Speech to ADC Forum Education Summit

  • Minister for Education and Training

Speech to ADC Education Summit, Melbourne

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.

Question:         … Victoria. You describe people who ask for further funding for education as petulant toddlers, asking for more chocolate, surely if education has the long term impacts not only on employment but on health and social equality, there should be more priority placed on education and ultimately it should be somewhat bottomless if it can be.

Simon Birmingham:     Thanks Emily, I described, indeed, those who frankly think it can be perpetually bottomless as petulant toddlers, or like that because nothing can be perpetually bottomless, let me very honest and if you were to have constructive discussions today, affordability as Ian just mentioned is a critical consideration. Let’s also be very clear: it doesn’t matter which part in the sense of our system you’re talking about, universities, schooling, early education, we are spending record levels. Now that’s a wise investment; I absolutely as education minister want to see investment in education, but I also have to make sure that investment is as effective as possible, is driven towards the outcomes that can make the biggest difference. I have to go into bat for getting that investment time and time again, as does every education minister at every level of government around the country. And when we do reach the point where we’re seeing huge growth as we have in recent years across each of the different spheres, early learning, schools and universities, we then of course have to actually justify what have been the outcomes from that huge extra growth so increased participation in the university sector is an obvious benefit of the growth we have seen over recent years, that’s a good outcome, it’s a positive outcome and we’re seeing some positive lifts in some areas of disadvantage, such as Indigenous students whose participation rate has lifted in our tertiary sector. We’ve got a long, long way to go though in those areas. We do need to look at whether the policy settings are acting in the best possible outcome for those groups disadvantaged.

In schools we’ve seen huge lifts. If you actually go back over the last 20 years or so, school funding in real terms, inflation adjusted, has grown around Australia by about 100 per cent. It’s doubled. Now not too many other areas of public policy have seen that type of growth investment. Enrolments over that time have only gone up by about 18 per cent, so investment is well above inflation, well above enrolment growth and yet we’re seeing declining performance in a range of areas so we have to contemplate how we turn around that declining performance and just saying more money is the answer really isn’t the case because it hasn’t necessarily been working and so the message that I gave there in the speech in relation to the higher education submissions was indeed one to say we have to work within budget envelopes. It’s not terribly helpful that if people’s submissions into processes the Government are thinking about basically ignored budget considerations and simply say we should invest more here, there and everywhere. That doesn’t help me or anybody else to prioritise what would be most effective. What is most effective is to absolutely say in your submissions, contributions, this is where we think we can get the best and biggest difference in terms of outcomes and if that biggest difference involves some extra funding, justify and explain it, then that’s fine, but to simply say more of everything is not a terribly useful attitude and that unfortunately is what some seem to do.

Unidentified Speaker:   That’s a common problem with public policy minister. We have a gentleman on the left over there who’d like a microphone.

Question:         Thank you, Paul with Monash University. I just want to congratulate you on good and affordable but also on sustainable because if a self-sustaining system can reach into seemingly bottomless reserves of human creatively and if it’s financially self-sustainably can contribute especially for the embrace [indistinct] emerging as opportunities and we also look at more cohesive systems which enable us to combine education with things like tourism, with things like… oh the other thing it’s incredibly important that you mention is the fact that we do need to look at early childhood development because we talk about the trajectory that children are taking [inaudible] and if we can encourage something rather more than the idea of asking for more chocolate. Let’s develop more chocolate, let’s share more chocolate, lets offer more chocolate. There’s no reason why we cannot do that, we’ve got wells of creativity and we’ve got some really clever people developing systems [inaudible]. There’s no real question…


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you for the more chocolate comment from… well I did pick up on one tiny thing you mentioned in your few comments of praise there at the focus on early childhood and it really is critical that we recognise and that’s why I put the emphasis there on parents and the flows in to our childhood and early education systems, that sadly children who start with a differential at school all too often carry that differential right through. It’s not to say they don’t progress through school; they do progress, they progress each and every year and they learn more each and every year but the gap stays, sometimes it widens, sometimes it closes, but all too often the gap does stay and so how it is that we actually try to bridge the gap in the earliest years is critical and we are serious about getting more equitable outcomes at the end point.

Unidentified Speaker:   Gentleman over on the right.

Question:         Thank you Minister, I’m John Burgin from Cognizant. So Cognizant is one of the world’s fastest growing technology services firms. We’re a 22 year old company with 144,000 people globally. We’ve been starting to make our first investments in Australia and getting a foundation here since 2008 and what we’d observed is a few things in growing our business here and starting to make some investments to get started. One is that at a macro level with the associations that we deal with, seems like we have more than 35 law schools in Australia which produces about 14,000 graduates in law for about 4000 jobs every year, yet the Australian Computer Society projects that we’ll be generating 20,000 new jobs in the technology area every year yet we’re only able to produce 4000 graduates for those 20,000 jobs, so we rely on immigration for about 18,000 technology people to enter our country. My question is have we got the balance right and if not is there a need for a more brute force approach of actually adjusting our university quotas to actually get a more balanced and greater access to technology skills in Australia?

Simon Birmingham:     Thanks John, thanks for the insight as an employer there. We don’t really have university quotas, universities enjoy autonomy under a demand driven model where they choose how many people to enrol in different disciplines but they like any other individual or institution are responsive to incentives and policy settings. Now I’ll do a little exercise here. Hands up who thinks universities in general lose money out of law students? Hands up anybody who think that universities in general make money out of enrolling law students?

The room for those who voted is pretty much overwhelmingly right that if I… and it’s not to say in every single instance but the odd vice chancellor in private conversation with me will honestly say well the way current funding structures are set, it’s not their fault, it’s just the way funding structures are set… law can basically be a profit centre for a university. Now they need those profit centres to in some instances cross subsidise either other disciplines that are loss makers when they enrol students, veterinary science, dentistry in fact, areas where they often lose money teaching students and/or cross subsidise research undertakings very important to maintaining their global reputation, which is important to attract international students, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s a key part of what I’m thinking about during higher education policy discussions is about the incentives that exist, how universities respond to those incentives and if we are to ensure that we actually get universities thinking about numbers of students they enrol and the disciplines they enrol in, then we need to make sure that they are driven in their thinking by what is in the best interests of the student and the need of the national economy.

Now we need students also to be thinking about what it is that they’re applying for and enrolling in, which is why I made for example the pitch around apprenticeships and the relevancy of job outcomes on income levels and so on for non-university pathways but in the university space, there area a couple of things that I think will help drive that: transparency in part will be one of them, the more we can make sure that people can see what the employment outcomes are, income levels from those employment outcomes, the better both hopefully the choice of students will be in terms of their decisions of what to apply for or enrol in but also hopefully the greater the accountability that sits upon the university’s shoulders in thinking about how many students they take on because nobody wants to be on the front page of the newspaper as having a lot of un- or under-employed graduates out there. But also we have to have a look at how the financial incentives the Government has in place actually drive behaviour by the universities in their decision in how many people to enrol in different disciplines. And that won’t be an easy part of the reform discussion and it’s not easy from our perspective either because it means that perhaps support in some courses needs to go up, while support in others needs to go down but if we were to actually change some of those enrolment practices, without it going back to a model driven by a bunch of officials sitting around a table in Canberra randomly allocating a number of places for each university then we need to find a method that drives an outcome that frankly is more attuned with what the employment market demands.

Unidentified Speaker:   Minister I think we’ve got…

Simon Birmingham:     Sorry.

Unidentified Speaker:   That’s alright, think we have time for one last question, I’ve got the gentleman up the back there.

Question:         Paul Guy (*) from Exports Australian Institution (*), you know I’ve… strictly [inaudible] 5000 schools (*) in Australia, developing a trial [indistinct] question…

Simon Birmingham:     Sorry Paul, could you hold your microphone a little closer?

Question:         Sorry… we have an interest in leadership and change management operation. There’s an innovation forum later today, it’s been a tough week for innovation with the ABS…


… is there a risk (*) [indistinct] with innovation in education public sector risk aversion (*)?

Simon Birmingham:     For what it’s worth I haven’t got my Census form completed yet, I got home at about 8.30 on Tuesday night from a Cabinet meeting in Sydney and it was all too late by then it seems to be able to successfully do so. Yes absolutely it’s a risk and an overreaction to things like the [indistinct] Census becomes a risk that it in terms of public sector cautiousness growing in relation to how we adapt to change and I see in the Courier Mail today a story where the Queensland state education minister is raising concerns in light of the Census experience to the proposals to shift elements of NAPLAN testing to an online format.

Now we absolutely have to learn lessons out of everything and as we all know we learn more lessons usually in life from mistakes than you do from successes because you focus on what went wrong around the mistakes. So the Census will provide plenty of good information and lessons upon which these decisions need to be informed but it shouldn’t stop us from doing things that still provide better public policy outcomes and we need to not be scared away from taking important decisions, just because of they are losing the areas like that. So it’s a very important message and it’s one that I think across the board people need to keep a sense of perspective about what went wrong this week. It may well be that there’s really only one or two things that went terribly wrong in the background and those one or two things had big consequences in terms of the Census but it is only a couple of key things to learn out of that and learn them we must but it shouldn’t deter us from doing other things that have positive benefits for out into the future.

Unidentified Speaker:   Thank you Minister. Thank you very much for your contribution…

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