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


I would also like to acknowledge:


  • Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Chair of Universities Australia
  • Vice-Chancellors
  • UA staff
  • Students
  • Conference delegates

I would like particularly to acknowledge Belinda Robinson.

This will be Belinda’s last conference as Chief Executive, having served in the role since October 2011.

What a busy time you’ve had!

  • The introduction of Labor’s sweeping reforms of the sector with demand-driven funding.
  • Six Ministers.
  • Two elections and three terms of Parliament.
  • Three major reform proposals from the Coalition.
  • and of course the most recent MYEFO cuts, which do real damage to Australia’s universities.

It would be an understatement to say that the last six and a half years have been tumultuous, but you’ve managed to keep cool and positive throughout.

You’ve certainly made a huge mark on this sector and I know that your successor has big shoes to fill.

I wish you all the very best for what comes next.

I want to also thank Catriona and all of the staff at UA for putting this year’s conference together.



Last year I remarked that I had a warm introduction to the sector.

I feel now that I’ve got to know you all even better, particularly through the many visits I’ve made to campuses right across the country.

Everywhere I go I see passion, dedication and commitment from university leaders, staff and students alike.

I think of the amazing people I met teaching enabling courses at Newcastle University’s campus on the NSW Central Coast and at Edith Cowan in the suburbs of Perth.

These teachers have a genuine passion for giving Australians who never thought they might attend uni a chance at a university education.

Their dedication is inspirational.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as Shadow Minister is getting to talk to Australians about how the opportunity of a university education has transformed their lives.

One conversation that comes to mind was with a mum in her 40’s doing an enabling course at the University of Newcastle.

She had all but given up on the opportunity of getting a university qualification, but thanks to the support she received, she can see a brighter future with the option of going on to a degree.

She told me that this opportunity will transform her life and the lives of her family.

The other thing that leaves a lasting impression is the cutting edge research I get to see on my visits.

Young PhD researchers working in a lab on the latest discovery or cure for a disease always imbues me with a sense of awe and admiration.

One of my favourite visits last year was to the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, where I met with a team of researchers looking at new ways to tackle the cycle of disadvantage of families in regional and remote Australia.

Another standout was the agricultural robotics research institute at QUT where teams of researchers are using robots to help boost Australia’s capacity as the food bowl of Asia.

You are fortunate to have chosen a vocation where you get to change people’s lives through education while also dedicating yourselves to research and discoveries that literally transform the way we live.


The Red Zone Report

Of course, there are challenges too.

In August, we saw the release of the national student survey on university student experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

I welcomed UA’s response to the national survey and your role in the Respect Now Always campaign, and the participation of universities, NUS, NTEU and others.

The results of the survey were sobering.  More than half of respondents reported being sexually harassed in 2016. 

This week, once again, we’ve seen media reports of shocking behaviour at some university residential colleges.

The Red Zone Report, released this week by End Rape on Campus contains example after example of appalling behaviour happening at university residential colleges.

Anyone who saw the heartbreaking interview with Ralph and Kathy Kelly on the ABC earlier this week would understand the urgent need for change.

Their son Stuart took his own life in 2016, and they believe it may have been because he was hazed at a university residential college earlier that year.

This culture must end.

I was at uni about 30 years ago. 

And 30 years ago we saw the same kind of complaints, and heard the same kind of responses from residential colleges and universities.

While I acknowledge some residential colleges and universities have taken steps to address these issues, many have failed to take decisive action.

For too long, we have heard the same excuses. 

Not enough has been done to fix this.

The time for excuses, the time for talk is over.

Enough is enough.

Put simply: if university residential colleges can’t provide a safe environment, universities should make them.

If universities can’t ensure colleges are safe, they should sever links with them.

If some residential colleges and universities refuse to treat this seriously, governments must make them.

University residential colleges have a legal duty of care to their students and staff.

If university residential colleges fail to fulfil that duty of care, in government Labor will compel them.                                                                                                                      

I want to be very clear, if we need to force colleges to do the right thing by their students and staff, we will.

I’m not prepared to allow another 30 years of excuses.


Policy chaos under the Liberals

It really is quite remarkable that we started last year with university leaders complaining about the Government’s policy inertia.

That policy inertia has now transformed to outright hostility.

Regretfully, over the past year, we’ve seen a renewed attack on universities and students by the Government.

In May, the Government announced a package of $3.8 billion of cuts to universities and fee increases.

These were the biggest cuts proposed to the sector since the Howard Government’s horror 1996 Budget.

The cuts were accompanied by a number of poorly designed policy thought bubbles.

None of the ideas that Government proposed were really about reforms that would protect, sustain or enhance the sector.

Real reform requires a vision for the future.

It means drawing on the best intelligence and experience and rising to the challenges and opportunities before you.

Instead, the Government is driven solely by a desire to cut, and is prepared to diminish our universities; and with this the aspiration of our nation.

In May, I wrote to all Vice-Chancellors and said:

We will continue to fight against cuts to our universities, TAFEs, and vocational education and training system. But we can only do this effectively in concert with the sector. It is important that a strong public case is made by all with an interest in a viable tertiary education system.

Together we have made that case.

Labor is proud to stand with you against these cuts and together we prevented them from being legislated.

And once a majority of the Senate cross-bench agreed with us, the package was withdrawn.

But in December the Government announced a new round of $2.2 billion in cuts.

Having been blocked in the Senate, the Minister bypassed the Parliament to unilaterally freeze funding.

The provisions of the Higher Education Support Act that the Minister relied on  to do this were never intended to be used in this way.

It’s a brutal and reckless way to achieve savings.

And this action is intended to destroy the demand-driven funding system.

As UA told us in January, the grants freeze will mean around 9,500 places will be unfunded in 2018 alone.

But there’s a bigger story here.

The demand-driven funding system was introduced by Labor to address the crisis of under participation in higher education in this country.

By turning people away from universities under the capped model we were denying bright and talented Australians the opportunity of a lifetime.

When Labor came to office in 2007, the higher education attainment rate for 25 to 34 year olds was only 30.6 per cent.

And we were slipping internationally compared with similar economies.

Because of Labor’s demand-driven system, by May of last year attainment rates reached 39.4 per cent – almost at the 40 per cent attainment target recommended in the 2008 Bradley Review.

We are proud of the demand driven system – a tremendous Labor legacy.

And while the boost in participation is positive, the reality is participation remains patchy across the country.

There is still a significant socioeconomic divide.

High income urban areas have high rates of participation, while outer suburban areas and the regions lag behind.

In the leafy North Shore of Sydney, attainment rates are around 63 per cent, but are as low as 13 per cent in areas like Moreton Bay in Queensland.

A recent assessment of growth in higher education enrolments shows that the demand-driven system was doing exactly what it was designed to do: allow growth in the sector in areas that needed it.

Over the years 2008 to 2016, the greatest growth in higher education came from the outer suburbs of Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide.

In the wealthier parts of the country, enrolment was growing at or below the rate of population growth.

The Minister’s freeze of funding will put a brake on enrolment growth in regional and outer suburban areas and among poorer students.

The demand-driven funding system unlocked opportunity for smart, hard-working kids who would have missed out under the Howard Government’s capped system.

Under Labor, we were proud that we oversaw an increase of 190,000 students many of whom were the first in their family to go to university.

That’s why Labor is absolutely committed to the demand-driven system.

And we won’t walk away from it.

We won’t walk away from ensuring equality of opportunity.

We won’t walk away from a system that says if you have the ability and work hard, you should have the opportunity of a university education.

We won’t stand by and let the Liberals destroy this proud Labor legacy.

We can’t simply go back to the old days of the Howard era where if a student was Indigenous, poor, had a disability, or lived in the country or an outer suburban area, there was much greater chance they would miss out on the opportunity of a university education.

It’s simply not good enough that students working hard in Year 12 this year or those in an enabling or pathway course are faced with continuing uncertainty about whether or not there will be a place for them at university.

And for those students who have been at university over the past three years, it’s a disgrace that they have been put through the stress of not knowing how much their degree will cost, whether they will have to pay back bigger debts at a quicker rate, and whether they’ll ever be able to get access to a Commonwealth funded postgraduate course.


Labor will end the Liberals’ chaos

Labor understands that a strong university sector needs certainty and stability in funding.

We recognise that certainty will never come from reviews that go nowhere - unless it’s about cuts.

And you can’t make decisions about the future if can’t afford to turn on the lights in January.

After the years of the Liberals’ cuts and chaos, Labor will restore stability to universities.

We will end the threat of last minute, one year and totally inadequate funding agreements that we’ve seen from this government in the past.

If I am lucky enough to be Minister, I will guarantee stable, three year funding agreements.

One of the best outcomes of Labor’s demand-driven system was the ability for universities to innovate and deliver.

I want you to have that freedom.

But with that freedom comes responsibility.

Under our arrangements, we see universities as partners in securing our future prosperity, social cohesion, and driving excellence.

But I want to ensure that we work together to deliver in the national interest.


Future Fundamentals

If we cast forward to around 2040, the students who are born this year will be entering the workforce.

We need to ensure that we are preparing the next generation for the future.

That’s why we want them to have the best possible start in life with universal access to early childhood education, and a properly funded needs-based, sector blind, school education system.

But we also need to think about what kind of post-secondary education system they will need.

Generation 2040 will be the heirs to the new industrial revolution happening right now.

The rapid pace of change will have transformed the way we work and live, with mega trends like the internet of things, automation, and robotics all impacting us in ways we can’t imagine.

If we are to be prepared for this future, we can’t simply rely on the structures or the thinking of the past.

The Foundation for Young Australians predicts that young Australians today will have more than 17 jobs across five careers.

And by 2030, young people will on average:

  • Spend 30 per cent more time per week learning skills on the job;
  • Spend around double the time at work solving problems, 41 per cent time on critical thinking and judgment, and 77 per cent more time using STEM skills.

The Foundation also argues that we need to re-imagine the linear way in which our post-secondary system is designed by thinking beyond the expectation that one qualification will set an individual up for a lifetime of work.

The Department of Employment’s forecast says that of the almost one million jobs that are to be created by 2020, just 70,000 of these will require only a senior secondary education.

Of the remaining 900,000 or so jobs, around half will require a higher education qualification with the other half requiring a vocational level qualification.

As the Mitchell Institute has said, if we don’t boost participation in both vocational education as well as higher education, we risk being left behind in the global economy.

The Government’s ongoing cuts to both vocational education and higher education will lead to static participation in higher education and dangerously low levels of participation in vocational education.


Labor will hold a National Inquiry in to the post-secondary education system in Australia

That’s why last week, I announced that, if elected, Labor will launch a once in a generation National Inquiry in to Australia’s post-secondary system.

This is about the future. 

And it’s well overdue.

It was in 1974 that the Australian Government last undertook a national inquiry in to Australia’s vocational education and training system.

That review, led by Meyer Kangan, effectively created the modern TAFE system.

It’s also been more than 30 years since the reforming Labor education minister, John Dawkins, sought to radically re-design Australia’s higher education system, introducing comprehensive universities and the HECS scheme.

It’s also been more than 20 years since the current system of funding tied to enrolments, discipline clusters and tiered student contributions was put in place.

And it’s hard to believe that it has been a decade since the Bradley Review.

Gauging the reaction that we’ve had to our announcement of the National Inquiry, it’s fair to say that there is almost uniform agreement that its time has come.

While universities have had funding growth due to Labor’s demand-driven system, we want to make sure that the higher education system will continue to be effective in the future and adaptive to change.

The funding growth to universities contrasts sharply with declining funding to TAFE.

This Inquiry is about ensuring two great systems, fit for the future.

We want a strong a vibrant TAFE and vocational education system that works collaboratively with our world-class university system.

In a rapidly changing world, we must ensure that both systems continue to be fit-for-purpose for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

There is a great deal of work to be done to repair the damage to vocational education and training with declining funds and declining students numbers even at a time when skills shortages plague the Australian economy.

Labor is committed to reversing the more than $600 million cut the Liberals made to vocational education at the last Budget, and we will guarantee at least two thirds of public vocational education funding goes to TAFE.

We will also invest $100 million in the new Building TAFE for the Future Fund.

While the Inquiry will examine the architecture of the post-secondary system, we also want to make sure that students are treated equitably.

The current differential treatment of student subsidies and loans schemes is not working in the national interest.

We need to ensure better movement between the two systems but our current architecture is just not allowing that to happen.

The Inquiry will look at ways to ensure collaboration, transparency and fairness for students across the whole system, enabling students to build a portfolio of skills and knowledge.

There are great examples of innovation, like Swinburne’s Advanced Apprenticeships model, or the programs co-taught by La Trobe and Bendigo TAFE, but not enough collaboration is occurring because the systems are too rigid.

We also need to acknowledge just how much unscrupulous behaviour in the vocational training markets has hurt many students.

Our students should have the confidence that their education is high-quality and that they have the highest possible consumer protections.

If we make the Inquiry only about funding we will miss an opportunity to make some serious recommendations for future reform.

Our National Inquiry will help ensure we have a system in place where universities and TAFE might offer new types of courses that best cater for the future job market and lifelong learning.

As these new types of qualifications emerge we need to consider who is best placed to deliver these and how to drive innovation in terms of delivery and industry relevance.

We can’t allow a system that sees students taking on qualifications that have no relevance to the workplace or saddle them with bad debt.

We need to be bold and look at whether current qualification structures, mix of institutions, and financing models are still fit for purpose.

In the coming weeks, we will convene a panel of experts, sector leaders, and union and business representatives, to advise on the scope and terms of this National Inquiry.

We want a tripartite approach to this National Inquiry.

Business needs to be at the table as well as unions.

From tomorrow, we will accept submissions from the sector on what you think the terms of reference should look like.

Submissions can be made at www.postsecondaryinquiry.com

Shying away from big reform has never been the Labor way.

I look forward to working with you on shaping the scope of this landmark National Inquiry – you’ll have the opportunity to shape the terms of reference, as well as the Inquiry itself once it is up and running.


If we are to embrace the future, we need to be bold.

We believe that universities are going to be major partners in Australia’s future prosperity.

I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.

I wish you all the very best with the rest of this year’s conference.