Transcript of interview with Parliamentary Secretary to Federal Education Minister, Senator Scott Ryan.
May 21 2014
The Spectator: In a decade’s time will there be more or less money in the Victorian education budget coming from the Commonwealth?
Senator Scott Ryan: There will be more. There’ll be more. Over the next three years-
The Spec: Compared to the previous budget projections?
Sen. Ryan: Well this is an important point, Rex; there were no numbers in the budget for Labor’s empty promises.
So the reality of our budget is there are real increases over the next three years as both Labor and the Coalition promised before the last election.
From year four onwards there is increased funding to cover inflation and growth in enrolments, so there are no cuts to education funding from Commonwealth to the states and Catholic system.
The Spec: Well, have you seen the budget overview paper?
Sen. Ryan: I have.
The Spec: You are aware of the graph of education funding over the next ten years?
Sen. Ryan: This is the point the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have made repeatedly; firstly, it’s a change in the rate of growth in spending.
Labor’s promises were never in the budget, there was no funding for them; they were words only.
Empty promises that don’t have funding attached can’t be taken seriously as a commitment to education.
We’ve delivered on the commitments we made which was funding for this year, next year and the two subsequent years under the ‘Better Schools’, commonly referred to as ‘Gonski’, plan that Labor and us agreed to before the election.
We never agreed to years beyond that because we knew the money wasn’t there; they were empty promises.
The Spec: What’s going to happen after the Gonksi adjustment period in four year’s time?
Sen. Ryan: We’ve said that we’re going to continually increase funding in line with inflation and enrolments.
So, there’ll be no reduction in funding at all.
That will cover the states.
As the Prime Minister said we’ll have time to talk about these issues because The Prime Minister has commissioned a white paper on the Federation and a white paper on tax reform.
One looks at responsibilities of government and one looks at how we’ll fund those responsibilities.
The Spec: The budget overview paper says the Commonwealth is making sustainable adjustments to education funding; how would that be sustainable without an increase in taxation in some form?
Sen. Ryan: We don’t concede that there has to be an increase in taxation.
Every budget is about priorities, there will always be more demand on the public purse than there are available and may I say that’s particularly acute at the movement because of the burden of debt we’ve got.
We’re paying a billion dollars a month in interest.
We can’t keep borrowing money, no matter how good the purpose, to increase spending over and above the increases that have already occurred.
So over approximately the last 15 years we’ve increased funding per student in real terms by just under 50 per cent.
We cannot keep that level of increasing funding going if it is going to be based on borrowed money; it is just not sustainable.
The Spec: Is spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a school chaplaincy program over the next four years sustainable spending?
Sen. Ryan: That’s delivering on our promise; that’s only just over $60 million a year; its $240 million over four years.
The commonwealth budget is about $400 billion dollars per year, so its $60 million out of $400 billion.
We promised before the last election that the Coalition would continue to support the chaplaincy program option that schools have available to them.
The important things about the chaplaincy program are that it is voluntary for schools to enrol in, and that it actually is not about religious education because the chaplains are prohibited from proselytising or promoting any religion.
The Spec: They are also prohibited from being secular.
Sen. Ryan: What we have done is that the chaplaincy program was conceived under the Howard Government, Labor promised not to tamper with it but they did.
They diluted the chaplaincy component by introducing the welfare officer provision; now, every school has a welfare plan and the people that run schools should have a welfare plan and people in place to place to support that.
The reason the chaplaincy program is supported as a chaplaincy program is that it is an additional resource available for pastoral care for school communities that seek to access it.
It’s an additional resource to the existing welfare plans and welfare provisions that school systems do and should already make.
The Spec: Why not put the money directly into student welfare?
Sen. Ryan: Because this is an important additional component available to schools.
There is more demand for chaplaincy program, even today under the existing program, than there are available.
When it was first conceived and put in place under the Howard Government it was dramatically expanded because schools of all varieties, Catholic, independent, other religions denominations and particularly the public schools, were craving this sort of resource.
So the Commonwealth, which doesn’t run a school, doesn’t employ a teacher to teach in a school, funds the chaplaincy program as an additional resource to all the student welfare provisions that are rightly provided by the people that run the schools.
The Spec: in the introductory video to your website says that you support greater personal choice and responsibility. Why not trust parents to make that personal choice and responsibility about the religious element in their child’s life?
Sen. Ryan: Well, they do.
I was in a school in Melbourne and if a parent does not want their son or daughter involved with the school chaplain, they’re not.
In fact, most schools ask parents before a referral takes place so Parents always retain that choice.
The voluntary component of this is for school communities to access this resource which is not otherwise available.
Welfare officers, counsellors, they’re all available in school systems provided by the people that run, mange the schools.
This is an additional resource the Commonwealth provides.
The Spec: You mentioned the importance of getting out of debt. The budget changes to education could see debts above $100,000 for graduating students and they have to start paying that off at real world interest rates,earning above $50,000 per year. Is consigning many people to almost a lifetime of debt consistent with the anti-debt message coming out of Canberra?
Sen. Ryan: Just a couple of corrections there; currently the taxpayer supports about 60 per cent, just under 60 per cent of the average cost of a university student’s course.
We’re planning to maintain that support in the high forties; about 48 to 50 per cent but it depends on universities and deregulation decisions they make.
You mentioned there interests rates.
No, students don’t have to pay real interest rates.
What we done is we have said students will pay interest at the 10-year government bond rate; now that is substantially lower than any interest rate available from bank or credit union on any commercial basis, and we’ve capped it at six per cent.
The current rate will then be basically one percentage point above inflation,
The rationale for that is there has been a dramatic rise in higher education, we support that, but if the government’s borrowing money to actually pay for this expansion, then we think that the cost that students incur should reflect that cost to the taxpayer.
That said, it’s still substantially lower than any commercial line available.
The cost of some degrees will go up, the costs of some courses will come down under a deregulated environment, that’s as it should be, but let’s not forget that, on overage, a university graduate will earn 75% more over the course of their working life than a non-graduate.
And particularly for those courses that might increase in costs that is likely to be much, much greater.
Wannon MP, Dan Tehan: time for one more
The Spec: What course fees will go down? Which type of course?
Sen. Ryan: That’s up to the universities, but-
The Spec: So how can you say they’ll go down?
Sen. Ryan: I’m saying some degrees are likely to go up, some courses are likely to go down, that’s what happens, and that may change from year to year.
The Spec: So, in a completely deregulated environment, you can guarantee that some course fees will go down?
Sen. Ryan: I’m not saying it’s a guarantee, I’m saying its likely, Rex, but the most important point about our scheme is that the principle of the HECS scheme remains in place: no student has to pay a single dollar upfront to do any undergraduate course in Australia.
That’s been in place since HECS was introduced in 1988 and, yes, costs have changed.
It was different for me, as it was for other people, but we all paid some contribution of our costs to university but that loan scheme, taxpayer-funded, where you don’t pay a single dollar back until you earn over $50,000, and you only pay back two per cent on that first threshold, that guarantees access to students no matter what their background.
The Spec: What is the overall vision for the education system in the budget?
Sen. Ryan: At the school level and the higher education level, what we want to see in increased parental engagement.
Parental engagement is such an important driver of school and community success, and that’s why the Minister has commissioned specific research into that area, but also why we’ve got the fund to support independent public schools because that does increase parental engagement at the school level.
At the higher education level, we’re dramatically expanding the HECS system and the fee subsidy system for sub degree courses: associate diplomas, diplomas, associate degrees.
For the first time students can access the HECS scheme but they’re not going on a traditional pathway, they’re accessing private colleges and private courses, and that’s going to dramatically increase access.
Tehan MP: Alright we’ll have to wind it up there
Sen. Ryan: Cheers, thanks Rex.
The Spec: Thankyou.