Peter Van Onselen: Well the Government has faced criticism from education groups over its plan to allow joint ventures with companies and high schools. The scheme is designed to promote subjects that are lacking, apparently, in Australia’s education system, namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The PM viewed the scheme first-hand on his recent trip to New York, where a local school has partnered with technology giant IBM. The Australian Education Union, however, has warned that the scheme amounts to the corporatisation of Australian schools. Today, the Education Minister Christopher Pyne joined the Prime Minister to announce a Geelong school will become the trial site for the new programme. Joining me to discuss this plan, as well as wider debates about high school curriculum and higher education reforms, is the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Senator Scott Ryan – he’s in our Melbourne studio. Senator, appreciate your time, thanks for being there.
Scott Ryan: Good evening, Peter.
VAN ONSELEN: Do you have any concerns about, as the union puts it, the corporatisation of Australian schools?
RYAN: Look, that’s typical of the AEU, sadly, where it just throws out one-liners rather than seriously considering good policy proposals. Let’s put in context what we’re talking about here. You mention the school in Brooklyn the Prime Minister visited. What this is about is helping students get more work-ready; get those skills as they leave school that help them get a job. One of the issues we’ve seen …
VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] So are they not doing that already, Senator? I’m not against this scheme, let me just be very frank with our viewers from the outset. Far from it, actually, it sounds pretty good to me, but I’m concerned that they wouldn’t already be getting those in some way. Is this just a better way of them getting them, in the Government’s view?
RYAN: Well, you’re right to highlight that as a concern, Peter. We’ve heard from employers, particularly [inaudible] that they don’t think that students are as work-ready when they leave school. Now, part of that is that the nature of first jobs has changed. We don’t have the mass intakes of people into semi-skilled jobs in the manufacturing industry where people might learn a bit more on the job. Often peoples’ first jobs now require qualifications, whereas 30 and 40 years ago they didn’t. What this proposal is about is adding to the existing school curriculum. What it does is it will give students the opportunity to learn how particular businesses or skills work in the workplace, and it will make them more job-ready and more employer-ready. And the partnerships that are being talked of …
VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] Again, sorry to interrupt, Senator. So it won’t send them necessarily on a path that militates against them going to uni or going to TAFE early on, it will just simply be an adjunct to them to have skills that corporates are looking for – is that a good way to put it?
RYAN: It augments what is in the school curriculum. They’ll still be studying the normal school curriculum – what it does is that it augments it. By bringing some of these large employers, or potentially some smaller employers, into contact with our teachers and school communities we hope that we can bridge that gap that a lot of employers, and indeed a lot of school leavers talk about, where they don’t think they’re ready for work. And you’re right to say that is a bit of a problem because people do stay at school longer now – they are older when they leave. But our economy has changed, we don’t have those masses of jobs that people like my Dad did when they left school at 15.
VAN ONSELEN: We spoke here to the National Policy Manager of AMEC, of course representing mid and small-tier mining companies – explosion companies in particular – he thinks that it’s a great idea. We spoke to him on the day that it came out. What has Labor’s reaction been so far?
RYAN: Well I haven’t seen a particular comment from the Labor Party on this. I’m not going to verbal them. But I think most people have indicated that this is a pilot trial that is worth exploring. And for the AEU to just, in a reactionary way, throw out their slogans to appeal to their base, sadly shows that they’re not willing to consider the new ideas.
VAN ONSELEN: Why do they do it? Amongst all the unions, it seems that the education union is the most militantly opposed to the Coalition in many ways. What’s the issue here? Is there some sort of philosophical difference of the way to teach?
RYAN: Well there are some philosophical differences. I mean the other day the AEU was the only group to really come out in criticism of the Government’s initial response to the review of the curriculum. Even Kate Ellis managed to be complimentary about it, but the AEU found reasons to be critical. Sadly I think the AEU too often reflects the narrow interests of some of its members, not all of the teachers, many of whom, of course, aren’t necessarily members and most of whom work hard and do what they can to best educate the children before them. But it reflects a narrow ideological crusade that seems to gravitate against school choice, parent choice, school autonomy, testing in schools and even a rigorous curriculum.
VAN ONSELEN: We had Kate Ellis on this program the other night and she basically said that one of the reasons that they support a lot of these curriculum changes that you’ve announced is because essentially they’re just extending what Labor was already doing – any truth in that?
RYAN: Well, I don’t think so, but I’m not going to make this a party political issue. The review that the Minister commissioned, and that was released on Sunday, highlighted a number of problems with the national curriculum as it stood and one of the key issues was that of crowding of the primary school curriculum. There is not a primary school teacher in Australia who will not tell you that they’re being asked to do too much, that they don’t have enough time to teach those basic foundation skills, and we know that if students leave primary school without high degrees of mathematical literacy, high degrees of reading and writing literacy, then they’re going to struggle in high school. That is what is so critical in primary school, and that was one of the major focuses of the Government’s response.
VAN ONSELEN: Just quickly before we run out of time, I want to ask you about higher education. You’re a bit of an economic liberal, it would be fair to say. You’ve also got responsibilities in the education space within the executive. Are you concerned as a party member of the Liberal parliamentary team that if you have to compromise too much in the Senate on some of the fiscal necessities within the higher education reform package to get it through, that you will do economic damage just to get a quality reform package through the Parliament?
RYAN: Well one of the critical elements of the reform package is that Labor left a lot of our research infrastructure unfunded. Part of this package is actually about ensuring the National Research Infrastructure, the Federation Fellows, that Labor didn’t put aside any money for, actually continue into the future. So it’s not just about undergraduates, it’s also about a long-term investment in Australian research, which as we know is world leading. Look, no government really controls the Senate except for some very odd exceptions over the last 35 years – negotiating with the Senate crossbench has always been something that governments have to do …
VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] But are you concerned about the fiscal side of it if you have to negotiate too hard to get it through?
RYAN: The entire Government is concerned about the fiscal disaster left to us by Labor. But we are negotiating – the Minister is negotiating with the crossbench – it’s just a pity that despite every university in Australia supporting these reforms, the Labor Party has decided not to partake in this critical debate for our country’s future.
VAN ONSELEN: All right. Senator Scott Ryan, as always appreciate your time on the show. Thanks very much.
RYAN: Thanks, Peter.