By Tanya Plibersek

03 June 2021






Acknowledgments omitted.
Thank you for having me again.

It’s good to see everyone back together.

I know that the past year has been extremely challenging for Australian universities.

You’ve been through a lot – and you’re still facing some big questions.

Questions about crisis and recovery.

About how we deal with the immediate challenge – while building something stronger and more resilient on the other side.

Like others, the pandemic has drawn me to history.

To other moments of crisis, like World War Two.

When we managed to fight and win the war – while mapping out an ambitious plan for reconstruction.

A plan to honour people’s sacrifice, by giving them something better.

The centrepiece of that program after World War Two was a job and a home for every Australian.

And with the leadership of Ben Chifley’s Labor Government, the plan succeeded – with a long period of full employment and a massive rise in home ownership.

What might be less known is the central role that universities played in reconstruction.

Because the war itself was an incredibly complex operation.

By far the most complex thing the Australian Commonwealth had ever undertaken.

There was the mobilisation effort.

There was logistics and supply.

There was the endless need for manufacturing and armaments.

And it was all happening at once, against a ruthless and sophisticated enemy.

This experience taught Australia’s leaders some important lessons.

Firstly, we needed more specialists in fields such as economics, science, planning, engineering, agriculture, and foreign affairs.

And secondly, we needed a much greater national research capacity.

These were the lessons of war – but they also applied to the peace.

And our leaders listened.

They responded with an unprecedent period of university investment.

In the years after the war, Commonwealth research grants doubled.

We built the Australian National University in Canberra.

We wrote a new Act for the CSIRO – which expanded its organisation and purpose.

And we established the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme.

This was our version of America’s GI Bill, which paid the university tuition of returned servicemen and women – while also giving them a living allowance.

For 60,000 veterans, the scheme was life changing.

This was the post war agenda for universities.

To grow our research capacity – and to give more Australians a chance at higher education.

To build a modern university system, which could support industry and help drive a post-war economic boom.

That was the vision – and it was supported by both Labor and Liberal governments; by Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies.

The contrast with today could not be more disheartening.

Instead of recognising the value of education to our economic recovery …

Instead of growing access and expanding capacity …

This Government is systemically trashing higher education in Australia.

That’s the message it’s sending students and staff.

That’s what it’s telling you with its attitude and its legislation and its budgets.

Even if we just look at the past twelve months.

This Government spent the pandemic ignoring your cry for help.

As thousands of university workers were losing their jobs around the country.

As thousands more were worried about their future.

The Prime Minister deliberately excluded you from JobKeeper wage subsidies.

No other industry of your size received such a pointed silence.

Businesses with soaring profits got millions in wage subsidies.

Casinos got wage subsidies.

But universities didn’t.

While all this was happening, the Government then introduced legislation that more than doubled course fees for thousands of students.

Legislation that originally included an overall cut to your funding.

And that was targeted, quite viciously, at disciplines the Government dislikes.

They dawdled on vaccination and quarantine.

Which slowed the return of Australian citizens caught overseas.

Which then pushed the return of international students even further down the road.

And now, in this year’s Budget, when the Government has been spraying billions around to solve its political problems, racking up a trillion dollars of debt – hardly a dollar for universities.

There’s no plan for higher education coming from this Prime Minister.

No vision. No real interest. 

At best, he doesn’t care.

At worst, he’s happy to see you struggle.

This hurts everyone involved with universities.

It’s a kick in the guts for all your staff, for all your students, for everyone who wants to see their kids get a great education.

But it’s also a disaster for our economy.

We’re in a strange moment now – with people not spending much money last year, pent up savings are being spent in an economic sugar hit.

But before the pandemic arrived, our economy was not healthy.

Josh Frydenberg says that he’s not going to cut or tax his way out of our trillion dollar debt.

That, instead, he’s going to grow his way out of it.

But if you look at his record before the crisis, that promise is hard to believe.

Everywhere you looked, Australia was limping along.

Productivity was stagnant.

Wages were going nowhere.

Business investment had stalled.

Growth was low.

Labour productivity was going backwards, for the first time in 25 years.

And according to research by Harvard University, we had the economic complexity of a developing country.

Australia was squished in between Uganda and Burkina Faso – as the 87th most complex economy in the world.

We were by far the least complex rich economy in the world – 15 places behind Chile, the next nearest OECD country.

Low economic complexity means that most of Australia’s exports are in just a handful of baskets.

Which is not only an economic risk – it’s holding our economy back.

As the Harvard report put it: Australia was ‘less complex than expected for its income level. As a result, its economy is projected to grow slowly’.

The situation was so grim that it suggested a targeted industry strategy – which is usually reserved for developing countries, trying to industrialise for the first time.

The suggestions for industry support included pig fat, butter, frozen vegetables – and, interestingly enough, vaccines and serums.

Knowing what we know now, the report makes for fascinating reading.

Because it shows just how proactive we need to be in developing a diversified economy.

And it shows what a big payoff that hard work can provide.

Imagine if we’d listened to warnings like this – and built the vaccine factories before the pandemic hit.

Of course, our primary industries are a great source of national wealth.

They’ve always been the bedrock – and they will continue to be.

But as things stand, we’re very dependent on commodity prices.

And we have limited room to move if prices shift – or if some markets turn their backs on us suddenly.

That’s why we need to actively nurture other industries.

Not to replace the existing ones that already contribute so much to our national wealth, but to complement them.

To take our resources – and then use our skill and invention to transform them into other, more sophisticated products. 

Which is why Labor wants to work with you all on how our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund can help translate your brilliant discoveries and inventions into new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs.

As a nation, we haven’t done this as well as we should.

Unfortunately, this Government insists on treating our best services export, and our fourth largest export industry, like a fifth column.

Like a problem to be managed – not a treasured asset to be encouraged. 

It goes without saying that if you were coal, iron ore, or natural gas, you’d be treated very differently.

University export income alone should be enough to warrant support during a global crisis.

By next year, the absence of international students will have cost the Australian economy $18 billion.

That’s a loss to universities – and it’s a loss to all the cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, movie theatres and clothes stores they’re no longer shopping in.

But the national dividend from universities is much wider than that.

Because you can’t have a strong, modern, diversified economy without a healthy university system.

That’s a lesson that smart countries learn very quickly.

Higher education is an investment – with a large, reliable return.

According to OECD research, countries get a 200 to 300 percent return on the investment they make in the tertiary education of their citizens.

If anyone else offered you an investment on those terms, you would take it in a heartbeat.

You don’t have to be Warren Buffet to see that.

Because when universities succeed, their success touches everyone.

It touches people who are lucky enough to study in them – and it touches people who never step foot on a campus.

You can trace their effect – right through the economy.

From graduating classes of highly trained citizens, to greater productivity, to research and invention, to new products and techniques, to new companies and new exports.

That’s the pipeline.

And when it works, it creates good local jobs.

There’s a great example of this in Melbourne – with a company called PolyNovo.

PolyNovo produces a remarkable substance called NovoSorb.

NovoSorb is an artificial, biodegradable skin, which surgeons use to treat traumatic wounds.

It helps a patient’s skin regrow – and then absorbs back into the body.

And it does this while reducing the risk of infection.

This product only exists because of scientists at the CSIRO – who created the original polymer on which NovoSorb is based.

So we have an Australian product – built off Australian public research.

And what’s more, it’s made in an Australian factory in Port Melbourne – where it’s then shipped off to the world. 

Or take another example: the modular, self-fitting hearing aid – which was launched in 2018.

Based on world first technology, this new aid allows users to adjust and manage their own devices at home.

It’s an ingenious product – and beautifully designed too.

This project grew out research led by Professor Peter Blamey and Dr Elaine Saunders – in partnership with RMIT and Swinburne University.

It took 13 prototypes to perfect – and decades of research to invent.  

And now, like NovoSorb, this life changing, award winning hearing aid is being produced by Australian manufacturers.

That’s what the pipeline looks like.

Brilliant research, leading to local manufacturing and employment. 

The model is right there, in front of us.

But as country, we don’t do nearly enough to support this kind of work – or the people who do it.

The truth is: Australia can be an unwelcoming place for researchers.

Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen too many experts hang up their coats – and leave their labs for good.

In March, the ANU announced its plan to close the university’s neuroscience division.

This is the Eccles Institute – named after Sir John Eccles, Australia’s fifth Nobel Prize Winner.

Because of financial pressure brought on by COVID, the Institute was on the verge of shutting down – taking 52 jobs with it.

All that combined talent, on the frontier of human knowledge – about to be broken up and scattered, to who knows where.  

Thankfully, the Eccles Institute was saved at the last minute – at the price of 15 lost jobs.

But the fact that this was even a possibility, that we were on the verge of losing the neuroscience school at our original research university, is a scandal.

Not of the ANU’s making – but of the Government’s.

Problems like this are being triggered by the absence of support during the pandemic.

But truth be told, they were around well before that. 

A 2016 survey of medical researchers found that 83 per cent of them had contemplated leaving the profession.

These are the people who’ve invent incredible products like NovoSorb.

Who genetically sequenced the COVID virus – in a lab at Sydney University.

Who discovered a vaccine for cervical cancer – at the University of Queensland.

Who developed a drug to accelerate the knee’s recovery from serious injuries – at James Cook University.

Who designed the incredible new generation of light weight solar panels – at the University of New South Wales.

Who are doing pioneering work on algae biotechnology – at the University of Technology Sydney.

And who are researching the future of sustainable food production – at Murdoch University.

These are the people who are answering these surveys.

And most of them have thought about throwing in the towel.

Early and mid-career researchers have it particularly tough.

Without an obvious pathway to permanent work; living year by year on insecure contracts; and relying on unpredictable rounds of grant funding for their next job.

The Australian Postdoctoral Reference Survey found that over half of our early career researchers had thought about moving overseas.

And plenty of them have already made that decision.

When we watch these people leave our country, we’re watching economic opportunities fly off. 

It’s an exodus of talent – and exodus of economic potential.

It’s a national tragedy.

And it’s self inflicted.

As a country, we spend well below the OECD average on research and development.

And we’re one of the few in the OECD where that number is falling.

We’re diminishing our researchers – just like we’re burdening our students.

For our ongoing economic success, nothing is more important than how we train and educate our people.

At school. At TAFE. At university. On the job.

But that’s not the signal coming from this Government.

It’s certainly not its policy agenda.

Last year’s changes to university fees were a mess.

Not only did they make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university – they were hopelessly muddled and confused; doing the opposite of what they promised to do.

And this is before you get to the problem of university places.

Every Australian kid who works hard and gets the marks should have a chance to go to university – if they want to.

But because of this Government’s policy, there’s a shortage of places for them.

That means that young Australians will miss out on their opportunity.

And for many, they will lose the straightest pathway to their dream job. 

This is about fairness and aspiration – about rewarding people’s hard work.

But it’s also about our economic future – about producing the number of skilled graduates we need as country.

Labor recognises this growing problem.

And we’re committed to working with universities to find out the best way to solve it.

I want to end today by returning to the lessons of history.

Because what we’ve learned in this pandemic isn’t that different to what we learned in World War II.

At every stage of the crisis, we’ve relied on universities and their graduates – on experts and their research.

When the situation was most desperate, we depended on public health officials, epidemiologists, nurses and doctors.

And we’ve relied on vaccine researchers to gift us a ticket back to normality.

Australia’s wartime leaders learned the lessons of their crisis – but the leaders of today aren’t listening.

Because our ongoing prosperity depends on the health of our education system.

It relies on the health of our universities.

Any campaign to devalue them is nothing short of economic vandalism.

In the Labor Party, we’ve never shared the Government’s suspicion of universities – nor its scorn.

We’ve always recognised your value.

As one of Australia’s most vital economic and social institutions.

We don’t see universities and TAFE as competitors – but as complementary building blocks in our plan to develop the nation.

I promise you that a Labor Government will restore universities to their rightful place.

You will be respected again.

You will have a partner in government once more.

And you will be given the support you need to do what you do best: world class teaching and world class research.

Educating a new generation of professionals – and growing a new generation of local inventions, discoveries and successful businesses.

Thank you.