Topics: Reforms to higher education



Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. What I’ve sought to do today is to outline once again the pace and the rationale for why it is we need to see some changes in relation to higher education policy in Australia, changes that have been recognised as necessary by both sides of politics since the introduction of the demand-driven system, although only one side of politics has the courage or guts to act on it.

As I indicated and outlined in my speech, in the dying days of the Rudd and Gillard governments, significant proposals to make the demand-driven higher education system sustainable for the future were put forward, including application of efficiency dividends. There was a request made by Labor rightly to say that higher education costs, which have grown by some 70 per cent since 2009, ought to make a contribution towards Budget repair. The Turnbull Government believes that’s only reasonable too.

We particularly believe that it’s important that we have reforms that sustain access in an equitable way for students to attend university with no fear of upfront fees, which is why we want to make sure that the HECS-HELP scheme is sustained for the future; why we’re proposing changes that will have a modest impact – the application of an $8 per week contribution for graduates once they’re earning $42,000. That’s to deal with a $50 billion debt that is in place, a $50 billion student loan debt, around one quarter of which is estimated not to be being repaid.

So we think it’s important to put the funding platform on a sustainable footing so that in the future we can have confidence that universities can choose to enrol capable students in courses who will not face an upfront fee. That’s the model we’re trying to sustain and preserve for the future. We’re equally coupling it with reforms that will expand access to employer-supported courses, expand options in terms of students being able to choose shorter pathways – one or two year associate degrees – reforms that will better embed an equity model in terms of the funding of higher education students.

These are all important things that strengthen what is an incredibly important sector that makes an enormous contribution to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians, millions of Australians, and of course makes a massive contribution to our economy.

Journalist: When do you plan on bringing the bill before the Senate? Will it be in the next sitting fortnight?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll bring the bill on as soon as we can. There’s always a number of competing priorities in terms of Government legislation, but this is an important one and it is a priority to see it dealt with so that we can give certainty to the sector for the future.

Journalist: Do you have a plan B if [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m working on plan A, and plan A is to see the legislation passed and to then be able to get on working cooperatively with the sector in other areas of reform, in terms of how they become more efficient and adaptable in the future; how they engage in innovation in a better way; how they indeed modernise in ways that I hope certain industrial breakthroughs will give them the chance to be able to do so.

Journalist: Minister, you talked about the need for diversity in the sector in the past, and yet the changes you’ve made in postgraduate funding, for example, and government places really put at great risk the Melbourne model, developed by the University of Melbourne and the University of WA. How are universities supposed to cope with sudden changes like that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re not sudden changes. We’ve guaranteed for universities that the Melbourne model and the UWA arrangements will still be in place for students that choose to enrol this year, and they’ll be supported the whole way through to the completion of their degree undertakings.

What we’re doing in postgraduate education is empowering competition, choice, and diversity. At present, postgraduate allocation places is a hodgepodge of historical inequities that have just seen places carved up with no particular rationale to different universities across different disciplines.

What we are proposing is to pool all postgraduate places in an arrangement that ensures the most capable students, in the disciplines of study that the taxpayer should most rightly be supporting, will be able to take their place where they want – take it to Melbourne University if it is the best place for postgraduate education in the future; take it to the place that offers, in terms of their discipline, the highest quality outcomes.

This is actually about empowering students to make informed choices, as they are free to do in the undergraduate market, across different universities according to what suits them best, according to what will give them the best outcomes in terms of the best postgraduate experience, and the best employment prospects beyond that.

Journalist: Minister, you mentioned in your speech that not every academic who has a research component is actually doing research. Would you consider cutting research funding or cutting university places?

Simon Birmingham: That touches on the industrial landscape where, in many instances – most instances, in fact – academics are guaranteed a certain proportion of their time for research undertakings.

Now, I think in a modern world, where we see modern universities teaching record student numbers – far beyond what was ever envisaged when many of these industrial arrangements were put in place in the first place – universities should be able to recognise the reality that not every one of their academics is actually undertaking research, and they should be able to structure their industrial arrangements in a way that reflects the reality, the priorities for their university to do so cooperatively with their staff who, as I said, are their most valued, of course, people in terms of delivering high quality outcomes. But to actually have that freedom and flexibility to ensure that academics who are undertaking valued research have the time and scope to be able to do so. But for those where the focus is on teaching and learning, that should also be reflected in the way things are arranged, too.

Journalist: There’s some criticism of that model, with a lot of people saying that the researchers, who are people who are ground-breaking and making discoveries and are up to scratch with their fields, should be the ones teaching students and it shouldn’t be separated between researchers and teachers. What do you say to that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think this is where we ought to back universities to be able to make the best decisions. Universities are rightly protective of their reputations. It’s their reputation that helps them to attract record numbers of international students. It’s their reputation that helps them in a competitive marketplace to attract domestic students, and that reputation is sustained by great research outcomes, but also by students getting a high quality experience.

So I think if we back universities to assess across the different courses and the different disciplines what is going to be best for our students and for our reputation, we will get a good outcome, and that it need not necessarily be defined by what’s always been done, or defined by the historical arrangements, or restricted because it’s currently in union negotiated EBAs, when in fact it could or should have a more flexible arrangement for the future.

Journalist: Minister, you said you wanted to work in cooperation with the sector, and you also said that you’d made other speeches praising the contribution they make to the- universities make to the economy overall and to Australian exports, and yet the tone of today’s speech was pretty unrelentingly negative. Why would you not actually kind of congratulate the sector for what they have achieve in an important speech?

Simon Birmingham: Well Jennifer, today I thought it was important, directly, honestly, openly, with the sector, to talk to them about why it is the Government has put forward the reforms that we have and to do that in a very frank way. I would hope that that’s something that is recognised.

As I said at the end of my speech, it would have been far easier to go in there today, to give a lovely speech trying to charm the sector about telling them the important contribution that they make. They know they make an important contribution, I know they make an important contribution. I’m on the record in many places acknowledging that. But wouldn’t you rather see politicians, ministers, who are proposing things that people don’t like, look them in the eye and honestly address those issues, rather than simply talk to them about the big picture and skirt around the difficult conversations.

Journalist: You have the power without resorting to legislation to cut the money that the Government spends on universities in real terms, and you are going to have a difficult path in the Senate to pass this bill. So if you can’t pass it, is that a live option for you to actually use your powers to find at least part of the spending cuts that you’re looking for?

Simon Birmingham: Well Tim, there’s no plan B in the back pocket. We have a proposal that we outlined in the Budget and that’s what we’re working to implement. What I did emphasize today is that the sector shouldn’t think that budget pressures are just going to go away if these proposals are defeated. The budget pressures will still be there, the escalating contribution higher education has made to those budget pressures will still be there, and no doubt there’ll be pressures – whether it’s our Government or future governments – to address them. But the focus right now, the reason, as I said to Jennifer, that I focused on the reforms we have before the Parliament is to see them implemented.

Journalist: Is it realistic with wage growth flat-lining, or not really increasing, to reduce the level that people have to start repaying their HECS debt? Is that going to scare a lot of students away from enrolling in the first place? Are we actually going to see people repaying more of their HECS debts?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’d refer you to the comments of Professor Bruce Chapman – who designed the HECS-HELP scheme and has analysed its impact over the years, and that of similar income-contingent loan schemes around the rest of the world – which are very clear that an income-contingent loan model of this nature has basically no impact in terms of students’ decisions in a negative way to enrol, but it absolutely empowers them in a positive way to choose to participate and enrol.

We are completely confident that students will still see the benefit of being able to pursue a higher education. And of course we should recognise that the HECS-HELP scheme, as it now is, has been extended to include a range of vocational students and others. And that if we’re to guarantee – as I said – the sustainability of that scheme – $50 billion worth of student loans on the books, around a quarter of which are estimated not to be going to be repaid at present – then we have to make sure that we address that non-repayment rate. That’s best addressed by ensuring that everybody understands if you get a job 20 per cent above the minimum wage – so we’re not setting it as ridiculously low levels – you’ll start making a contribution.

It’s a start. Eight dollars a week; a one per cent repayment rate that is lower than the current minimum repayment rate, but it puts people on the step towards making a contribution back against their loan. It does so in a very fair, graduated way. As I said, we’ll see at the other end students earning six figure sums paying theirs back even faster, ensuring that, again, we underpin that sustainability of the system. But no, I don’t think- history shows us very clearly, here and overseas, that these types of changes have no impact on the willingness of students to choose to enrol, because they see the benefits of doing so.

Journalist: Minister, just on Indigenous curriculum, Minister Scullion has commissioned Melbourne University to look into [indistinct] history. What could be taught now that isn’t being taught at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: So, we have a very really strong national curriculum that rightly acknowledges the teaching of history – both the teaching of the arrival of the first settlers, the impact and engagement with Indigenous Australians – but also acknowledges and encourages the teaching of Indigenous history before the arrival of the first settlers, during, and beyond up to today. And it’s important that all of that is taught effectively in our classrooms.

Now, I think one of the challenges for particularly teachers is how do you effectively teach Indigenous culture and history? How do you ensure that students develop an appreciation of their local Indigenous culture and their history? And the work that Nigel and I have spoken of and that is being commissioned is about providing resources and tools where teachers can better pick something up and say, well, this is the best practice way to ensure that school students develop a clear understanding of Indigenous culture, an understanding and appreciation and perhaps some knowledge of Indigenous language, that the 40,000 years of Australian history that predates European settlement is something that is effectively communicated in the classroom. And this is really just about giving teachers a better tool that they can roll out, a program such that will help them in terms of how they can best develop that appreciation in their students and knowledge in their students.

Journalist: Minister, you said no one liked to have their spending cut, but also very few areas of the Budget offer that amount of leverage in terms of future economic growth and business development. So, isn’t there a role to make a bit of an exception for the higher education system?

Simon Birmingham: That’s why there’s still spending growth, generally, we’re not seeing universities going backwards. The net sum of university growth over the next four years is some 23 per cent in extra resourcing that can flow through into the sector.

We’re wanting to see a circumstance where unis are empowered to be able to continue to invest in their students, in their research, in their globalisation, because that’s critical to the future. But just because universities are important to the future of our economy doesn’t mean that they have limitless entitlement to taxpayers’ money. Just because health care is important doesn’t mean that there is never a focus on how we can constrain and restrain growth in the health care budget. Just because other areas of education are important doesn’t mean that we just give them a blank cheque.

Governments have to live within their means. Our Government has developed and outlined a pathway back to Budget balance, and the contribution we’re asking universities to make to do so is a slightly slower rate of growth in their funding. It’s modest, it’s measured, it’s a fair way of doing it and it will enable them to then plan for their future with certainty and confidence.

Thanks everybody.

Journalist: On the [indistinct] campaign, we’ve seen the no ad overnight. It’s linked the same-sex marriage issue with other issues, including schools. Have you seen it? What do you think about it?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven’t seen it, although I’ve seen extracts of it and quotes of the content. Look, there is only one question on the ballot paper, that question is: Should same-sex marriage be allowed in Australia? Should the laws be changed to allow same sex couples to marry? That’s the one question. Everything else that being run is a furphy.

The truth is, the reality is, that schools in the future, if they are faith-based schools, will be able to teach according to their faith and including according to the definition of marriage according to their faith. That will be respected in future, as it is today. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that allowing same-sex couples to marry is somehow going to see some new sway of teaching reform sweep across the country. That’s just not going to happen.

This is a simple issue and it should not be conflated with other issues. People should go out and think about the show of love, respect, tolerance, that can come from a yes vote, and I certainly urge people to vote yes, to show that love, respect and tolerance for their fellow Australians.

Thanks everybody.