SPEECH: Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference, Wednesday 16 November 2016







16 NOVEMBER 2016




I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Chancellors
  • Vice-chancellors
  • Academics
  • Leaders in the higher education sector
  • The editor of the Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury
  • My Parliamentary colleagues
  • Friends



I’ve always loved Neil Kinnock’s speech to the Welsh Labour Party Conference in 1985, where he asks “why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”

A lot of us in this room would be the first in our families to go to university too.

We don’t have to try too hard to imagine what life would have been like if we hadn’t had the opportunity, because we see in our parents’ lives the alternative.

Both my parents had been torn from education too young by war, and poverty.

Both of them smart, life-long learners, multi-lingual, curious about the world.

Like most parents, they wanted for their children what they missed out on.

And even in a world where technology, automation, the mass movement of people, climate change, and other factors are making workforce predictions heroic, parents are right to want a great education for their children.

For most people, education will still be the key to a decent job with decent pay.

There are significant private benefits from a university qualification.

Which is why it’s appropriate that students make some private contribution to their study.

But a world class education system is critical to the success of the economy too.

We’re not just investing in individuals, for their own success. We’re investing in the future prosperity of our nation.

So we have to ensure cost is never a barrier to a person pursuing further education.

Because the better educated our citizens are, the better for all of us.




To be a nation with a strong economy, Australia must be an education nation.

Australia’s economy has now experienced 25 years of uninterrupted growth.

This is no accident.

We’ve achieved this through smart and necessary economic reforms, including improving the skills of our people – more kids finishing high school; more Australians with post-school qualifications.

A strong education system is both a contributing factor to economic growth, and a dividend of it.

An educated workforce is a foundation for growth but education is also part of the social wage of every citizen.

Australians should expect access to a great education for themselves and their children.

If Australia is to continue as a high wage, developed economy, education is critical.

‘Innovation’, ‘agility’, and ‘enterprise’ are meaningless unless you’re willing to seriously invest in the education system that underpins them.

And the case for such investment is clear.

We know that for every extra dollar we invest in tertiary education our economy grows by 26 dollars. [over a decade - Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency]

Living standards are higher when education funding is higher. [Australia Institute]

Most economists say that investing in education is much better for the Australian economy than cutting taxes for big business.  [Economics Society of Australia survey]

Many people have been mystified by Donald Trump’s victory in the US election last week.

But it holds a lesson for us all.

Unless people feel like they benefit from economic growth, they won’t continue to support the prescription.

It’s true that inequality in Australia is not as pronounced as it is in the US - Australia’s middle class holds 40 per cent of our national wealth – the American middle class, holds just 19 per cent.

Our wages growth has been slow but steady; in the US real wages have declined.

Nevertheless, inequality in our country is at 75 year highs and the three richest Australians now have more wealth than the million poorest.

One of the surest and best ways to sustain strong economic growth and share its benefits is to make sure everyone gets a great education.




To be a nation prepared for the jobs of the future, Australia must be an education nation.

To be a nation that also has jobs with a future, Australia must be an education nation.

In 2015, A Committee for Economic Development of Australia report found up to 40% of Australian jobs - more than five million – could be gone in 10 to 15 years.

Mostly due to technological change.

Understandably, this has many Australians worried – for themselves, and their families.

Improving job security for Australians is at the heart of Labor’s economic agenda.

We want more good long-term jobs, with good pay and conditions.

To do that we have to consider what the jobs of the future will be.

And prepare our workforce for them.

This is where education, in particular higher education, is critical.

Research suggests that by 2020, two out of every three jobs created in our country will require a diploma or higher qualification.

So we need more Australians with post-school qualifications.

To ensure the jobs of the future have a future, it’s important students now are doing the right courses, and that those courses are of the highest quality.

But just as important, as those students progress through their careers, we must drastically improve opportunities for lifelong learning – for them to update their skills.

The simple fact is, with the best will in the world, we won’t be able to predict all of the economic and workforce disruptions we will encounter.

We’ll need people to train and re-train throughout their lives.

Whether it’s someone with a diploma from TAFE, who after some time in the workforce wants to complete a couple of university level subjects…

Or someone with a PhD wanting to do some further research, or get some technical skills that can be delivered through TAFE.

Our higher education system should increasingly allow students to tailor a qualification to their needs, and the needs of a changing workforce.

In time, I envisage students being able to choose from a menu of subjects, across faculties, across universities, and the vocational sector – with a range of exit and re-entry points along the way.

The task for government is to work with universities and the vocational sector to provide this flexibility.

We can’t predict, sector by sector, what the jobs will be. But we know something of the skills that will be required.

Ingraining this kind of thinking about higher education is key to future proofing the Australian job market.

I sometimes think universities feel they need to do everything – to be all things to all people.

This comes from a good place.

But they don’t need to. In fact, to do so can dilute excellence.

A more desirable option is to have institutions across the higher education sector focus on their strengths – and then to work together to meet the needs of students.

There are already some great examples of this.

Such as the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, and Griffith University working together to deliver foreign languages…

…where each university specialises in a smaller number of languages, while allowing their students to study any of the languages on offer at any of the three universities.

Or at Swinburne where Bachelor of Psychology students are able to undertake a Certificate IV in Mental Health, delivered by the TAFE division - so students can get additional practical skills required for a career in mental health.

We have to be encouraging collaboration across sectors through our system settings, not just by relying on the goodwill of individual educators and institutions.




Of course, universities are more than job factories, churning out graduates.

They play a key role in expanding the bounds of human knowledge.

University research is critical to quality of life in Australia.

Discoveries can change the way we live.

And university research will also help Australia transition out of the resources boom to a more diversified, knowledge-based economy where we lead in fields such as advanced manufacturing.

Deloitte Access Economics estimates that the existing stock of all knowledge generated by university research accounts for about $160 billion or 10% of Australian GDP. [2014]

That’s impressive. But we can do even better.

Australia still lags behind comparable countries.

We need to do more to translate what we discover in our universities into collaborations which generate high skill, high paid jobs.

We need more breakthroughs, more discoveries, and more commercialisation.

            More of the great work I saw as Minister for Medical Research.

And along the way, we should not be afraid to fail.

Universities and industry must continue to find better ways to work together.

And I can promise you that Labor will be your partner in this.

It’s government’s job to support and enable this type of collaboration.




Australian universities are among the best in the world.

Some of the finest research, and finest teaching.

And we must continue to strengthen this reputation.

Universities need a government prepared to make a significant investment.

Labor has always been prepared to do just that.

Indeed, when last in government, Labor lifted overall investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007, to $14 billion in 2013.

While we believe in supporting a high excellence higher education system, we believe in a high equity system too.

Throughout our history, it has been Labor that has democratised education, every time we’ve had the chance to.

Whether it was Gough Whitlam opening up university education to a whole generation, or the uncapping of university places more recently.

It’s why Labor introduced the demand driven system. And why we remain committed to it, as a core part of our policy approach.

And universities have embraced a role in the democratisation of education too. 

I commend you for seeing this as part of your public and social responsibility.

And for backing it up through your membership of the Talloires Network.

With a demand driven system we threw open the doors so thousands of extra students could go to university.

Instead of bureaucrats in Canberra making decisions about student enrolment numbers, we gave that power to universities.

Since Labor created the demand driven system, we’ve seen an additional 190,000 students on campuses.

But just throwing the door open was never enough.

We targeted extra support to people who were first in their families to attend university.

We introduced the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) (which, sadly, this government has cut by more than 40% ).

The demand driven system, along with HEPPP has helped open up access to university for disadvantaged students, Indigenous students, and students from regional areas.

Compared to 2007, at universities there are now:

  • 36,000 extra students from low income families;
  • 26 per cent more Indigenous students; and
  • 30 per cent more students from regional areas.

In all, there are 750,000 undergraduate students at Australian universities today, and one in every four of them is there because of our reforms.

Our commitment to equity is the reason we can never support fee deregulation, and $100,000 degrees.

In the OECD, Australian students are already the sixth highest contributors to the cost of their own university education.

We think everyone should have the chance to go to university without incurring a lifetime of debt.

Especially when the costs of raising a family and buying a house are greater than ever before.

We hope that those students get great jobs when they graduate.

When they do, they will benefit from good pay, and our progressive tax system ensures some of that benefit is returned to the common good through taxes.





In recent years, higher education policy has been in chaos.


During the election, the Government didn’t release a single higher education policy.


But they’ve had more than 25 reviews, inquiries, and talkfests.


There have been billions of dollars of cuts.


Regardless of what the Liberals say, it’s clear they have plans for an American-style university system here in Australia, with $100,000 degrees.


And now universities have been moved on to one year funding agreements.


There is widespread uncertainty.

It’s holding our students, our universities, and our economy back.

I wanted to conclude today, by telling you what you can expect from us.

Our record on higher education strong. And we intend to build on it.

A Labor government would stand on our strong record of investment in education, including at the last election where we committed to:

  • investing billions of dollars extra in our universities, significantly increasing per student funding; and
  • investing billions of dollars extra in schools, because success at university depends on a great school education;
  • in fact, Labor went to the last election with a promise to spend around $50 billion on universities and schools – the same amount the Liberals were prepared to give away to big business for little economic benefit.

A Labor Government would:

  • support more students from disadvantaged families to access university; and
  • ensure those students have the support they need to complete their studies.

We will:

  • work with universities to produce more high-skilled graduates for priority sectors and industries, particularly those in the science, technology, engineering, and maths disciplines; and
  • provide students and parents with better information so they have the right information to make decisions about their choice of course and career.

We will:

  • Work across schools, vocational education, and universities to encourage better collaboration and more flexibility.
  • Continue to invest in research, making sure Australia is getting the commercial benefits of our great discoveries.

And, importantly, we will ensure education is both a driver of economic growth, and a social dividend of it - including through the creation of good quality jobs with good pay.

Together, I am confident we can restore certainty to Australian higher education.

That we can continue to build a university system of both excellence and equity that serves our nation and its people well.