SENATOR THE HON SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Minister for Education and Training
Senator for South Australia
The workplaces of today and the world of the future obviously need people with the right mix of skills for the times, the right attitudes and the right passion for their work. My job as Minister for Education and Training is to ensure we have the right mix of policies in place to foster the sorts of conditions that build those qualities in Australians.
While there are plenty of potential potholes and pitfalls in the road ahead for our education system, they are far outweighed by the opportunities in front of us.
Estimates show around three in four of the fastest-growing occupations need STEM skills – that is, skills in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda and our reforms to schools are directly designed to grab that opportunity.
More and more Australians want specific, hands-on skills that will give them a foothold into a new industry or a boost up in their career. Our new VET Student Loans program clears away Labor’s failed and scandal-plagued VET FEE-HELP scheme and better ties taxpayer loans and support to courses that will deliver students the skills they need for new or better jobs.
As the world globalises, so too does the hunt for the best and brightest minds with international businesses, research houses and innovation incubators looking to poach Australia’s talent. We’re making sure our students can learn from the best in the world but that we provide the right opportunities to keep that talent in Australia and to help them feed their ambitions.
Those are just some of the looming threats and opportunities on the horizon for Australia’s education system. What’s clear however is that we need to ensure our education system is integrated and connected all the way from the high chair to higher education.
Australia cannot hope to train plumbers and mechanics or graduate doctors and scientists if these connected foundations are not in place.
From early learning in child care settings, through schools, vocational education and training and on to higher education and research, an individual builds on their skills and learning.
Laying strong foundations
The global education research consensus is that access to early learning opportunities is key to giving students the best start in life and that early learning has flow-on effects throughout the rest of their education. It’s why our child care reforms supports working parents and early childhood education – those early years have a profound impact on the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of children.
Our reforms address concerns that the existing early childhood education and care model is inaccessible, inflexible and unaffordable. We want to ensure taxpayer support is better targeted to those families earning the least and working the most, while guaranteeing vulnerable children are given the right level of early education opportunities.
We know that if a child starts school behind the pack without the right interventions and supports to catch them up, they fall further and further behind as they grow older. That’s why we want to improve early years’ education and child care for all Australian children, regardless of income or location.
Preschool helps prepare children for the challenges ahead at school so that they can get the best possible start. We want all children to benefit and have included stronger targets to help ensure that federal funding for preschool increases opportunities for Indigenous children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While the Government will always have the key role to play in delivering fair and affordable early childhood education and care opportunities, many businesses have seen the benefits their involvement can have. Many business leaders I’ve spoken with point out that their investment in child care and early learning for their employees’ children delivers significant returns in the form of a happier workforce, increased productivity and longer-term, a smarter generation of potential hires.
The idea of education for all has a long and proud history in Australia and it’s why the Turnbull Government has committed a record levels of funding for schools that will only continue to grow. Unfortunately while funding has been increasing, our students’ performance in several local and international tests and benchmarks that came out last year, showed there was some stagnation and even decline in results.
Australia has schools filled with incredible educators, but those results worry policymakers like me, not to mention the families and parents across the country.
So while it’s clear a strong level of funding is needed for our schools, and the OECD recognises we have that in Australia, we also need to focus on how that funding is used. Funding alone doesn’t guarantee great schools where students can achieve their full potential.
That means ensuring our record and growing levels of investment are properly distributed according to need, but the Turnbull Government also wants to tie that money to states and territories implementing reforms that evidence shows will boost student outcomes.
Ultimately those reforms are about creating a smarter Australia. That means students who have the skills they need to succeed, but also students who one day will be industry leaders, business moguls, world changers and thought makers.
To that end, our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms build on an extensive amount of work we’ve done over the last three years in improving the training of new teachers, our de-cluttering of the National Curriculum and investment in modern skills like coding through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
We are working to implement a range of evidence-based initiatives to support students by focusing on outcomes in literacy, numeracy and STEM subjects, helping lift teacher quality and better preparing our children for life after school. You can read more about those initiatives at www.education.gov.au
Pathways to success
Our secondary students need to develop the right skills to fill the jobs of the future.
Vocational education and training (VET) is set apart from other types of education by its close links with industry and its direct employment outcomes. Indeed, students can be confident that the skills they’re developing will prepare them for not only the jobs of today but also those of the future.
The work-relevance and flexibility of VET courses appeals to a broad range of Australia’s population. In 2015 alone, 4.5 million, or around one in four, adults were in the training system. This included secondary students in pre-apprenticeships, young adults combining work with part-time study, and mature students seeking skills to advance their careers or opening up a different career path.
Most Australians would unfortunately be familiar with the stories about vulnerable students being ripped off or conned into signing up for courses they would never complete after Labor changed VET FEE-HELP and opened the floodgates to shonky providers. Once data emerged highlighting the issues with VET FEE-HELP, the Coalition acted to close Labor’s loopholes. While the 20 measures our government put in place over 2015 and 2016 have stemmed some of the losses in VET FEE-HELP, with total 2016 loans projected to be hundreds of millions of dollars lower than in 2015, it is also clear that a completely new program was essential to weed out the rorters and restore credibility to VET.
The new safeguards we’ve put in place through our VET Student Loans program mean students can have confidence that the training they are receiving is aligned to workplace needs and strong employment outcomes, and is being delivered by training providers who have met the tougher benchmarks we have set. At the same time, taxpayers can have confidence the loans the Government is providing are for genuine students, learning skills that will contribute to the economy and increasing the likelihood the loans will be repaid.
One of the key changes has been to acknowledge that while our education system should include opportunities for students to pursue particular passions, taxpayers rightly expect that their loans for VET courses should be aligned to employment opportunities which is why we’ve worked with states and territories to determine which courses we will subsidise per the skills they have determined are in demand.
In the broader skills space, we are committed to creating more opportunities for Australians to complete apprenticeships. We know that this model of training, combining study with real world experience, produces job-ready graduates with the skills needed in modern workplaces. We’re exploring a range of reforms to support students into and through apprenticeships, and to ensure the design of the system meets the needs of both students and employers.
For students that choose higher education to start a career, the Turnbull Government will this year detail reforms to ensure the system fosters excellence, accessibility and fairness but we also want to ensure it is sustainable for future generations. The costs to taxpayers of higher education, have, over recent years, grown dramatically. Since 2009, with the demand driven system, taxpayer funding for Commonwealth supported places in higher education has increased by 67 per cent as compared to 33 per cent growth in nominal GDP over the same period of time.
An important principle however is that while the Commonwealth is the principal funder of universities, that they retain their autonomy. We need to give them the support but also the freedom to evolve and retain their competitive edge in an era of profound economic, industrial and technological change.
At stake is the wellbeing of 1.4 million students at 41 universities and 126 non-university higher education providers.
The biggest challenge that policymakers face is to ensure universities and higher education institutions are places for students to not only develop knowledge and fulfil their dreams, but also places that provide skills that students need to be job-ready. That means universities need to support and encourage students so they aren’t just another number on a seat but so they acquire worthy qualifications that advance not just their own job prospects but the potential that they will become innovators or entrepreneurs who create many more jobs in the future. On the part of students it means giving them the tools to make wise choices by entering courses they aren’t just passionate about, but ones with great prospects at the end of them.
Student experiences show there’s a range of factors that lead to student attrition and it is going to take concerted efforts from educators and policymakers to reduce it. Universities and higher education providers in particular must take responsibility for the students they enrol because the attrition rate has hovered around 15 per cent for the last decade.
We’ve heard too many stories about students who have changed courses, dropped out because they made the wrong choices about what to study, students who didn’t realise there were other entry pathways or who started a course with next to no idea of what they were signing themselves up for. With around one in three students not completing their studies within six years, we’ve taken action to ensure they are empowered to make choices about their courses that best suit them with an additional $8.1 million investment in the popular Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website and we’re working with the higher education sector to bring more transparency to the admissions processes so students know exactly what they’re signing up for.
There are also a number of other specific initiatives we’ve been implementing to connect students with job opportunities, such as $28.2 million for a national PhD internship program so higher degree graduates get the right skills and qualifications for the jobs of the future. There will be 1400 internships over the next four years with a focus on greater engagement of women in STEM.
Through the National Innovation and Science Agenda we’ve also increased incentives for universities to collaborate with businesses to tackle real-world problems and deliver solutions that help Australian industries and families. For example, our changes to the Linkage Project scheme means when researchers and businesses come to the Government with strong proposals that will clearly deliver real benefits for industry and Australians, we can green light them quickly. We sped up the processes for approving Linkage Projects that fund collaborations between researchers and businesses and we made changes so that grants could be made year-round so worthy projects don’t need to wait months and months until applications open
Going forward, we will have a National Research Infrastructure Roadmap to underpin investment decisions over the next decade about which projects align to the national interest and should getting taxpayer support.
There’s also much to be said for the value of our international reputation for education. Last year more than half a million students from over 200 countries made us the third most popular education destination in the world. February 2017 ABS figures revealed education exports earned a record $21.8 billion in 2016 – up 17 per cent on 2015. It means knowledge is the nation’s third biggest export sector. It’s why last year we launched the National Strategy for International Education 2025 to maintain Australia’s role as a global leader in education, training and research by focusing the efforts of the policymakers, businesses and education institutions with a vested interest in the sector’s future.
I hope my contribution has given you plenty to mull and think about in the context of how our education system is placed for the future. There is significant change afoot and our guiding principle has always been how do we secure our strengths and advantages and exploit the opportunities we can give for this and future generations in the education system.
Our reforms across the entire education and training system—from pre-school through vocational education and training and higher education and post graduate qualifications—are all geared to meet the current and future needs of both students and our nation.
Finally, I always appreciate feedback and ideas so if you’d like to get in touch or to keep across the latest news in this space, you can find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/simonbirmingham or Twitter at @birmo, or you can email me at email@example.com