Subjects: Liberals’ fee increases for university preparation courses (enabling programs); Dr Gillespie High Court challenge.

PROFESSOR DARRELL EVANS, DEPUTY VICE-CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE: Welcome here today to the University of Newcastle. For us, one of our guiding principles, or the guiding principle, is around equity and excellence. And for us, that means the enabling programs are a huge feature of enabling students to come into the university, perhaps who have never thought about higher education previously. Maybe first in family, may have had difficult circumstances, we want to enable those students to have the opportunity to see the different possibilities that lie ahead for them. So we have three programs - we have the Open Foundation Program, the New Step Program and the Yapug Program. And our program's been going since 1974, we've had over 55 000 students come through those programs, over 33 500 of those have completed the programs and gone on then to higher education with about 85 per cent going through into our undergraduate degrees, and as we're seeing today, some of the students right the way through then to PhDs and beyond. So it's a really exciting part of our portfolio and we're very proud of our students and very proud of what we've developed. And obviously we're very concerned by some of the changes that've been put forward by the Government, because we don't want to have in any way a barrier to those students looking at university as a possibility for them to change their lives. So delighted to have Tanya and Sharon here today to meet with our students and meet with some of our staff who have worked really hard to support our students through those programs.

SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Thanks. I'm Sharon Claydon, I'm joined here today with Tanya Plibersek, our Shadow Minister for higher education, and Darrell from the university. It's terrific to be able to actually shine a great big light on the success of the University of Newcastle enabling programs. You've just heard from Darrell what it means sort of in the big picture. It is no coincidence that the University of Newcastle has more than a thousand Indigenous students enrolled in this campus. It is no coincidence that the University of Newcastle trains more than 50 per cent of Indigenous doctors in Australia. It is no coincidence that we have 20 per cent of our current student cohort is coming through enabling programs because we reach out into a region with extensive low SES areas all around this campus. This university was founded on the guiding principles of equity and excellence in education. That was what our community demanded when this university was established 50 years ago, that is why you have decades and decades of experience in delivering and supporting programs to students who face multiple obstacles about accessing higher education. We've had some terrific stories here today that students have shared around their life journey to getting into higher education and hopefully some of those stories you'll be able to hear direct. But so often the student profile who were going into enabling education is frequently people who are the first in their family ever to go to university, Indigenous students, women and indeed those from low SES backgrounds. They are absolutely the kinds of people we would want to ensure get access to higher education in Australia. It's not important just for those individuals, it's important for our community, our regional economy and indeed our national wellbeing. So I'm going to hand it across to Tanya Plibersek to say a few words.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be here at the University of Newcastle. I was at the Ourimbah campus this morning and it's wonderful to be here at the Callaghan campus this afternoon. The University of Newcastle's made particularly good use of enabling programs as a pathway into university for students who might not otherwise have the confidence to attempt a university education, for students who might have had a tough time at high school, or who might have had years in the workforce but now want to return to education and retrain. We know that enabling courses are a pathway into university for many people who would otherwise not take that step. That's why it's particularly dumb and short-sighted for the Government to propose fees of around $3 000 for these enabling courses, courses which right now are free for students. I've heard from students all morning who said if there'd been a $3 000 fee for the enabling course they would not have had the confidence to do it. They might not have had the money in the first place, or they would've doubted whether that investment would pay off for them. If we want students to upgrade their skills and upgrade their education to make them more employable, then we shouldn't put barriers like this in the way. We know that the money saved by charging thousands of dollars for enabling courses is not a large amount in the Federal Budget, but the reason the Government is doing this is because they're giving a $65 billion big business tax cut, they're giving people on $180 000 a year or more a tax cut, and they have to find that money from somewhere and sadly, they've decided to find that money from students who are looking for a pathway into university and a pathway into employment. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: So it's just a way of probably hitting the most vulnerable people again with raising money?

PLIBERSEK: Well it's absolutely typical for the Liberal Government to be handing out tax cuts to millionaires and tax cuts to big business, and a new fee for uni students who’ve had a tough time, who are now trying to turn their lives around, actually slugging them with thousands of dollars’ worth of fees. It's particularly short-sighted in an area that's got quite high youth unemployment, and that has relatively low university participation rates at the moment. We want to see more young people, more people mid-way through their lives, returning to university, taking a shot at a second chance at education. They're not going to do it if you put thousands of dollars of fees in their way.

JOURNALIST: And hearing from the students that've gone through it this morning, they said that they wouldn't probably pursue it if they had those barriers in front of them at the start?

PLIBERSEK: Absolutely, absolutely. Most of the students have said they wouldn't have even considered it, even if it was a much smaller fee than the $3 000 or so that the Government's proposing. Some of them just wouldn't have had the money - flat out, would not been able to find that investment. Others are saying they wouldn't have had the confidence to spend that money on themselves - because they had such a tough time at high school, because their marks weren't good, they wouldn't have had the confidence to say it's worth putting thousands of dollars into an educational opportunity like this because they would've thought they were going to bomb out.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of enabling programs as they are? Do you think there needs to be any changes at all, need to stay as they are?

PLIBERSEK: I think the University of Newcastle's making fantastic use of enabling programs. I think it's a model for universities around Australia. So, I mean, you can always make efforts to improve anything, but I don't see there's any gap in what the University of Newcastle's doing, I think they've got a fantastic offer. They're targeting young early school-leavers, they're targeting people who've been in the workforce for a while, they're particularly targeting Indigenous students, it's exactly the right thing for a university that's committed to equity and excellence - exactly the right thing to be doing.

JOURNALIST: Maybe one for Sharon. So, just locally, if these changes go through what do you sort of fear might happen to the Newcastle Uni if people drop out or, what's your fear if this goes through?

CLAYDON: We already have a great deal of difficulty encouraging enough students through the higher education system. So greater Sydney has four times the extent of graduates coming through their programs than we do in our regions. So we've worked really hard for decades now about lifting our year 12 retention rates. Likewise we've worked for decades trying to find alternative pathways to support students coming through into higher education. We as a region, we're an important regional economy here, we need highly skilled men and women to be part of that economy and the only way we get that is through education. Education is absolutely an investment and that is something that certainly the principles that guide the Australian Labor Party around acknowledging that any investment you make into education is an investment into our greatest asset, and that is our people. This university has the oldest and largest of the enabling programs in the country. So we excel at it, it is absolutely something we should be celebrating from the rooftops. Newcastle has every right to be enormously proud of this program and the idea that you would put an additional obstacle, a price-signal that would act as an obstacle in the way of those students from accessing higher education, is just shameful. It is short-sighted, it is stupid. I think that any government worth its salt would actually understand why you might invest in our people.

JOURNALIST: I just had a separate one, maybe for you Tanya. The High Court challenge of David Gillespie, have there been any further updates on that one since last week?

PLIBERSEK: No, we're just letting the lawyers make their case and we'll see the outcome.