SPEECH: Address to the Universities Australia Conference, Canberra, 2 March 2017






I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present.

I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate UA and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC) on the release of your Indigenous Strategy last night.

Thank you Professor Peter Buckskin, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor Steve Larkin and Dr Leanne Holt for your work on this strategy.

Giving more Indigenous Australians the opportunity to go to university and get a decent, well-paid job is fundamental to breaking the cycle of Indigenous disadvantage and closing the gap.

Thank you to all of you for doing your part.

I would like to acknowledge:

  • Professor Barney Glover, Chair of Universities Australia
  • Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Chair-elect of Universities Australia
  • Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia
  • Vice-Chancellors
  • University staff
  • Students from across Australia.

I want to congratulate Belinda and the UA team for all their hard work in putting together this significant event.




I have had a warm welcome from you all as Shadow Minister

Starting with my first discussion with Vice-Chancellors back in August last year.

I have very much enjoyed the many campus visits I’ve made, and I’m looking forward to many more.

It’s inspiring to see the transformative power of universities at work – transforming the lives of individual students, our communities and regions, and our economy as a whole.

For individual students, we know a university education usually means a lifetime of higher earnings [OECD Education at a Glance Report]. It usually also means exposure to the other things which make life rich – friendship, mobility, creative thinking, and lifelong learning.

And society is richer because you challenge us with new ideas, you shape debates, and you foster creativity.

It’s a tribute to so many of you in this room that we have an international education sector which is the envy of the world. The export value of the sector is a testament to the quality of the education Australian universities offer.

Regional cities are seeing a new generation of urban renewal through the economic benefits of higher education delivery and the infrastructure investment this supports.

Take for example the city of Launceston, one of my favourite cities in Australia - which will be transformed with a $260 million development of their Inveresk campus.

To Launceston, this project means:

  • $965 million in direct and indirect economic impact during construction;
  • 2,760 new jobs; and
  • $362 million in additional ongoing annual economic benefit.

In addition to the economic impact, the campus will also see 16,000 staff and students bringing energy and creativity to an already fantastic city.

Universities are transforming many more of our cities.

Regional cities like Newcastle and Wollongong which were once reliant on heavy industries are being revitalized through the presence of university campuses.

I know you will have Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker, authors of The Smartest Place on Earth - Why Rustbelts are Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, presenting this morning. 

Their research on the revival of cities and regions once in decline is fascinating.

The message is very clear – the future doesn’t lie in the rearview mirror. 

If we want to be a leading edge competitive economy, we need to have a vision for that future and drive the creation of new high-tech manufacturing and the decent, well paid jobs that go with it.

And it can’t just be wishful thinking.  We must have new and practical approaches that forge connections and collaboration between universities, governments, companies and industry.

Not the least because the important breakthroughs in technology and innovation will almost certainly “occur at the intersection of various disciplines”.




This is why the theme of this year’s conference, Gen Next is so important.

I remember when it was my generation – Generation X – that was perplexing policy makers with our poor job prospects and the likelihood of a future of insecure work.

And we continue to live in interesting and uncertain times.

Gen Next will have the task of steering us through a new industrial revolution – a technology revolution that many fear will cost jobs – and will make sure that instead we use new technologies to create new industries and new jobs.

It’s fair to say that many people are anxious about the future.

Parents and grandparents wonder what type of work their kids and grandkids will do, and how they will succeed.

Universities are at the frontier of our future success: to ensure that our nation has the skills and knowledge it needs to be competitive and resilient.

As Professor Glover said yesterday:

As institutions for the public good, we exist to pursue the frontiers of knowledge.

Knowledge is ballast against the insecurity many people feel. Knowledge is also essential for policy makers and for governments to govern well.

If we’re very clever, we have the opportunity to deal well with some of the great problems of our time.

Climate change, for example.

Australian universities are facing the challenge head on.

Research at UNSW is just one example. The University’s Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics recently set a new world-record in solar energy efficiency.

Breakthroughs like this can underpin our future prosperity – if we work out how to harness them.

But unless we look more broadly to reform it’s not all bright for Australia’s economic mix.

We have to face the facts.

The construction phase of the mining boom is over and our economy is in transition. Growth is slow. Wages are low. Underemployment is high.

Parts of Australia are suffering more than others and policy makers have a responsibility to include all Australians in our plans for future prosperity.

So, after 25 years of record growth – are we up for this challenge?

Can we transition from the resources boom to a knowledge-based, services economy?

Will we leverage our knowledge, creativity and innovation into new ideas for new products, new services and growing industries?

To do this successfully, we will need:

  • Continuous upgrading of skills for the changing nature of work, and
  • And to boost our nation’s research outcomes to capture greater value of our creativity and innovation.




The Australian Labor Party supports full employment.

But we know that’s easier said than done.

Australia lost 56,000 full time jobs last year.

Wages are stagnant or falling: down 0.5% in the last quarter of 2016.

Underemployment is at record highs and the gap between rich and poor is the worst it’s been in 75 years.

Over the coming decades, many jobs will go, new ones will emerge and existing occupations will require new skills.

In 2015, CEDA – the Committee for Economic Development of Australia – reported that up to 40% of Australian jobs – more than five million – could be gone in 10 to 15 years.

Most of this will be because of technological change.

It is also said that each year more than a million workers – about a tenth of the workforce – change jobs [CEDA – the Future of Work].

Of these million workers, 600,000 change industry and around 450,000 change occupation.

And it’s not just individual workers – more than half a million businesses will enter or exit the market.

In the decade to 2013-14, Australian manufacturing jobs decreased by around 92,000 while employment in health care and social services increased by 462,000. [CEDA – the Future of Work].

Our economy’s skills-base has and will continue to change significantly.

Unless we have a plan to make it otherwise there is a genuine risk that these new jobs will be of a lower quality than the ones they have replaced.

In a potentially more volatile labour market, will our post-secondary system – both universities and TAFE - adapt to this change?

Governments can’t come up with the answers to these issues alone.

Universities also need to wrestle with these questions.




When the previous Labor Government introduced the demand-driven funding system for undergraduate places, we gave universities a new level of freedom.

This has seen the sector innovate – delivering to more Australians – many of whom are first in family to attend university or from an indigenous or disadvantaged background.

Labor’s demand-driven funding allowed unmet demand from the Howard years to be filled, but the initial spike in demand is now levelling out.

Data from the Department of Education suggests that the demand for university places from school leavers has begun to plateau. [2016 Undergraduate Applications Offers and Acceptance Publication, Department of Education].

But the reform of the demand-driven system is probably at best, only half done.

I envisage a more mature demand-driven system able to increase participation by people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

You know we have more work to do.

That’s why I welcome UA’s commitment to accelerating indigenous student enrolments by 50 per cent above overall growth as part of your Indigenous Strategy.

And that’s why I have been so critical of the Turnbull Government’s decision to slash the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) by 40 per cent with the remainder of the funding ‘under consideration’.

At the core of the demand-driven system has been flexibility.

I want you to have it.

I want our universities to have the funding and regulatory settings that allow you to deliver education which meets people’s life goals and enhances their life experience.

But we have to look at how a mature demand-driven system adapts to the change we’re seeing in the economy and the labour market.

With a tenth of the workforce changing jobs each year, and 40 per cent of current jobs predicted to be gone within 10 to 15 years.

It’s no good educating young Australians for yesterday’s labour market, for jobs which won’t exist.

What new programs of university and vocational education will we need?

Consider a mid-career worker, trying to renew their skills for a new or emerging industry.

What kind of higher education options do they need and will they be on offer?

Will universities recognise previous work experience or TAFE qualifications?

Universities and VET providers will have to increase collaboration with each other and with industry so that there are the right opportunities for high quality work-integrated learning and job placements.

I am also interested in the changing way that people engage with higher education throughout their working lives.

The debate we’ve seen about attainment rates often fails to recognise the way our lives have changed.

Labor absolutely wants to see more students graduating.

We don’t want people dropping out because the course they are studying turns out to be irrelevant, or is not what they want or need.

But we also don’t want to penalise students who are taking a non-traditional approach to acquiring the skills they need.

The evidence tells us that there is value in having successfully completed some higher education – even where students don’t graduate.

A recent study on employment trends in the EU published in the Higher Education Quarterly showed that even a small amount of higher education may improve a learner’s life chances and increase their opportunity for employment.

We should look at how we all – government, industry and universities – are better able to respond to students, who, for a variety of reasons, choose to step in and out of higher education throughout their working lives.

Our system should become more flexible in order to allow students to build their knowledge and skills-base through a greater mix of educational offerings that fit the needs of their careers.

But this doesn’t mean a system where every child gets a prize.

Labor expects accountability in our system:

  • To students.
  • To your local communities
  • And to the Australian tax payer.

A more flexible system must continue to be a high quality one.




Last month, Bill Shorten outlined that jobs and skills will be a major focus for Labor this year and beyond.

He also announced that Labor will be hosting a Skills Summit on 17th March here in Canberra.

I’m very much looking forward to working closely with business representatives, unions and educators – including Universities Australia – at this important Summit.

It’s also right that Bill acknowledged that our colleagues in the TAFE sector are going through a period of sustained stress and anxiety about their future.

The Turnbull Government has ripped away $2.5 billion from skills and training.

An astonishing 128,000 apprenticeships have now disappeared.

Funding for vocational education has gone backwards by 4% in real terms over ten years [Mitchell Institute Expenditure on Education Report 2016].

At the same ten year period, universities have had relative stability – supported by Labor’s policy settings – with funding increases of around 45 per cent.

Universities can’t be aloof from this crisis facing TAFE.

It’s a national issue.

We all know that our economy needs decent, high-quality skills delivered at vocational and higher education levels.

I am determined, as is Bill and the rest of the Labor team, to ensure that universities continue to grow and be strong with predictable and sustainable funding.

But we want to work with the states and territories to ensure that similar stability is afforded to the TAFE and vocational sector.

We also want to ensure that business and unions work collaboratively with educators, and play their part.




As the Shadow Minister responsible for university research, I’m keenly focused on ensuring that policy settings – both current and future – facilitate a robust and growing research portfolio in our universities.

In a mature and strong democracy, we need researchers, thought leaders and ideas generators.

We should not be afraid of agitators or those who challenge the status quo.

The late, great Gough Whitlam said that:

Academic freedom is the first requirement, the essential property of a free society. More than trade, more than strategic interests, more even than common systems of law or social or political structures, free and flourishing universities provide the true foundation of our western kinship, and define the true commonality of the democratic order. [Gough Whitlam at the Harvard Club of Australia, 1973]

It is with the same spirit that I applaud the work of our researchers.

It wasn’t until I had the Medical Research portfolio that I fully appreciated the power of research to improve lives and underpin economic growth.

There is a tendency to see research value in dollar terms of Intellectual Property or patents lodged. That’s important, but the value of research is much greater than that.

Research that develops a less intrusive, less costly way to deliver a medical intervention won’t make money for a drug company, but it can be better for patients and better for the health budget.

Like the work of SPACE project (Single Pill to Avert Cardiovascular Events) led by researchers at the George Institute for Global Health.

These researchers developed a polypill – a fixed dose combining commonly-used blood pressure and cholesterol lowering medication, along with aspirin – which is transforming approaches to treating cardiovascular disease.

Of course we should be doing research like this, for the public benefit alone.

But we also should be doing much better at using our research investment to create new jobs and opportunities.

It is not good enough that Australia’s research collaboration with business is almost at the bottom of the OECD average [Universities Australia]

It is the case that collaboration between industry and universities on research and development is too low for an advanced economy.

Globally, Australia is missing out because of a lack of government-backed research collaboration funds.

If we are to truly take part in developing the global products of the future, Australia must be at the table with the US, the UK and the EU.

It’s important, if not the key, that industry plays a greater role in our overall research effort.

But I know that university research cannot continue to flourish if funding continues to be cut.

That is why Labor strongly opposes the short-sighted decision to abolish the Education Investment Fund - EIF.

EIF was set up to ensure that we have the necessary capital to renew, refurbish and update our university, vocational and research institutions.

But it’s now been abandoned.

I’m sure all of you will have examples of the transformative impact that EIF has had on your campuses and communities.

As part of Labor’s policy development on enhancing our research in universities, I will continue my discussions with the sector, including meeting with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors’ (Research) forum tomorrow.




I am optimistic about our capacity to meet Australia’s future skills and research challenges.

I am determined to work with you to prepare our people for the secure jobs of the future.

Developing skills for a changing workforce through to encouraging new scientific breakthroughs.

Universities are going to be a central part of that, but we need to continue a healthy process of connecting the elements of our education system better, feeding our economy with new discoveries and innovation.

Thank you again for your time today.  I wish you all the very best for the rest of your conference.