing a new repayment rate, a new repayment rate of just one per cent. So it is a very low level of repayment that students will face and it’s affordable in that sense, but more importantly, it guarantees that future generations can still access a student loan scheme that guarantees people go to uni without facing an upfront fee and it ensures a sustainability for that scheme, which is otherwise threatened by increasing default rates in terms of debt that is not repaid to the taxpayer; some billions and billions of dollars of debt.


Ashleigh Gillon:           You are, though, moving the goalposts on people who have already graduated who may have already had a plan going forward as to how they’re going to cope with those financial repayments.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’re putting in place something that is a much steadier trajectory of repayments as well. At present, there are quite lumpy parts of people crossing a threshold and finding adjustments that, if we look at the data, sees salary bands actually clustering at certain points and by actually having a steady, smooth repayment threshold increase that, yes, sees at some points a slightly lower rate where people start, but also a lower rate of repayment where people start, it will become a much fairer system that should have less an impact in terms of wage progression or salary clustering.


Ashleigh Gillon:           One change that’s been quite controversial is the move to get students to pay for enabling courses used by people to really prepare for university before actually signing up for a full degree. This sort of course, I understand, has been free up to this point, but now it’s going to come with a charge of several thousand dollars. Labor’s describing these types of courses as a pathway out of poverty. How can you be sure that charging for these courses won’t turn off those in lower socioeconomic circumstances from actually pursuing a higher education?


Simon Birmingham:     Well firstly, where fees apply for any such courses, students will still be able to access the same Higher Education Loans Program as anybody else at university, so again, there won’t be any upfront fees and Labor should be ashamed of the scare campaign that they’re waging in that regard.


Secondly, the types of reforms we’re applying there are to try to get more success in terms of completion and paths through into university from those courses. So, by changing the model, undertaking a tender-driven approach for the availability of enabling places, we think that will give us a greater capacity to ensure that they are provided by higher education institutions who are really focused on student success, who have a strong track record of giving the type of assistance to students who are not university ready at the start of an enabling course, to ensure that they are university ready at the end and that they have that assistance to transition through into university.


Ashleigh Gillon:           Minister, I’m keen for you to tell us more about your plan to divert, I think it’s 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth funding, which is about $500 million, into a contestable, performance based revenue stream. How are you going to measure that performance and when will the universities actually get access to that funding?


Simon Birmingham:     So, let’s understand the context in which Australian universities operate. They now enjoy the freedom to be able to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines and degrees that they want, and they get guaranteed levels of taxpayer funding on a per student basis for all of those students they receive. To apply some accountability to all of that freedom and autonomy to ensure that they are making sensible admissions and enrolment decisions, appropriately supporting students through their degree, and ultimately, delivering students the best prospects and employment outcomes at the end, we’re proposing there should be some performance funding.


Now, that performance funding will be guaranteed to flow in to the university sector, first and foremost. So, none of it will come back to the Budget bottom line; all of it is guaranteed for universities. We’ve indicated that we want to work with the universities around the establishment of effective performance metrics. So, first and foremost, all we’re asking the universities to do next year will be to implement some of the changes to admissions practices that they have already committed to do themselves. So it’s a pretty low benchmark we’re setting to start with, while we then work with universities about how you might build such a performance metric in the future to really optimise the incentive for universities to focus on student progression, student success, student employment.


Ashleigh Gillon:           So just to get this right, though, you’re saying that you haven’t yet fully established how you’re going to spend this 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth funding. I mean, the Opposition is saying this is a slush fund. The universities are very confused about what they actually need to do to get their share. They’re saying that this is making it very hard for them to plan their budgets, that they have no idea how much they’re going to get of it.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I just told you how it will work for next year, and that is that universities – who have all made commitments to implement certain reforms to admissions practices to make them more transparent around the type of tertiary entrance scores or ranks that students need to achieve and those types of measures – that next year, all they’ll need to do to get their share of the performance funding will be to successfully undertake and implement that which they’ve promised to do in relation to admissions practices.


That when we announced this policy back in May, we indicated that we wanted to work with the universities beyond that, in terms of an ongoing mechanism for performance funding and how that would apply. We want to actually do this in a consultative way, using our universities – who house the nation’s best and brightest minds – to come up with the right type of incentive to ensure that unis are focusing on student success, student learning that leads to students getting great employment outcomes at the end of their degrees, and really, we’re wanting unis to embrace that journey with us. We’ve been very clear what the terms are for next year, and we’ve been very clear about the consultation pathway that will follow.


Ashleigh Gillon:           Alright, we’ll watch that space, Minister. Just on the same-sex marriage debate; as someone who does support gay marriage, are you concerned about the tone of this debate already? We’ve seen children of gay parents being described as the stolen generation, and the campaign, as we know, is yet to even begin in earnest.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I’d urge all participants in this debate – frankly, in all debates – to be mindful of the feelings, impacts of their comments on other people and to make sure that they’re respectful in the way in which they engage in public policy debates. That’s certainly the approach that I try to take. Now, whether this was a parliamentary debate that would drag on some time, or a public vote, you’ll have people campaigning both in and outside of the Parliament saying all sorts of things, but the message – however this matter is resolved, and we are going through the process of having a postal plebiscite undertaken – should be that all of the participants inside the Parliament, outside of the Parliament, should be respectful, should be respectful of each other’s differences of opinions, should not make it into something that is offensive to the other side.


Ashleigh Gillon:           What’s your idea of a pass rate, in terms of legitimising this vote? I mean, if less than half of all Australians, for example, return their ballots is that a failure? Is it less than 30 per cent? How is this going to be judged as whether it’s a worthwhile exercise or not in terms of the turnout?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Ashleigh, we’ll get, I guess, two measures from it. We’ll get a result in terms of the people who do choose to participate – and I’ll certainly be voting yes, and urging other Australians to vote yes – but we’ll also get a measure as to really how interested Australians are in the issue. I ultimately hope that we do see strong levels of participation, and that we do see a strong yes vote, and I think if we get that, then at the end we will have a change that delivers marriage equality, and delivers it with the seal of approval of the Australian people, that will in the end, when it is implemented, be far more unifying than if we simply had a vote and a debate through the floor of Parliament determined by a single vote, when many Australians believe that they now ought to be able to have a say on this matter.


Ashleigh Gillon:           Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate you joining us there live from Canberra. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you.