By Tanya Plibersek

22 June 2020



MONDAY, 22 JUNE 2020

SUBJECTS: Liberals’ plan for universities.

ANNELISE NIELSEN, HOST: Now joining us live is Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, thank you for your time. This uni funding overhaul. It comes at a time where the university sector is being asked to reconsider its business model in particular one that really relies on foreign students. What is your issue with how this division has happened?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Well the problem with what the government is proposing is that people will have less of a chance to go to university and if they get into university, it'll be more expensive. So quite typically for this government you see a headline one day and then a whole lot of nasty detail the next day. The nasty fine print in this arrangement is that most students on average students will be paying more for their university degree, the government is promising extra places but it’s trying to provide those extra places without a single extra dollar of government funding. That means that the students that are paying more will be subsidising those extra places. It's also, when you look at some of the details, the government's saying that they want more people for example, studying maths and engineering but the total funding for those courses will go down. It'll make it harder for universities to offer some of those courses. Now all of this of course comes at a time when demand for university places has gone through the roof. The recession that we're in at the moment means that youth unemployment is higher than it's been in decades. Those young people if they're not able to work should be learning so that they are able to get a better job down the track. So demands high because we've got high youth unemployment, the students that would normally take a gap next year next year to work or travel, they're not doing that. And we've also got this issue of what's called the Costello Baby Boom – when Peter Costello as Treasurer was urging one for Mom, one for Dad and one for the country. Well those kids are grown up now – their demand for University places is just coming into the system as well. So there's more demand than ever, in fact demand for university places in New South Wales has doubled since last year, the government is providing a few extra places, but they're paid for by other students.

NIELSEN: Fundamentally though if we're talking about government-subsidised places. Should they not be prioritising those where there will be more jobs at the end of a degree?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, government is not really great at picking those areas and directing people into them. First of all they've basically more than doubled the cost of an arts degree when arts graduates have as good employability and in many cases better wages than people in some of the degrees that are being promoted. I take science for example science and maths are fantastically important for our nation and I very much encourage anybody who's interested to study maths or science, but the government, at the same time as it's saying we need more people to study science is cutting funding to organisations like the CSIRO, cutting funding for university research, so the jobs that these scientists will go on to do, you know the they're not quite apparent. We still have higher employability of arts graduates than science graduates at the moment. It's a very mixed message from the government and especially if they're saying we want more people to study maths in engineering but funding for those courses to universities is actually dropped, there's a lot of there's a lot of disappointing mess in the detail.

NIELSEN: And just the flip side of what you were saying before the fact that a lot of people who would take gap years aren't going to be doing that. A lot of people who might have worked in the meantime would be looking at university now. That doesn't necessarily mean their employment prospects of the end of that study are going to be better. This is going to have long-term ramifications the recession we're in now and so what's the logic of them loading up those students with debt just so they have something to do in this time?

PLIBERSEK: What's the alternative? Let people sit on the dole queue and wait out the recession? That's never going to work. And people should be earning or learning. It doesn't mean they necessarily need to be going to university but going to university, going to TAFE, getting a vocational qualification, any of those are better than sitting on the dole queue. Because one thing we know for sure is as our economy begins to recover we're going to need that skilled workforce. We saw in fact before the recession three quarters of employers said they couldn't find the skilled staff they need, we were relying on short term visa holders to fill many skills gaps, both in the vocational sector and the professional sector. We're mad if we're not encouraging Australians now to get those qualifications, so as the economy recovers, which we hope will be sooner rather than later, we've got trained Australians ready to do the jobs that become available.

NIELSEN: Wouldn't that be more jobs ready, if they do go into those sectors like ones that require maths and science over a humanities degree when the employment prospects of humanities degree certainly can't be better than those where you could go into fields in...

PLIBERSEK: They are actually.

NIELSEN:... infrastructure.

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, the humanities employment results are very good. But that's not that's not the point. Whether they're studying humanities, whether they're studying engineering, whether they're studying maths, whether they're studying science, I am all for that but what we have at the moment is a government that by capping university places in 2017 has seen two hundred thousand places lost to the system over the next decade. They've said in this announcement that they'll replace a hundred thousand of those but without a dollar extra government funding. That means students on average will be paying a great deal more free university place, and they will be competing much harder for the places that are available. What we say is that those students who have been working hard, they've had a very disrupted HSC this year, would be better off next year having the opportunity to study rather than sitting in the dole queue and that's what we're looking at the moment. Whether it's University or TAFE, it is harder and more expensive to get an education than it should be. We should be encouraging young people to build their skills and qualifications. If they're not able to work, they should be getting an education and this government is making it harder to do that.

NIELSEN: The higher education sector has been lobbying pretty persistently for funding to help them maintain their business model while they don't have the same level of international students from before the pandemic as they do now. Do you think this is the time for universities to be rethinking their business models to expect that they'll never have the same level of Chinese students in their universities again in particular?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it's always been important for universities to make sure that they are welcoming students from a range of countries as international students, you can never put all your eggs in one basket. But the model that universities have been using in recent years of seeking out more International students. Why have they done that? They've done that because successive governments have encouraged them to do that. Because every international student brings economic benefit to Australia. In fact, we're talking about $40 billion a year of additional benefit to our country. That money is used to employ Australians in universities. It's also used to do research in our Australian universities and it's used to cross subsidise services for Australian students as well. If we're not going to have as many international students, if universities are going to be discouraged from seeking additional international students, then we either charge Australian students more, we drop the amount of good quality research we're doing, or taxpayers need to make a greater contribution. They're the only options available.

NIELSEN: And just finally we've seen reports in The Australian that there's division within the ALP caucus over how to handle the relationship with China. This is in particular in response to the not so secret alliance of MPs called the Wolverines who support the Australia US Alliance over China. Is there a division within the Labor caucus over this?

PLIBERSEK: Well, there's not we're all very well aware of the fact that Penny Wong is our Foreign Affairs spokesperson, and she's doing an excellent job in making sure that Labor foreign policy is balanced between our very close and historic relationship with the United States and our very important economic relationship with China. The real problem here is that you've got a Foreign Affairs Minister that is allowing the Coalition backbench to determine policy in relation to China and it's simply too important. We've got a very complex relationship at the moment with China and it would be much more sensible for the relationship to be handled by our Foreign Minister than by any group of backbenchers.

NIELSEN: Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. Thank you for your time.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.