SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you very much Ian. To Professor Ian O’Connor, Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, Gareth Evans, Chancellor at the ANU, fellow Vice-Chancellors present, to my Parliamentary colleagues present – Senator Bridget McKenzie to whom I think we owe enormous credit and probably apologies at this time of the Parliamentary year.
Chairing the Senate Education Committee is something of a challenging exercise because every time the government decides to do anything in the education landscape, it falls back upon Bridget’s shoulders.
To other Parliamentary colleagues – I think I noticed Shadow Minister Amanda Rishworth here as I arrived and anybody else who I may have missed.
Now I was speaking to an Australia-India Business Council function a few weeks ago now and was asked by the High Commissioner as I got there whether I had been to India. And I had to rather sheepishly say ‘well late last year I was scheduled to go to India and I was going to promote Australia’s water resources as the Parliamentary Secretary for the environment and then there was a reshuffle. And I was happily promoted and became the Assistant Minister for Education and Training but I did not go to India.
My replacement did instead. I was actually scheduled to go to India in the latter part of this year to talk about vocational education and training. And then there was a reshuffle. And I was happily promoted to become the Minister for Education and Training.
So Ian, in your remarks about how wonderful it is that Universities Australia gets to know so many different Members of Parliament because of the frequency in changes in the higher education portfolio, let me be very clear that I am now one for political stability.
ust like I told the Australia India Business Council that I hope next time, and I think I’m still game to schedule a visit to India, but next time I schedule a visit to India I trust that I will get to India. But I do hope and trust that this time next year I have the pleasure of being here and addressing the Universities Australia Christmas gathering as well.
I know that perhaps not all of those gathered here today [indistinct] I acknowledge some of my Federal opponents here as well, I hope that you’re here at this function next year as well, but I hope that I am the one who is up on stage.
Of course, Malcolm as Prime Minister is very fond of saying that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. Well I do think, reflective of Ian’s comments, I perhaps have one of the most exciting roles in government as the Minister for Education and Training.
At this Christmas time of year I sort of reflect back to ten weeks or so ago when I took on this role and discovered that my predecessors, the now Treasurer, Scott Morrison in the child care space and, of course, Christopher Pyne across all the other areas of education and training had left a number of Christmas presents for me. All very neatly wrapped presents with bows on top of them: a child care reform package that is not yet legislated, the school funding questions that stretch out and, of course, one dear to the hearts of those in this room around higher education reform and where it may go.
It is pleasing to see that in this, the final Parliamentary sitting week of the year, we have perhaps for the first time in a while managed to bump some of the difficulties that previous final weeks have had. The Senate is not sitting to ridiculous hours, we are not necessarily having enormously divisive debates about issues that end up crashing and burning as at least this time last year may have occurred and even in the political landscape we have a situation where the leaders of both major parties in this final Parliamentary sitting week of the year look like they’re still going to be the leaders of both major political parties at the end of the final Parliamentary sitting week of the year, unless my Labor colleagues have anything they would like to share with me.
This year, as we gather, it really is a good final week for some celebration, for some comradery and for types of gatherings like this one; uninterrupted and unimpeded by some of the other difficulties and for the types of reflections that Belinda made about the accomplishments through the year and indeed what is to come in the years beyond. Pleasingly, for the university sector, Christmas might have come early for me in taking on this role and finding those neatly wrapped presents, but Christmas and the New Year have many things to look forward to I am confident.
The innovation statement which will be released before the end of the year, and most likely next week seems to be the speculation, has been informed by the types of research reviews that have been initiated, such as the Watt Review, and Ian Watt has done a fabulous job I acknowledge as well in engaging with the sector, socialising the types of ideas and reforms he’s been thinking about and they have been very influential to the thinking around the innovation statement.
Of course, it is a statement that will go much, much further than just the research areas and other areas that touch on the universities sector and it will seek to provide a comprehensive reform agenda for innovation, but importantly, will not be the last thing I’m sure that the Turnbull Government has to say in relation to the innovation space.
Next year, of course, I hope and trust to be able to have the next stage of discussions with the sector in terms of higher education reforms and where we might take future arrangements for the higher education sector. I am pleased to have been able to have had the open and frank discussions with so many Vice-Chancellors and other stakeholders to date and there are many more to talk to yet. I am determined to make sure that, as I’ve said publically on numerous occasions now, that wherever we go in terms of higher education funding and regulatory arrangements in the future, they are driven by the desire to achieve excellence and equity in everything we do.
It is a credit to Australia that our higher education sector has the equity of access that we can achieve over so many years and we should strive to maintain that as something that we point to on the world-stage. It is a credit to Australia that we have such highly regarded universities that the world travels to be here to study at our universities that they recognise the quality and the wealth of the qualifications they get from our universities.
We need to strive to maintain that excellence and it is an excellence underpinned in part by the research outcomes and offerings that universities which I hope and trust will be further enhanced by the innovation statement to be released shortly. Of course, in tandem with that as has rightly been acknowledged, we will also be releasing the final international education strategy which will again set a very clear direction for a government that has demonstrated, through the appointment of Australia’s first dedicated Minister for International Education, our strong commitment to make sure we maintain and enhance our reputation as a provider of international education.
So there is much that we will have to look forward to, I trust, over the next year. Much to talk about and, of course, if that is not enough for you, next year we will have the wondrous joy of a Federal Election as well. So can I conclude by thanking everybody for the way in which you have welcomed me to the portfolio by acknowledging the fact that, I hope, having come through the last ten weeks in which the Parliament has sat for much of the time, that over the next few months I will have the opportunity to get around to some of the parts of the country that I have not had the chance to visit yet, but I hope to spend more time on campuses and less time hopefully in offices and have the opportunity to be able to see one of the wonderful things that you are doing to enhance teaching and learning experiences of your students to enhance the research outcomes through your different programmes and ultimately to make an incredible contribution to the wealth and prosperity of Australia. Thank you all very much and in closing can I simply say Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to everyone.