By Tanya Plibersek

01 October 2020




This conference is the first time we’ve been able to meet since COVID-19 arrived on our shores.
It’s a chance for all of us to be honest with one another about the challenges we face.
And I intend to be honest as I can with these remarks – as honest as I can be in polite society. 
Australian universities have been under siege this year.
You’ve faced relentless pressure. You’ve been hit from every angle.
And you’ve endured this without a scrap of meaningful help from the federal Government.
Your Government has watched you scramble for survival, it’s watched you shed jobs by the thousand – and it’s refused to provide the kind of support that could help you through the crisis.  
In fact, the Government has taken pleasure in refusing to help you.
Watching this unfold has made me incredibly angry.
I’m sure it’s made you angry too.
I could tell this year’s depressing story again.
I could go over the tens of thousands of jobs that are being lost; the regional campuses being closed; the departments being shut down; the funding being sucked out.
But you know that story already. You know it by heart.
You’re living it – every time you open the news and see another university cutting hundreds of jobs – every time you sit up at night and wonder whether your workplace is next.
We’ve had so many of these announcements now, coming week after week, they can start to gather their own momentum – as if these losses are inevitable; as if they’re part of some natural process.
But the sad, infuriating truth is that none of this was inevitable.
Throwing our universities into crisis is a policy decision being made by the Morrison government.
They might like to pretend that this crisis was out of their hands; that it was driven by forces beyond their control.
Frankly, that’s rubbish.
No other industry of this size has been treated with the contempt that universities have been shown by Scott Morrison. 
No industry employing 260,000 Australians has been thrown under the bus this gleefully.
If any other important export industry – such as coal, gas, iron ore – was facing a crisis like this, Scott Morrison would, quite rightly, be falling over himself to help.
The facts are undeniable: when the Government was stepping in to help other industries, it deliberately excluded higher education.
As you all know, public universities were carved out of JobKeeper wage subsidies.
And just to make it clear this wasn’t an accident – Scott Morrison changed the rules three times to block you from the scheme.
There’s a point where indifference crosses over into hostility.
There’s a point where inaction becomes aggression.
And we’re far beyond that point with the Morrison Government.
Scott Morrison hasn’t been trying to stop university job losses, he’s been cheering them on. 
The treatment of universities by this Government only makes sense as part of a project to discredit and undermine higher education in this country.
It’s a project that predated COVID-19 – and it’s now using the virus as its cover.
Why else would Scott Morrison watch on as tens of thousands of Australians lose their jobs, without raising a single finger to help?
Why else would he watch hundreds of jobs go in regional towns like Armidale and Rockhampton – when he knows how devastating those losses are to local economies?
Why else would he allow the reputation of world class institutions to crumble in front of prospective new students?
If you were designing a response with the interests of universities at heart – with the interests of the people and communities relying on these jobs at heart – it would be the opposite of what we’ve seen here.
And to add insult to injury, the Government has a Bill in Parliament that again cuts funding to universities.
This is a Bill that cuts $1 billion a year from government university funding; a Bill that makes university degrees more expensive for Australians; a Bill that attempts to price people out of disciplines that the Government doesn’t like.
So much for academic freedom.
This Government has called university researchers heroes, but refused to provide an extra dollar to fund their lifesaving work.
It’s failed to help thousands of stranded Australians home from overseas – which has the knock-on effect of delaying the return of international students.
Of course, Australians should be brought back first – but the delay in bringing Australians back exacerbates uncertainty about when international students may be able to return to Australia. 
The Government blindsided you with new laws that could stop perfectly safe and productive international collaboration – the kind of collaboration that led to a vaccine for cervical cancer; or the first genomic sequencing of COVID-19.
And now, apparently, it's doing deals with One Nation to ensure that anti-vaxxers and holocaust deniers can ignore facts and spread their poison on our campuses.
That’s the state of play in Australian universities: we have a major party whose ideological mission is to weaken higher education.
To weaken Australia’s fourth largest export industry.
And it’s willing to let a global pandemic do its dirty work.
I know this isn’t a nice thing to think about. I wish it wasn’t true.
But it is – and we have to deal with it openly.
Of course, this culture war on universities is nothing new – but it’s now official Liberal Party policy. 
Liberal politicians want Australians to think a certain way about our universities.
They want us to think universities are impractical; an indulgence; a finishing school for a pampered elite.
They want us to equate universities with those tabloid headlines.
You know the ones: with a kooky scholar spending a decade on their study of Minoan needlework.
They want us to share their suspicion – and their scorn.
Of course, this never stopped every single Liberal Cabinet minister from going to university themselves.
And it has never stopped them moving heaven and earth to make sure their kids have the chance to.
Their hypocrisy goes to the heart of why the two major parties view higher education so differently. 
The Labor Party has never shared this attitude to universities – and we never will.
It’s always been our mission to democratise universities, to make them available to more people, not fewer.
For many of us, university was a ticket to opportunities that didn’t exist for our parents and our families.
We could never take them for granted.
I’ve got to say, this a particularly strange moment for the Liberals to be pursuing their culture war on universities.
Right when their practical importance to our economy and community has never been more obvious. 
Imagine Australia under COVID without strong universities.
No trained public health officials to design our response.
No epidemiologists to track and predict our cases.
No nurses and doctors to treat the infected.
No researchers striving for a vaccine.
No Dr Brett Sutton. No Dr Kerry Chant. No Dr Jeanette Young.
How can Scott Morrison call these people heroes one minute – and then trash the places that trained them the next?
How can he decide that now’s the time for thousands of researchers to lose their jobs?
That now’s the time to cut funding to teach the next generation?  
We’re relying on trained Australians to get us through COVID-19 – and we’ll rely on them to drive our economic recovery.
We now have a century of research telling us the same thing: the more skilled and educated a society is, the more prosperous it will be.
Labor knows that universities aren’t an indulgence – and I think the Australian people know that too.
Most Australians don’t share the Liberal hostility towards higher education.
The conservative stereotypes don’t hold up to reality.
41% of Australians between the age of 25 and 40 now hold a Bachelor’s degree.
And in workplaces where jobs are increasingly complex, that investment in our people is the foundation for continued national prosperity.
I’m worried that, with increased demand and a loss of university places, Australia will become one of the only developed nations where the percentage of graduates starts going backwards.
Universities are not a small or exclusive club.
They’re not the Australia Club, they’re not the Melbourne Club – even if the Liberals would prefer they were. 
Most Australians are proud when their child, or grandchild, or niece or nephew wins a place at university.
It’s certainly not for everyone – but it’s an aspiration held by families across the country.
The point here is, you can choose TAFE, you can choose university, but you shouldn’t be making that decision based on whether you can afford it.
I think back to my own experience, as the daughter of a plumber and a factory worker – and with my brothers, the first in our family to go to university.
I remember how proud my parents were – and all the opportunities it opened up in our lives.
My parents had a familiar experience for people of their generation. Clever people, who had to leave school early, in their case due to war.
Their lives were defined by war and migration – and they never had the chance to continue their studies.
They continued to read and educate themselves throughout their lives – but their chances in life were circumscribed by their background.  
I think of all the families in a similar position today – who sacrifice so much for their children to have opportunities they never did.
Only people who have been denied an education know what it feels like to see their kids get one.
I have had countless conversations with taxi drivers proudly telling me what their kids are studying at university.
I think of all the mature Australians who, after leaving school early, complete their degree at night classes – and how prized that qualification feels in their hands.
These Australians shouldn’t feel ashamed of their aspiration; they shouldn’t be made to hesitate or blush – like they are a tosser for wanting a university degree.
They should stand up straight with pride, knowing they have a supportive Government behind them.
We should be promoting this aspiration – just as we should be promoting vocational education with properly funded TAFEs.
This is not a competition; it’s not either/or. Our economy needs both.
We need architects and engineers to design the home – and we need tradies to build it.
Everyone listening today: you shouldn’t underestimate the good will that people feel towards universities.
As university leaders, you can sometimes seem embarrassed to defend your institutions; and squeamish about campaigning for your interests.
But the fact is, avoiding conflict does not mean that conflict won’t find you.
That’s been the lesson of the past seven years. 
There are millions of people out there who want to support you.
People who had their lives changed by university; people who want their kids to get opportunities they never did.
They’re out there – just waiting for your lead.
You have enormous credibility with students and parents and business. You can’t be afraid to use it.
You have an ally in me. And you certainly have an ally in Labor.
Labor’s record over decades speaks for itself.
We invest, they cut.
We collaborate, they dictate.
We support, they sneer.
Make no mistake: our universities are under threat.
Together, we need to fight for them – and we need to fight like we mean it.
Thank you.