Press conference, Melbourne
Higher education admissions transparency; Higher education reform; The Racial Discrimination Act.

Simon Birmingham: Today I'm very pleased to be releasing the report of the Higher Education Standards Panel into university admissions practices. This is a valuable report which shows that we need to improve the transparency and information available to Australian schoolchildren, prospective university students, mums, dads, teachers about pathways into university, the standards that need to be met, what it is students need to achieve so that people are making wise and well-informed choices. This report is all about ensuring that we put students first and give them the choice, the information to make wise decisions about their future engagement at university.

Now I welcome this report, the Government will respond to it within weeks and it demonstrates that not all areas of university reform have to be driven by budgets or other considerations. There are important things we can do and need to get on and do to improve the operation of our university and higher education market that focus on other attributes that can improve opportunities for students, the decisions they make as well as ultimately the decisions that universities and higher education providers make.

Journalist: What's wrong with the system as it currently is, where there's the use of bonus points, for instance?

Simon Birmingham: There's a lack of transparency about the way admissions practices occur, and that's a clear finding of this report, that it's too confusing for too many people to work out how bonus points are applied, what the different pathways into university are, and yet it's also very confusing as to what the standards that need to be met, what is it that a young person needs to achieve to guarantee their place in university. So we want to make sure that in implementing the findings of this report, we actually get to a point where mums, dads, teachers, kids can look very clearly and understand what each university's standards are, what it is kids need to achieve, and therefore make wise and well-informed decisions about their future.

Journalist: The Vice-Chancellor of the ACU Greg Craven has said that the current system – sorry, university cut-offs can be rorted. Is that how you would describe it?

Simon Birmingham: Well the findings of the report are very clear that there's a lack of transparency, and where there's a lack of transparency, there can be a lack of accountability as well in terms of institutions and how they behave. So we need to make sure the reforms we put in place don't just empower students to make better and wiser choices but also drive transparency and accountability that ensures universities are making well-informed decisions about their enrolment mix as well.

Journalist: Do you think they can be rorted?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think rorting is an interesting choice of word, but certainly there is a lack of transparency there which means that students aren't necessarily making optimal decisions, and the rationale behind university enrolment decisions is not always clear or transparent either.

Journalist: Can you talk a little bit about that transparency? So what do you mean, is it universities not advertising their cut-offs very well, or what's hindering students?

Simon Birmingham: So the report finds pretty clearly that universities are not clear in terms of what the actual cut-off scores are, that the application of bonus point system means that often the lowest ATAR entry student can be far below what people understand a course to be, and the inflation of ATAR cut-offs by some universities is about trying to make their university course they're offering look more prestigious, look more exclusive, when in reality it might be something different.

So that’s why I say there are dual factors at play here. Firstly making sure that students get the support to make well-informed choices and to know what they're up for to actually get into a course, but secondly transparency to ensure that universities can then be held appropriately to account for the decisions they're making, the students they're admitting, and it's why the report also recommends further work be undertaken in looking at attrition rates and completion levels so that we can actually then get a full picture of who's being admitted and then how well they're succeeding once they get there.

Journalist: In terms of the cross-subsidies that we're talking about, of courses, what about the cross-subsidisation of research by student fees? How big a problem is that?

Simon Birmingham: So in terms of domestic student fees, this is something that will partly be unpacked by the work we're doing. The analysis of efficient and effective cost of delivery for courses in teaching and learning will of course show if there is a gap at the end between what it costs to deliver teaching and learning and what we're actually funding – we being Commonwealth plus students through their contributions. And if there's a gap then obviously that would demonstrate what some argue that there is a cross-subsidisation between teaching and learning and research, but we'll get the evidence in first to see how big that gap is, if it exists at all, and then that can inform future policy considerations.

Journalist: And in terms of differentiation, how can you cut a diff- get increased differentiation without allowing much greater deregulation in fees?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think firstly by actually ensuring universities aren't having to cross-subsidise within different disciplines or across different disciplines so that they can then make rationally informed decisions, knowing that if they don't want to offer certain courses, they can afford to drop them because they're not having to look at them as being the profit centre that subsidises other undertakings. So there's opportunities in looking at that area, but there are other considerations in terms of whether there are more consistent approaches that can be applied across the different levels of qualification – sub-bachelor, undergraduate, post-graduate – rather than the inconsistent approach at present that just puts a focus on undergraduate degrees in the demand-driven context to the exclusion of the others.

Journalist: Doesn't that mean that you will have to give universities more funding to pay for those courses which they are currently internally cross-subsidising?

Simon Birmingham: Well again Tim, that's the question that has to be answered by the evidence we get, and that evidence may show that some courses are more expensive to deliver and others are cheaper to deliver, but that the contributions by government and student don't necessarily align with those costs of delivery. And if that's the case, then we have to consider how we work that through, and we'll work closely with the sector to get a clear outcome.

Journalist: You underlined in your speech the higher cost of higher education in Australia, and are you concerned that with globalisation of education and use of online learning that our universities are vulnerable to intense competition from overseas?

Simon Birmingham: Our universities absolutely face heightened competition from other universities, the rise of Chinese universities, increased competition from other developed nations for international students, new modes of delivery by universities in terms of the use of different technological platforms, and indeed completely new ways of learning and new providers of education outside of the traditional qualifications framework.

They're all things though that I think our universities are up to responding to, and we see that in their own internal innovation through the greater use of different technology themselves, the responsiveness they have in terms of changing the course offerings, and the success they're having themselves in attracting international students. But there's certainly no opportunity for universities to rest on their laurels. They face intense global competition which isn't just for international students but over time will increasingly be for domestic students who will find more opportunities at their fingertips without necessarily having to leave home.

Journalist: When will you respond to the panel?

Simon Birmingham: We'll respond within weeks to the panel's report, because we want to give certainty in terms of how we're going to be implement their recommendations and to make sure that we give that opportunity to students to be making well-informed decisions, not years into the future but as soon as we can practicably undertake the reforms that are necessary.

Journalist: And some of the kind of recommendations are going to require universities to [indistinct] data about their admissions. Are you concerned that that may actually be difficult to implement?

Simon Birmingham: I think universities hold a whole world of data already, and I'm confident that given the panel has undertaken its work in close collaboration with the university sector, and of course had chancellors and vice-chancellors as part of the panel, that they've been cognisant of the data that's available, the information that universities already have and the ability of those universities to be able to act on these findings quickly, and of course we have already seen some universities get ahead of the curve in this regard, starting to publish some of the things that the panel was talking about through their discussion paper. So I think it won't be too hard for the rest to come up to standard.

Journalist: Tanya Plibersek said today on radio that she thought university- the university sector and the vocational sector should be working more closely together. What was your view on that?

Simon Birmingham: Of course we have to look at tertiary education in Australia in a way that recognises there are different valuable pathways for students to pursue that aren't just always university pathways. That's why a big focus of our activities at present, for example, is on fixing Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme and replacing the multi-billion dollar rorts we saw there with a more targeted, focused VET student loans program that can ensure in future students can access student loans, but do so knowing they are for quality courses with quality providers that are relevant to employment outcomes.

Journalist: If I can just ask you about another issue; the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has said that he believes the Racial Discrimination Act or changes to it isn't an issue of urgency for everyday Australians. Do you agree with that?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think the issues of urgency are the ones the Government is pursuing in the Parliament through the legislative processes. We've delivered tax cuts for Australians, we've delivered $6 billion worth of savings into the Budget. We are implementing of course our VET Student Loans reforms. The Racial Discrimination Act is being looked at by a parliamentary committee, like many, many other issues are being looked at by many different parliamentary committees.

Journalist: Why are there so many people in your party that think it's such an important issue?

Simon Birmingham: People can think it's an issue worth considering, but the issues at the top of the Government's agenda are the issues that we are legislating, like tax cuts, budget savings measures and reform of our VET system. Thanks guys.

Journalist: Oh, just one more. It's a little bit about a report today that found that women earn $27,000 less than men. I'm not sure, have you read that [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Can't say that I have seen that report.

Journalist: Okay. But it is a bit of an issue that you know, especially for female university graduates starting off their career in a worse position than men most of the time, financially. Do you have an opinion on that at all?

Simon Birmingham: I'd probably want to see the report before commenting.

Journalist: Sure, okay.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, cheers.