Speech to Council of Private Higher Education AGM, Canberra




Simon Birmingham:     Thanks very much, Don, for that welcome. Thank you for the chance to come and address the COPHE AGM today. Apologies that I’m a little late. On a morning of parliamentary sitting sessions, we have a regular catch-up between the parliamentary or the Government’s leadership group with the PM, who decided to change the time on us today, so I had to accommodate that at the start. And we’re on a very hard finish marker today, because at the other end of the education life cycle to one which we are used to dealing with today is National Simultaneous Storytime at 11am, and if I’m not there reading the story at 11am it won’t be very simultaneous.


So it’s a thrill and a pleasure to be able to be here and to join you all. We were quite determined that we’d make it this year, even if it killed me, and certainly we were getting messages back through the office that Simon may well have made good on that possibility, had I not managed to find the chance to be here.


COPHE membership is, quite rightly, a badge of quality. New membership admissions, processes that you’ve applied ensure a very high entry bar. A new compulsory code of practice requires members to agree to regulatory compliance, to ethical business models and to strong governance and student protections. That’s a credit to all of you. It’s one of the reasons why there are now three times as many new HEPs as there are universities in Australia. Something that I’m always keen to ensure we don’t lose sight of, especially as new HEPs are continuing to attract strong enrolment growth.


Around nine per cent of Australian higher education students are enrolled in your university higher education providers. That’s around 132,000 students in 2016 and, based on data, still seemingly growing. This includes more than 50,000 international students, making a significant contribution to Australia’s international education sector, the diversity and benefits that that brings.


Private non-university providers can, like universities, do a lot to continue to work to diversify their international student cohort, and we are keen to work with you to do this and to ensure that the work of our international education panel absolutely encompasses a vision for further growth and diversification.


Private providers, as you well know and appreciate, offer a point of differentiation. Niche courses that often provide a specialised career path with industry links. A focus on being job-ready, with practical and relevant qualifications. From agriculture to music to business to theology, your alumni are in jobs as diverse as your offerings, at Google Australia, at Oxford University, at Cricket New South Wales and many other places.


Private higher education providers offer choice and special teaching experiences that are borne out and proven by the student satisfaction surveys that rate so many of you so highly. The QILT Student Experience Survey shows that your students rate their experience favourably, including in areas of student support, teaching quality and skills development.


You understand the need to respond to what students want to learn, the way in which they want to learn, and when they want to learn. You see students as clients who expect value for money, and you’ve been operating with that type of mind frame for many years, hence your growth and success.


Now, at the end of last year, we took a budget decision to freeze bachelor-level funding for Commonwealth-supported places across universities. It’s frozen at record levels, just for the next couple of years, and despite funding for those places having grown at twice the rate of the economy since 2009, some would be forgiven for thinking, listening to some of the commentary, that the sky had fallen in from that decision.


From 2020 onwards, additional funding for CSP bachelor courses will be contingent on universities’ performance outcomes.


Hardly novel, hardly draconian, hardly shocking.


Performance outcomes are the types of things that you are assessed for all of the time by the students who choose to attend your institutions.


Many people across the country can’t believe that such performance arrangements weren’t already in place. You’re competing, as I say, in a market where you’re being judged for your performance everyday by discerning students making choices, and I appreciate that in doing so you are competing for students when you are not getting the extent of taxpayer support that the country’s universities receive, and that your students are paying loan fees that public university students do not.


I said to you before that when it comes to loan fees, it’s an issue that I and the Government are incredibly sympathetic to in terms of the differentiation that applies, and that is something that I’m hopeful that we can address in the medium-term, as we have sought to address previously, but have seen difficulties in trying to negotiate sensible and modest reforms through the Senate to try and keep the sector, the higher education sector generally, sustainable for students and taxpayers.


The Turnbull Government wants to make our world-leading income-contingent loans program sustainable for future generations of students and taxpayers. It’s a program, of course, that now supports people from a variety of backgrounds in a variety of subject offerings: higher education, vocational education, universities, non-university providers.


I wish I could say that everybody up on the hill shared our commitment to ensuring its sustainability. The sustainability of that program is what ensures that future generations of students can access high quality educational offerings without the threat of upfront fees.


The reforms we propose provide a new schedule of repayment thresholds with a lower minimum repayment threshold of $45,000, but it also introduces new payment rates of one per cent at the low end, which equates to less than $9 a week for students in making a contribution. It ensures that there’s a smoothing effect applied in relation to the way in which students repay, so that no longer will there be significant impacts in terms of their effective marginal tax rates, if you like, in repayment of their loans. It introduces a new combined and renewable loan limit from 1 January 2020 as well, that the caps will be increased from next year. So you will see almost immediate benefit if the legislation passes the Senate, given your students already face such loan limits.


We’re backing up those sustainability measures announced at the end of last year with further measures in this year’s Budget. From 1 January 2019, an annual charge for all HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP approved higher education providers will be introduced. This will recover a portion of the costs associated with the administration and regulation of these programs. A charge is also proposed for higher education providers submitting an application to become a FEE-HELP loan provider. Similarly, TEQSA’s increased resourcing to ensure that response times are decreased will be met through cost recovery measures.


I know that additional charges are never welcomed, but they are necessary. I do commit that they will also, though, be proportionate to the size of the institution and that we will be consulting in coming weeks about how this will work and we will listen to your feedback. This will align the VET arrangements with those in place, and this will align the arrangements with those in place for VET in terms of the Australian Government charging framework as well.


I know some of you have raised concerns about the recent integrity measures as well, but I want to assure you that they are certainly not intended or about discriminating against private providers. We embrace what private providers offer and we want to encourage you to grow into rich, vibrant and a necessary part of our higher education landscape. Tertiary education is more than universities or TAFEs; critical and important though they are. Yes, we’ve seen some issues in recent times, where there have been a few who have spoiled things for the many. But public providers have not been immune to some of those issues. There are bad apples in every crop and our job is to weed them out to the extent that we can then enjoy and celebrate the good harvest.


I don’t want to see recent changes impacting on you: those who are doing the right thing. We want to make sure regulation is about risk management and common sense and making sure resources are focused on the risks, while those with a good track record are able to get on with what they do best.


So looking forward, we’re committed to working with you in terms of regulatory improvement where we can. We’re committed to undertaking the announced review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, to ensure our system is fit for purpose and that it’s serving students, taxpayers and Australian businesses. We’re committed to working in relation to higher education provider categories, to ensure that they are effective and support innovation in the changing business models and environment in which you all work, in terms of technology, innovation and the type of training and education that students want and expect in the future. And we’ll have more to say about the progress around those reviews fairly soon.


The Government takes the future of the higher education sector in its entirety very seriously, particularly ensuring our high reputation and regard is retained, and you all have a critical role to play in that which you do. The challenges confronting the higher education sector and our universities on transparency, on issues of sexual assault, on matters of academic integrity, are challenges that we must all face together, regardless of divisions between public or private providers. We must ensure that student experience, credibility, integrity are at the forefront to ensure that all aspects and parts of our higher education landscape are able to continue to attract those strong numbers of international students and be attractive to our domestic student base.


I know all of you here today are committed to working with us to achieve those outcomes, and I commend you for doing so. Your students appreciate what you do, and we as a government appreciate what you do as well. It ultimately helps to create a stronger economy with stronger employment opportunities, and from that, the ability for us as a government to deliver the services that we require to provide in a country like Australia.


Businesses across the country are proud recipients of the graduates that you produce, as are employers across the landscape. Thank you for the chance to come and join me today. I know there are many issues for us to keep working on and working through, and there are times where I wish as minister that I was able to deliver on some of them faster than political processes perhaps enable us to do, but committed we are to keep working with you on them and to make progress where we can. Thanks so much for the chance.