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Birmingham’s achievements and failures: a retrospective

He was in charge of grading, but now, the public has the scorecard. With Simon Birmingham’s departure from the Education Ministership, it’s possible to weigh up his tenure.

For schools, will he get a Band One on some initiatives, and a Band Six on others? In higher education, was his record kissed or blighted with any high distinctions or passes?

Education Review (schools) and Campus Review (higher education) asked industry leaders to report on ‘Birmo’. But, before they did so, he reflected on his time in the office.

“We have achieved great reforms over the last three years,” the longest serving education minister since Brendan Nelson (2001–2006) claimed.

Getting schooled

He is perhaps best known for facilitating the passing of the Gonksi 2.0 school funding reforms this year, which promised true, per-student needs-based investment in accordance with the recommendations of the Gonski report. While celebrating this, he also acknowledged its Catholic school-related flaws.

“I am confident that these reforms will provide enduring fairness that will only be enhanced by impending improvements,” he said.

The Australian Education Union, which advocates for public schools, said Gonski 2.0, which promises less money than the original Gonski plan (under a Labor government), doesn’t go far enough.

Despite this, they are much needed: NAPLAN writing results, after decreasing since 2011, just dipped to an all-time low. The NSW Teachers Federation, via a commissioned report, branded the results unreliable, as for the first time, under Birmingham’s watch, students undertook a mix of online and written tests.

Birmingham also lauded his embrace of the national phonics tests for Year Ones, to both praise and concern. Then there was his arguably failed STEM push, per the government’s overarching innovation strategy.

Higher (and lower) education

In terms of higher education, his crackdown on dodgy VET providers via the abolition of the FEE-HELP scheme benefited the sector, as did his Skilling Australians Fund.

Craig Robertson, chief executive officer of TAFE Directors Australia, termed the VET crackdown Birmingham’s “notable achievement”, yet said “the response in the form of VET Student Loans is administratively cumbersome and fiscally mean.” Robertson went on to lament the remoteness of the possibility of the government treating VET equally to universities, given it has recently been excised from the education portfolio.

More controversial, still, were Birmingham’s university reforms. Announced at MYEFO late last year, the government froze demand-driven funding and lowered the threshold for repayment of student loans. On the upside, however, were his changes to admissions transparencyrecord-breaking numbers of international students under his leadership, and a boost to infrastructure funding

Universities Australia was particularity appreciative of his support of international education.

The Innovative Research Universities, meanwhile, remained squarely diplomatic. “The IRU is grateful to former Education Minister Simon Birmingham for all his work in the role. Despite not always agreeing with his policy decisions we always had a good relationship and constructive dialogue with him and his office,” IRU Executive Director Conor King said.

High chair to higher ed

Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute – a policy thinktank covering all of education – thanked Birmingham for doing this himself. His holistic consideration of education was encapsulated in a speech he gave at the ADC Education Summit in August 2016, where he said: “From the high-chair to higher education we must ensure that the silos of our education system are coordinated, the transition seamless, and that we are all working towards similar objectives.” With the splitting of the education portfolio into education and VET, the Institute hopes the ‘continuum’ approach persists.

Nonetheless, the Institute was disappointed by Birmingham’s lack of commitment to ongoing funding for preschool for four-years.

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