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 their Elders both past and present.
I would also like to acknowledge:

  • The Hon Dan Tehan MP, Minister for Education
  • Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Chair of Universities Australia
  • Professor Deborah Terry AO, incoming Chair
  • Shadow Assistant Minister for Universities, Senator Louise Pratt
  • Vice-Chancellors
  • Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia
  • Anne-Marie Lansdown, Deputy Chief Executive
  • UA staff
  • Students
  • Conference delegates

Universities in an election year
It feels like every week, I meet someone in their 60s or 70s who reminds me about how Gough Whitlam was responsible for them going to university.
I’m struck by the way they passionately talk about this – even after so many decades.
They tell me how the opportunity of a university education transformed not just their life, but the course of their family’s life.
And a few months out from the next election, I’m thinking carefully about how a Shorten Labor government will be remembered for our reform of education four or five decades later.
It’s with that in mind that I want to outline Labor’s priorities for the role of universities in national life, as well as highlighting some priorities for reform and action.
Labor sees universities at the centre of our economic, intellectual and cultural life.
You serve the nation through knowledge, research and innovation.
And of course as employers, providing the economy with the equivalent of 130,000 full-time jobs.
But you have a broader role assisting the nation tackle issues like reducing inequality, building prosperity, spreading knowledge, and challenging societal norms and structures.
That’s why I believe universities should think of themselves as anchor institutions – able to articulate and deliver social, economic and cultural missions for their community.
A robust, liberal democracy needs educational institutions to help address the moral, social and economic issues of our time.
And Labor absolutely celebrates your role performing that vital function – upholding the tradition of academic freedom.
And I don’t accept this confected argument that there’s some crisis of freedom at our universities.
It’s nothing more than a sad attempt at culture war.
The Liberals and their allies in the hard Right think tanks want it both ways.
They’ll allege there’s some vast cultural Marxist conspiracy when some minor right wing academic claims their freedom of speech has been impinged and then personally veto Australian Research Council Grants that don’t meet the worldview of whoever happens to be Education Minister at the time.
As we see from this Government in so many areas, culture wars are what you retreat to you have no ideas and nothing to say.
Labor’s positive plan for universities
Labor knows that we can’t strengthen universities’ role unless they are funded properly.
This is why we are prepared to invest billions more into education in this country.
And our investment is not just limited to universities.
We are committed to universal access to three and four year old early childhood, and a properly funded, needs-based school funding system with a $14 billion commitment to extra public school funding.
But critically, we want a strong vocational education sector as well – with public TAFE back at the centre.
I reject the assertion that rebuilding TAFE should come at the expense of universities.
Labor wants TAFE and university to be seen as two equal but complementary systems.
That’s why we’ve outlined a range of significant funding commitments right across education.
Last May in his Budget reply, Bill Shorten announced that a Labor government would reinstate the demand driven system.
From 2020 a Labor government will lift the caps put in place by the Liberals and allow universities to enrol students in undergraduate programs according to demand.
And it will return certainty and funding autonomy to the sector.
It’s a very, very significant investment.
It will see an additional $10 billion flow to universities over the next decade.
I want to reiterate that - $10 billion in additional funding.
It’s one of the most significant funding commitments Labor has made in opposition.
$10 billion is nearly as much as the additional money we will invest into Australia’s public school system.
We also recognise that because of Liberal neglect there has been no funding for university teaching and research infrastructure.
Everyone in this room knows that you can’t have a strong and dynamic higher education system without funding certainty.
That is why in September I announced a $300 million University Future Fund to ensure fast-tracked funding for high priority research and teaching projects.
And it’s why we will guarantee three-year funding agreements.
You can’t run multi-billion dollar institutions with an inadequate, one year funding agreement or caveat agreements in a way that makes them unworkable.
No private company would be expected to enter into commercial arrangements on those terms and we will not ask universities to either.
National and local Priorities
Labor is prepared to make these significant investments but we will have big expectations in return.
As publicly funded organisations Australians rightly expect that universities to contribute to our social, cultural and economic development.
That role should be reflected in the funding agreements signed between universities and the Australian government.
The next round of funding agreements will be signed within the next term and, if I am the Minister, I want to work with you to ensure those funding agreements clarify how universities are meeting community expectations.
I’ve already signalled two areas that will require immediate action –raising standard of entry into teaching courses and addressing sexual assault and harassment on campus and in residential colleges.
At the moment the marks to get into teaching degrees continue to fall and fewer high achievers are choosing teaching courses.
Teaching is complex, critical work and we want highly skilled, passionate teachers.
That is why a future Labor government will target entry to teaching degrees to the top 30 per cent of academic achievers.
We will do this while ensuring there are pathways into teaching for those who might have struggled with their schooling for any number of reasons but remain academically capable of teaching our children.
I want to work cooperatively with you to get this balance right.
However, ultimately as Federal Minister for Education I would have the ability to cap places in teaching degrees - and that option will remain a live one in any future discussions.
I’ve also been pleased to see a sincere and genuine effort from universities and residential colleges to improve their responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment in recent years.
And I particularly welcome UA’s announcement of a partnership with Our Watch and the Victorian Government Office for Women to deliver a Respect and Equality Program for use in universities across the nation.
I expect that funding agreements might address other national and local priorities such as meeting local labour market need, boosting diversity and participation, community engagement, and driving research excellence.
Equity at the heart of our system
One of the other key priorities for universities will be to ensure equity returns to the heart of the system and that we better address the needs of regional and remote Australia.
While great progress was made last time Labor was in government to ensure previously underrepresented groups entered higher education, too many students still miss out.
A return to the demand-driven system will be critical in delivering increased participation.
That’s why last September I announced $174 million for equity and pathways funding to support students from areas with low graduation rates get the confidence and skills they need to go to university.
And I also announced that I will task our National Inquiry into Post-secondary Education with setting new attainment and participation targets.
An uncapped system, our new equity and pathways funding, and the Higher Education and Participation Program – HEPPP – will turbo charge our efforts to get more regional and remote, Indigenous and disadvantaged students into university.
It was Labor that created the HEPPP and I’m absolutely passionate about ensuring HEPPP continues and is never put at risk from Liberal cuts again.
If elected, we will ask our National Inquiry to examine all the recommendations of the 2017 Evaluation of HEPPP including enshrining funding into the Higher Education Support Act.
I think it is a serious failing of our system that someone on the North Shore of Sydney is four times more likely to have a degree than someone in Outback Northern Territory.
And the fact remains that regional and remote Australia consistently has a much lower education attainment rate than urban Australia.
We know that physical access to a campus is beyond the reach of many Australians.
With the rise of high-quality online provision, more regional students are taking the opportunity of an online degree.
Labor believes that all students, no matter where they live, should be able to get the support they need to study.
For regional and remote students the ability to access face-to-face tutorials, or language and learning support, or simply find a place to sit an exam can make the difference between finishing their studies and dropping out.
That is why Labor supports the development of Regional Study Hubs as a practical measure to assist students and we welcome the 22 sites announced by the Government.
If Labor is elected, we will ensure funding flows for all 22 hubs but we will go further.
We know that in regional and remote Australia, barriers to university are often greater - more work needs to be done to build confidence and aspiration for tertiary education.
That’s why I’m pleased to announce today that as well as preserving HEPPP, Labor will allocate $3.2 million over the next four years for mentoring and pathways programs in the 22 communities where we build Regional Study Hubs
We will make regional hubs places that build aspiration for tertiary study and that work with communities to develop new outreach, mentoring and tutoring programs.
These place based programs will be delivered by local TAFEs, high schools and community groups.
And I will also encourage more universities to develop pathway and enabling programs delivered online, so that students who need additional time to build confidence and skills for study can do so.
Our support for Regional Study Hubs will go some way towards reversing the effect the Liberals’ freeze is having in our regions.
But we also need to better understand the structural issues preventing delivery in regions and the unique needs of regional and remote students.
That is why I am pleased to announce that I will be appointing a Regional and Remote Commissioner to our National Inquiry into Post-secondary education.
The Regional and Remote Commissioner will be responsible for developing strategies and policies to support regional students as well as our regional TAFEs and universities.
They will be tasked with providing advice on how our funding, regulations, and other systems can help boost participation in post-secondary education across every region in Australia.
Australians living in regional and remote Australia should have the same opportunities for a great education as any other Australian and I look forward to working with the new Commissioner on this important task.
Internationalisation of Australian education is a great success story; one that has enriched our society as well as our campuses.
I’m a passionate supporter of international education.
I’ve seen the power of this abroad as well as at home.
I’ve met dozens of senior leaders in our region who continue to speak fondly of their time studying in Australia and of the lifelong connections they made.
I want international education to flourish.
But it remains a fact that the sector remains increasingly sensitive to external factors, including on the international stage.
These external factors aren’t something the national government can always predict.
It reminds us of the importance of fostering strong relationships in our region.
Today, international enrolments are growing and Australia is poised to overtake the UK as the second largest major English-speaking destination for international students.
More Australians are heading overseas to study, driven by a surge in demand for short study programs which was boosted by Labor when we were last in office with programs like AsiaBound mobility grants.
International research engagement is a core focus of so many of our universities, giving us a larger share of high quality PhD candidates, access to the research infrastructure and resources of other countries, and the creation of a growing number of joint research facilities in Australia and around the world.
International enrolments in VET are surging, but our TAFEs only receive an eight per cent share of the market, and commencements are flat or declining in many states.
Challenges and strains are emerging.
There is a risk that Australia becomes too reliant on just a handful of countries for our international students.
This was a point that University of Queensland Chancellor and former DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese made last year, when he warned that universities should reduce this risk by diversifying student source markets.
In 2016, the Government established the Council for International Education – a key recommendation of the Chaney Review commissioned by former Minister Chris Evans.
And while Labor strongly supports a Council to coordinate international education across the federal government, we believe both its membership and the strategy guiding the Council’s work needs updating.
For example the Council doesn’t currently include a representative of TAFE or Universities Australia.
The five year strategy the Council has been asked to implement is vague and fails to grapple with the breadth of issues the sector faces, including market diversification.
We can do better.
That’s why today I’m announcing that a Labor government will overhaul the memberships of the Council for International Education and ask it to develop a new international education strategy.
I want to see the development of a more ambitious strategy on issues that really matter to the sector including:

  • Quality of the student experience
  • International student well-being
  • Market diversification
  • The role of TAFE and vocational education
  • Better supporting international students when they graduate and move from study to work
  • Enforcing our world-leading regulatory framework and consumer protection, and
  • Ensuring Australia’s international education sector remains competitive, innovative, and able to thrive.

National Inquiry
A renewed international Council and strategy will support the work of Labor’s National Inquiry into Post-secondary Education.
The Inquiry has been given an enormous brief – to fundamentally reconsider the structure of our post-secondary system and the way it interacts with technological innovation, labour market change, and the drive for knowledge and individual intellectual advancement.
We want to fundamentally test and re-shape the architecture of these two great systems so they can continue to deliver in the national interest.
I can assure you; this inquiry will be as significant as Julia Gillard’s Bradley Review and Gough Whitlam’s Kangan Review.
After a serious and considered public approach to developing the terms of reference, supported by an expert panel of business, unions and sector representatives, I am pleased today to release the terms of reference for the National Inquiry into Post-secondary education.
These 13 terms of reference will set the scene for serious, generational reform of the system.
I’m determined the get this right.
Systems that are 10, 20 or even 45 years old cannot be left unreformed.
And in a spirit of openness, we’re releasing the Terms of Reference on my website, at tanyaplibersek.com/nationalinquiry.
As you will see, this Inquiry will look at both systems in their entirety.
It will focus on funding, regulation, teaching, research, student fees, international education, and infrastructure.
In the tradition of all great Labor reforms to education, we want the Inquiry to provide the framework for the next half century.
I will continue to argue the case for improving Australia’s education system – from early childhood education through to universities.
I know that we have a stronger, fairer and better offering than our opponents.
We’re committed to substantial extra investment, but in return we want accountability and a better education system.
Labor has always been the party prepared to do hard reform to raise education standards and the next Labor government will be ready for that challenge.
I hope that if we form government people will look back on a Shorten Labor government’s reforms to education as life changing for another generation – lifting people out of poverty, contributing full, rich lives; but also nation changing as our investments ensure our prosperity into the future.
I look forward to working together with you to that end.
Thank you and I wish you all the very best for the rest of your conference.