Simon Birmingham: Thanks Ian for that introduction. Always a pleasure when somebody goes back and looks at your maiden speech especially when it’s a speech given almost 10 years ago and with a tiny element of trepidation when you’re sitting in the audience and somebody says they’re about to quote from it. What on earth did I say in that maiden speech 10 years ago? But thank you very much for that warm introduction to your fellow coach here of the ADC Forum’s Education Leadership Initiative, Professor Allan Fels. Too in her absence is Lisa Paul, the other coach here, Anton thank you for the invitation, the opportunity to be here today and distinguished guests in the audience I notice former ANU Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Young sitting here down the front looking so relaxed and calm as former vice chancellors tend to nowadays, I know with the emphasis on performance and to bring about a certain state of relaxed attitude. Can I too acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in which we met the Kulin Nation and all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and as the nation’s Education Minister acknowledge we continue to learn much about traditional Indigenous knowledge, much from it and of course build upon it as a nation.
It is a great honour and opportunity to be here today. Thank you for the chance to participate in this important forum that looks at what we need to do and deliver in education to ensure our future national prosperity. Because education and economic prosperity do go hand in hand. Undeniably the primary role in many ways of our education system, from a child’s earliest years to their completion in higher education and training is to prepare our young people predominately for the jobs of the future and to ensure that they are in a position to excel once they enter the workplace and the rest of their lives. We will rely upon some of those young people to be the innovators and entrepreneurs of the future. In these cases their education doesn’t just need to skill them to get a job but also needs to provide them with the skills to create jobs for others. An environment of jobs growth requires education just as it requires investment. The policies of government must secure both a high quality education system as well as a growing economy to provide for the jobs of tomorrow for the students of today.
The Turnbull Government is committed to both of these objectives. Australia will continue to invest at record levels in early childhood education, through schools and into tertiary education, focusing on evidence-based measures designed to get the maximum improvement in education outcomes. We will undertake this record investment in education while keeping taxes as low as possible, still attempting and working to reduce the deficit burden and encouraging the economic growth required to transition from an economy fuelled by the mining and construction boom into one that will have an increased focus on new technologies and innovation.
I know that everyone here today would agree that education is of fundamental importance to all Australians. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t share that conviction. It is central to individual opportunity, economic growth, productivity and innovation. Education is a key driver in Australia’s global competiveness. It should act as a significant lever to deliver greater social inclusion.
People often talk about students completing university needing to be job ready, but while that is a very reasonable expectation, it begins a long way before a student even gets to university or another form of tertiary education. Every area of the education system has a role to play. From the high-chair to higher education we must ensure that the silos of our education system are coordinated, the transition seamless, and that we are all working towards similar objectives.
We know that for those children who start school behind their peers it is very hard for them to catch up and reach that gap. The work of education must begin at home, continue in child care where applicable and should for every child be supplemented by a pre-school or early learning program. We must ensure at the outset that children are school ready, the baton is then handed over to our school system to ensure that when the student leaves the primary school they are equipped for success at secondary school, prior to successfully partaking in further training or higher education.
It is only with successful foundations built by parents, early childhood educators, primary and secondary teachers, that universities, TAFEs or other tertiary education providers can consistently ensure that students are job ready.
We must collaborate effectively to ensure that students leave our education system with high standards of literacy and numeracy, which are the absolute bedrocks of learning and employability. As well as the skills of the new economy particularly in the STEM disciplines and of course the interpersonal characteristics demanded by modern workplaces.
The release earlier this month of the 2016 NAPLAN results showed an overall plateauing in school performance results. While it is important to acknowledge there has been some improvement over time in NAPLAN reading in Year 3 and reading and numeracy in Year 5, we must equally recognise those areas where outcomes are slipping, such as the marked across-the-board decrease in writing achievement in the secondary years. Unfortunately these results are replicated in international assessments. Results from PISA 2012 show that while our students are still performing well compared to their peers in most other countries, their performance in reading and mathematics has significantly declined over the last decade, not just in relative terms but in real terms too. And this is not just a problem of the ‘long tail’, there is also a problem that our highest achievers are not achieving and performing at the high levels we should expect them to.
Results such as these are important indicators for all of us; governments, principals, teachers and parents, that we need to do more and to look at the reasons why despite record funding growth over a number of years, we are not seeing sufficient comparable improvements in student outcomes.
Australia has excellent schools. Ian was right in quoting my maiden speech there, that much of our national prosperity and success has been built on an outstanding education system. We are still blessed with excellent schools, hardworking, high quality teachers in classrooms right throughout the country.
They work hard to educate and get our students ready for their adult life, but we can and we indeed must do better. That is why the Turnbull Government has outlined reforms to deliver earlier identification of literacy and numeracy problems, enabling earlier, consistent interventions, stronger reporting standards and minimum competencies among future teaching graduates. However, all of this should begin with parents, who are the first teachers of their children. Research indicates that children who are read to every day at the ages of two and three have NAPLAN reading scores an average of 40 points greater than children who are read to less frequently.
I fully appreciate, as a parent of young children, that it isn't always easy for parents to find the time, but the lift in vocabulary, the beginnings of phonetic awareness and the simple interest in books and reading that can stem from such a commitment to reading in those earliest years can all make a lifetime of difference for a pre-schooler. We must simultaneously acknowledge the importance of strengthening STEM foundations in both early childhood and school education. The fastest growing industries require skills in STEM fields. The OECD has reported that 40 per cent of jobs are estimated to be highly affected by automation in the next ten to 15 years. There will be increased jobs in new technology areas of genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology, to name just a few.
But many skills in related STEM disciplines will also be increasingly relevant in jobs across a whole range of industries that are important to Australia today and will still be important to Australia in decades to come. Farming, tourism, hospitality, mining, advanced manufacturing, financial services. These will all still be significant employers of Australians in the future. Of the types of skills that are required in those industries, we’ll require more advanced STEM students. By the time my children, for example, who are just three and five finish high school, they and all children throughout Australia will be contemplating a very different landscape from the one we are familiar with today.
That type of change, of course, has been seen by previous generations as well, and will be seen well beyond the current generation. Change is constant, but in looking at the current priorities associated with that change is why the Turnbull Government is prioritising science, technology and mathematics in the early years, primary and secondary schools. Stronger partnerships between schools and major local employers with strong demands for STEM skills form the basis of our Pathways in Technology or P-TECH pilot program that we are expanding across 12 sites around Australia. P-TECH brings the theory around STEM into focus, around real employers with real jobs in local communities, ensuring students know what's required and that they secure the competencies and qualifications needed to secure the local jobs of the future.
Importantly, P-TECH is also a reminder that responsibility for ensuring that Australians are skilled for the future doesn't just fall on the shoulders of parents or the different components of the education sector. Business also has a key role to play as an active partner and supporter. We are also working to engage younger children earlier in the exciting world of science and technology, through programs like Early Learning STEM Australia – the ELSA pilot, Let's Count and Little Scientists. We're investing in the foundation of STEM skills to promote positive science and mathematics experience for our youngest learners, from those preschool years, from play-based learning into school.
One of the key reforms that the Turnbull Government announced in May is to see students needing to complete both an English or humanities subject and a maths or science subject prior to obtaining their ATAR. This aims to ensure that students maintain exposure to different fields of study throughout their schooling lives, giving them improved skills and keeping more options open to them for longer. We appreciate that it will require schools to structure both preparatory subjects and final subject choices appropriately, while necessitating school systems to carefully consider their future workforce requirements.
But we've seen for too long, too many students increasingly drop out of maths or science studies during their secondary years of education, thereby closing the door to opportunities to them in the future, or requiring make-up classes when they actually go on to further learning. We know this change cannot occur overnight, and we will carefully work through it with the states and territories, but equally the decision by some universities to start to mandate maths or other STEM disciplines a prerequisite for entry into an increasing number of courses means there is good reason to implement a change as soon as is practicable.
The Turnbull Government will also act on the evidence that clearly shows that the single most important in-school factor for children is teaching quality. And I note the remarks made by Jennifer Westacott to your dinner last night in this regard. We have committed to negotiating with the states and territories to set minimum proportions of training teachers specialising in literacy and numeracy, and to set recruitment targets for teachers qualified in science, technology, engineering or mathematics subjects. These reforms are additional to the reforms our government has already acted upon to require all graduate teachers have literacy and numeracy skills within the top 30 per cent of the Australian population, and are complemented by our ambition to ensure that the Australian Institute for School and Teaching Leadership standards in relation to teachers are used as a leverage point to encourage more teachers to be recognised as high achievers, as lead teachers in their school, who undertake the professional development to seize that recognition and to be rewarded for that recognition, which I note some governments have started to do.
The final piece of the education puzzle builds on the skills that have been developed from the early years to equip our future generations with the skills needed to drive the new economy. We can be confident, and should be confident and proud in the overall quality of Australia’s higher education providers as they continue to attract growing numbers of international students who regard Australia as providing a quality, safe and dynamic learning environment.
That’s an incredible $19 billion-plus vote of confidence in the quality of our higher education system. But the world is becoming a smaller and increasingly contestable place. China for one is producing more and more onshore graduates and Chinese higher education institutions are rising through global rankings. Increasingly under our mobility agreements, students are choosing to study part or all of their degree at an overseas institution, in situ or online.
Quality, reputation and brand will be critical to maintaining our place at or near the top of global perceptions index but so will be adapting to a changing environment of ever increasing choice and opportunity. We must put the individual student front and centre in higher education. That is why I have the Higher Education Standards Panel, which is meeting this morning in Canberra, looking at ways in which we can improve the higher education system with a particular focus on putting students in the driving seat through greater transparency around admissions.
Greater transparency on student satisfaction and employment outcomes will also allow students to make more informed choices about their study options and career prospects. We will also increasingly ensure higher education institutions respond to student’s interests and not the other way around. The interest in transparency as well as quality is also aligned to address the problems in the VET FEE-HELP system and as quickly as possible and ensure practices which showed disdain for students and taxpayers alike are stamped out so that focus returns to learning outcomes for the student and value for money for the taxpayer.
Vocational education cannot be viewed as a second best option. Students in schools need to understand through high quality career advice that apprentices in traditional trades often enjoy higher employment outcomes than university graduates, better wages than many university graduates and have a higher likelihood of being self-employed or starting a business. Quality in our VET system is just as important as quality in our university system. On Budget Night I released our higher education reform policy options paper, Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education.
In the introduction to that paper we listed the key principles that I want higher education reform to advance; fairness and equitable access, excellence and specialisation, affordability and sustainability. I wanted that paper to prompt discussion, debate and ideas. The document wasn’t prescriptive, it was the next stage of what I, from the moment I was appointed to this role, had wanted to be an ongoing conversation.
Time for submissions has now closed and with around 1200 contributions and more than 100 detailed submissions received, I’m pleased to have seen the sector looking places at various variations to provide their thoughts and ideas. But importantly, we also need to keep in mind the challenging fiscal situation Australia finds itself in and the response has been mixed. I welcome organisations, such as the ATN, IRU and the Chief Scientist, raising the question of whether other elements such as student outcome and experience could be factored into funding to provide incentives for institutions to focus on the quality of teaching they deliver.
I note that UTS, for example, has suggested that an equitable and sustainable system for the allocation of Commonwealth supported post-graduate places would not be to allocate them directly to universities as is currently the case, but to use universal, consistent criteria to allocate places directly to students to use at the institution of their choice.
Some others have seen merit in other ideas raised in our discussion paper such as reforms to improve the sustainability of the HELP Program, our world class program of income contingent loans. No doubt as we work through all of these issues, all of these papers, we will find other good ideas to consider and discuss further with stakeholders. The discussion paper was meant as just that, a document to facilitate debate and encourage ideas.
There are some, perhaps, who seem to have adopted all the subtlety of a five-year-old pleading for more chocolate who don’t appear to realise that budgets may have reached their limits already but enough participants in the debate seem to appreciate where we find ourselves as a nation and bring a willingness to establish a plan that can give us the certainty, sustainability and excellence in higher education that we all want for the decades ahead.
Since 2009, taxpayer funding for Commonwealth Supported Places in universities has increased by 59 per cent compared to 29 per cent growth in nominal GDP. That is, funding outlays have run at twice the rate of economic growth. Meanwhile the debt level under the Higher Education Income Contingent Loan Scheme, which as I said is one of the most generous in the world with no up front payments, no real interest rate, stands at over $40 billion. We would be doing a disservice to those generations of students we have been speaking about today to not do something about ensuring financial sustainability in our higher education structures and policies as well as education and excellence.
I will shortly announce the next stages in finalising the direction of higher education policy and I hope that all parts of the sector will show a willingness to embrace change, compromise and place the long term interests of Australia first.
Across the educational and economic landscape, international competition is as much an opportunity as it is a threat. If we prepare for and embrace those oncoming challenges, we can position ourselves to meet them. We need to make sure that the research underpinning our education system is thorough and findings widely shared so that adaptations of those methods of learning and teaching that are most effective can occur across our system, not withstanding the boundaries of states or territories or the divisions between early learning, schools, universities, TAFEs or other educational training divides.
Building a cohesive education system based on sound evidence and interconnected policy is the next big challenge for me, for the Turnbull Government, the states and territories, for everyone interested in Australia’s education system. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have oversight of all elements of education and training, from the earliest years to the highest levels of research.
It enables a holistic approach that considers the learning journey for all Australians but of course, increasingly stretches beyond childhood or youth into a lifelong undertaking. Your discussions today in many ways mirror that holistic consideration that I have to give as Minister to our education and training system.
I wish you well in those discussions and deliberations. Good, affordable ideas are the gold medals of public policy and I do look forward to hearing hopefully some positive, applicable and tangible outcomes from you today that should inform future government policy. Thank you for the chance to be with you and I look forward to taking your questions and hearing of your outcomes. All the best.