Jim Wilson: Well, a war of words has erupted between the Commonwealth and the states on the issue of NAPLAN tests. Now, NAPLAN, as I’m sure you know, is the National Literacy and Numeracy Assessment. Last Friday, the results of an independent review of NAPLAN were released. The review has proposed what’s been described as a rebranded testing regime, with something called the Australian National Standardised Assessments to take the place of NAPLAN. But, the report has also endorsed the role of standardised testing. Now, this new test would take place at the start of the year, with results to be delivered to schools within a week. At the moment, it takes months. New South Wales Education Minister Sarah Mitchell writing today in The Australian says, ‘If there’s ever a time to advance NAPLAN into a test our education system needs, it’s right now.’ Her story appears under the headline, ‘NAPLAN works but the future’s brighter.’ Now, Sarah Mitchell argues NAPLAN is considerably out of date and no longer up to the task. She writes, ‘To blindly support NAPLAN when there is an obviously superior alternative on the table is ignorance at best, perhaps pig headedness at worst.’ As someone who, well, could be argued is in the pigheaded corner, is Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. He’s accused Sarah Mitchell and her state colleagues in Victoria and Queensland of destroying the only national test that provides evidence of how students are progressing. And, Minister Dan Tehan is on the line this afternoon. Minister, welcome to Drive.
Dan Tehan: Jim, pleasure to be with you.
Wilson: Thank you for your time. From your perspective, is NAPLAN all about?
Tehan: So, what we want to do with NAPLAN is, first of all, is get all the states and territories adopting NAPLAN online. We can’t do anything to advance NAPLAN until we have all the state and territories online with NAPLAN, and that is the focus of the Commonwealth Government. That’s what we want to see all states and territories agree to. Then we can look at, okay, what are some sensible changes that you could make once you have everyone online. But, until we get there, looking at other things that you would do with NAPLAN is premature.
Wilson: Okay. You say NAPLAN was created to measure what students have learnt, so parents, students and educators can track progress in education. How well do you think NAPLAN is doing on that front?
Tehan: Look, I think it’s doing very well. It’s telling us how well our students are achieving. And, the fact of the matter is, what it’s demonstrating is that we need to put more effort into literacy, into numeracy, and making sure that our students are getting the knowledge that they need to advance their education. And, the problem we’ve got at the moment is, everyone is blaming NAPLAN for the fact that our results are flat lining. That’s like blaming a thermometer for you having a temperature, rather than seeking to address the issues which are causing the temperature, and that’s what the Commonwealth wants us to focus on. We want to make sure we’ve got the curriculum right. We want to make sure we’ve got the literacy and numeracy standards right. We’ve got to make sure that we’re providing the support to our teachers that they need, and our principals. That’s what we need to be doing to lift outcomes.
Wilson: Now, this review I mentioned, was commissioned by the education ministers in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. What do you …
Tehan: … And, the ACT.
Wilson: And, the ACT. What do you make of the recommendations?
Tehan: Look, there are a couple of things which I think are sensible, if you have every state and territory online. For instance, bringing forward when you hold the test, I think, has some sense to it. So, that would be one thing that we would support. But, there’s no point us agreeing to all this until we have every state and territory online with the test. So, there are some elements of this which we should consider and, as Education Council should, but not until we have everyone committed to adopting NAPLAN online. Because, otherwise, all we’re doing is making changes when we haven’t got the right tools in place to be able to make those changes.
Wilson: But, Minister, if NAPLAN is going to be a diagnostic tool, then getting the results back inside a week rather than the current months and months, isn’t that something we should support?
Tehan: Yes. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be aiming to get the results back quicker. But, once again, the only way you can do that is if you move from paper-based to online testing, and that’s what I want all the states and territories to agree to first. There’s no point saying, ‘Oh yes, we all agree that we should have the results back in a week or two weeks,’ yet we’re still doing paper-based testing, when we know that that just can’t happen. This is all, I’m worried, is just all a distraction to start tinkering with NAPLAN and move away from the focus that we need, which is, first of all, get everyone online, and then we look at, okay, how can we take sensible steps to improve it. One of the other things that’s suggested is, basically, we do away with writing. Now, I think parents would not agree to us taking writing away from NAPLAN, and not being able to see how our children are progressing when it comes to their writing skills. So, there are things like that which, obviously, we wouldn’t agree to. But, first of all, if we could get students all online in doing their test, then, yes, you could think about bringing the test forward, and, yes, you would look at ways to how you can improve turning around the outcomes from the test. But, until you’ve got everyone online, that’s not going to be achieved.
Wilson: Minister, you announced earlier this year plans to create more university places and to change the way students are charged. New modelling from the Parliamentary Library shows some students will take 20 years to pay off their debts under the new system. For some students, that’s an almost doubling of the time they’ll need. How concerned are you by that?
Tehan: Well, that was Greens modelling, and what they did was ask specific questions about specific subjects. It wasn’t balanced. They didn’t look at the subjects that we are reducing the cost of. They only looked at those that we’re increasing the cost of. They didn’t take into account the employment outcomes that you get from taking certain degrees. So, that was Greens modelling which was done in a way which I don’t think really stands the test of being properly scrutinised. What our changes do is provide 100,000 new university places, puts $2 billion into the higher education sector, and for those who are doing nursing, teaching, maths, English, languages, IT, reduces the cost of your degree, because we know they’re the types of degrees that we’re going to need people in the workforce into the future.
Wilson: We’re also told today, Minister, how the Federal Government will launch an inquiry into foreign interference in Australian universities, and how the Chinese Government has recruited academics to a secretive program that paid lucrative salaries and allowed research to be patented in China. What can you tell us?
Tehan: Well, Jim, what I can tell you is that we’ve been working with the university sector to ensure that we do have the policies in place to deal with foreign interference, and we had our intelligence agencies work with the sector to put in place guidelines. Now, we want to make sure that those guidelines are addressing all the potential issues when it comes to foreign interference in Australia, and that’s why we’ve now asked the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to look at those guidelines and look at other things, and inform the Government whether there are other steps we need to be taking to make sure that we are protecting our universities from foreign interference.
Wilson: You’re obviously very concerned, though, as far as that overseas interference or that foreign interference, as far as our universities are concerned?
Tehan: We are Jim. We want to make sure that when it comes to our universities, when it comes to the incredibly important research that they’re doing, for instance, on trying to find a vaccine for COVID-19, that we know that they’re protected from intellectual property theft, from cyber-attacks which might steal secrets that are being worked on for a vaccine. Those types of things. We want to make sure that our universities are protected.
Wilson: Minister, thanks for your time this afternoon.
Tehan: Always a pleasure, Jim. Thanks.
Wilson: That’s Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.