By Tanya Plibersek

24 June 2020




SUBJECT: Liberals’ university changes.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON, HOST: The Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. His opposite number is Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Tanya Plibersek, good morning.


LEVINGSTON: Firstly, what was your reaction to this announcement by the Government on Friday?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it is good that some courses are going down in cost to students but as the Minister himself said in the interview you played, a lot of students will be paying a lot more to go to university. In fact, the cost of a lot of courses will in fact double and the extra places - we would love to see extra places, but these extra places are paid for by those increased costs to other students. The Minister is talking about 39,000 extra places between now and 2023, but a hundred thousand young people joined the dole queue just last month. And, you know in Queensland - UQ has said today that they'll be getting 15 per cent less per student from the Government, and the University of the Sunshine Coast believes that the changes will cost them five million dollars. So, like most things, the devil's in the detail. We'd like to welcome lower costs and more places. But in fact this will make it harder for students to get a university place and it'll make it more expensive for many, many students.

LEVINGSTON: The Government says they want job-ready courses and that's why they're looking at a model that will put humanities degrees at around fourteen thousand dollars a year and teaching English, maths, nursing degrees at around three thousand seven hundred dollars per year. Let me ask you a sort of a broader philosophical question. What do you what do you think is the point, the purpose of university education?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think getting a job at the end of a university degree is a good thing and that people absolutely should be aiming to do that. But I think it's also a time to think more broadly about the world, learn the skills that will not just take you into your first job but be with you throughout your life: critical thinking, cooperation, the ability to research, synthesise and write well. I mean, absolutely people should be thinking about where the jobs are. And, I think the strange thing about what the Minister's saying is most students, most parents, the careers advisor at school, would be very happy if they had much better information about where those jobs are going to be. People don't make a decision to study for three or four years and spend thousands of dollars in their education because they, you know, because they don't care whether they're going to have a job at the end of it. Of course, students and their parents and their teachers are thinking about this already and the idea that humanities graduates aren't employable just isn't borne out by the facts. In fact, humanities graduates have good employment rates and good rates of pay throughout their careers. And, if the Government really wants to encourage people to be doing more science and maths and engineering, which is terrific - I hope people do take up those disciplines - it will be good to actually pay our scientists decently, to have a research budget in Australia that meant that we could keep our best and brightest here and they could have a career path and they weren't continually spending their lives applying for small funding grants from year to year. I just think this package really doesn't hit the mark of what the Government says it wants to do.

LEVINGSTON: You're listening to Tanya Plibersek live on ABC Radio Brisbane - Shadow Education and Training Minister. Can you explain who sets university fees? Because this announcement seemed to take universities a bit by surprise.

PLIBERSEK: Yeah. Well, I think that the first thing to say it's complicated and it's a bit all over the place. It used to be, when we started saying that students needed to make a contribution to the cost of their education, that every student contributed the same amount and no matter what they were studying. The Howard Government changed that to say that you could charge different amounts to students and it was supposed to reflect someone's earning capacity throughout their lives. So, if you're doing a degree like law where you're expected to earn more, you would pay more than you would if you were going to be a social worker, for example. That link has really been broken, particularly in this most recent package where the combination of what the Government's putting in for a degree and what a student puts in for a degree is sending all sorts of crazy signals to universities. The Government says they want fewer people doing arts, law and commerce, but when you look at the combined student contribution and Government contribution for those courses, people like Julie Bishop, who's now the Chancellor of ANU, are saying in fact there's a perverse incentive to graduate more of these students because they're relatively cheaper to teach. If you look at the disciplines that the Government says they want you studying, they want you studying science and engineering apparently, but the combined student and government contribution for these subjects is actually less than universities would need for it to provide an incentive to offer more places. And some Chancellors are saying they're going to offer fewer places in these disciplines because of these new funding arrangements.

LEVINGSTON: It is interesting to see Julie Bishop come out in her new university role now and question the logic here. The former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also said overnight "I can't see the rationale for doubling the cost of humanities degrees"...

PLIBERSEK: I think he called it baffling.

LEVINGSTON: Baffling, okay. Is there an opportunity here for TAFE - for other vocational course offerings?

PLIBERSEK: I mean absolutely. We absolutely have to be investing more in TAFE. This isn't a competition between universities and TAFE. We're going to need both. Like I said, a hundred thousand young people joined the dole queue last month. In one month a hundred thousand extra people joined the dole queue, and we know that fewer students will be taking a gap year next year. So, all those ones who would normally work for a year and save up some money - they're not going to be doing that. They're going to be applying to go to TAFE or university. We know that 9 out of 10 jobs created in coming years will need at TAFE or a university education afterwards. But, here we see cuts to the Government investment in university, making it more competitive to get a place in university and more expensive if you do manage to get a place. Plus, with TAFE we've seen a hundred and forty thousand fewer apprentices and trainees since the Liberals came to office. We're losing apprentices at the rate of two thousand a week - another hundred thousand due to go by the end of the year. And, during this time, three billion dollars cut from TAFE and Training and a billion dollars underspent. So I don't think, as parents, as adults, we should be saying 'Kids you need to go to uni or you need to go to TAFE - I'd prefer you to do one or the other.' We need both systems to be firing at the top of their game so that young people who can't get a job in this recession or older workers who've lost their job and want to re-skill so that they have economic opportunity down the road – we should be offering an excellent TAFE system and an excellent University system, so they can be learning, educating themselves, skilling up while they haven't got a job. So that they're ready when the economy takes off again as we hope it will sooner rather later.

LEVINGSTON: Can I just go back to that figure you said in terms of apprentices? We're losing two thousand a week - you mean places or people who've already started apprenticeships?

PLIBERSEK: So it's people dropping out, losing their jobs and a thousand - so half of it is people dropping out, losing their jobs and the other half are positions not being offered that in better economic circumstances would normally be offered. So that comes from the national apprenticeship peak body. So the organisations that provide the oversight and the training opportunities for apprentices around Australia have estimated another hundred thousand will go by the end of this year: two thousand a week. So this is not a competition between TAFE and University - we need both but we've got neither at the moment. We've got more unemployment, it's harder to go to university, it's more expensive to go to university, it's harder to go to TAFE.

LEVINGSTON: Tanya Plibersek, you said, you know the fee system is complicated and, yeah, I reckon it's fair to say it's hard to wrap your head around it. But one figure that also stands out that was mentioned from Dan Tehan, the Federal Education Minister, he says the Morrison Government is committed to record university funding - 18 billion dollars is that - ?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've got a record population as well. The fact is university funding isn't keeping up with demand. When we were in government university funding in 2007 was eight billion dollars. In 2013 it was 14 billion dollars. It was growing with demand which meant that a hundred ninety thousand extra people got the chance to go to university and we saw really good results in Indigenous student numbers; students from poorer backgrounds; students with a disability; and students from country areas all had really substantial increases in their representation at university. We saw a lot of first people in their family to ever get a chance of a university education, they got a chance under the demand-driven system. Going back to the caps as this Government did in 2017, the estimate is that 200,000 people will miss out on a university education over the decade because of because the Government has recapped access to university. And I've got to say it's a nutty thing to do at any time, to deny anyone in education in a modern economy, but to do it during a recession when the alternative is being on the dole queue just makes no sense at all.

LEVINGSTON: It's not yet legislated, do you think it'll actually get up - the fee changes will come into play?

PLIBERSEK: Well that'll depend on the Senate. I mean we've got, we haven't seen any legislation yet, so first of all we need to see the legislation and we need to you know, as a Labor Party will go through all of our normal processes. But you know, the Senate numbers are very finely balanced so we'll have to see what happens there. I would be, I would be so disappointed though if our Parliament ended up legislating to make it harder to get a uni place and more expensive if you do.

LEVINGSTON: Just finally Tanya Plibersek I'm going to read you a text here from Penny, I'd be interested in your response. Penny says 'education should be considered an investment not a cost; for every dollar the Government invests in education the return is around four dollars. Further education contributes to the common good - for these reasons the Government should make TAFE and University free.'

PLIBERSEK: Yeah. Well, I very much agree with the sentiment that education is an investment and that investment starts with early childhood education with preschool, and you know, we should be making sure that every child has all the essentials under their belt by the age of eight, those early years are super important. But throughout TAFE and university, as well as the lifetime of schooling, it is an investment - of course it is - and we should consider it a public good as a nation. The benefit of having some student contribution in higher education is that we can afford to put more people through university for the same amount of money. What's happening now though is that student contribution is really, it's becoming so big that it's become a disincentive for people to study. And even if, even if people have the willingness now to spend the money there are fewer places with more people competing for them. So people are being locked out of education. And that's a tragedy that should never happen in a country like Australia.

LEVINGSTON: Tanya Plibersek, really appreciate your time. Thank you.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Rebecca.