SUBJECTS: Labor’s funding commitment for universities and TAFE and traineeships; HECS; Labor’s plans to re-establish a Minister for Young People; Young people and mental health.

TOM TILLEY, PRESENTER: All right. Let's find out where Labor stands on higher education. If they win the election, Tanya Plibersek will be the Education Minister. She'll also be the Deputy Prime Minister and she joins us on Hack. Tanya Plibersek, thanks so much for joining us on Triple J.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: It's a great pleasure to be with you.

TILLEY: We just heard the Greens calling for free university education. I know Labor in your time has never, never proposed to go back to the Whitlam-era free university fees, but will student fees ever come down at all under a Labor government?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we need to make sure that university and TAFE are affordable for every Australian student and that price is never a barrier. So we have successfully fought off the Government's efforts to introduce $100,000 university degrees. We've got a 100,000 upfront fee-free TAFE places and we've got equity programs like the extra $174 million that we will inject into universities to make sure that low-income students, students from regional, remote communities, Indigenous students and others who are the first in their family to get a university education do actually get that opportunity.

TILLEY: Okay, just to my first question, would fees ever go down under a Labor Government?

PLIBERSEK:  Well, we've stopped fees going up as the Liberals intended for them to do.

TILLEY: Okay, so you fought off the Government's attempted fee increases. What about the repayment threshold? The Coalition lowered the salary level at which students start repaying HECS to $52,000. Labor have said they're against that but haven't committed to overturning that if you get back into government. Is that where you stand? Will you not promise to overturn that and put it back up?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we haven't promised at this stage that we can overturn that.

TILLEY: Okay, let's talk about your return to the demand-driven system, uncapping university places, which Labor have said will allow 200,000 more people to go to university. How do you stop that getting out of control? What if there's a massive growth in student numbers that blows a massive hole in the budget?

PLIBERSEK: Look I just don't believe it will because we saw a very substantial growth in students in the first few years of the demand-driven system, but already by the time the government recapped student places, we began to see that growth was in line with population growth, so you're not talking about any sort of blowouts there. We also want to work with universities to make sure that universities really are focused on the needs of their local community and the national need when they're designing courses. We want to make sure, for example, that we're not over-graduating numbers of students in particular areas where they're not likely to go on and find a job.

TILLEY: Yeah, that's a really interesting point. Doesn't this kind of free market, demand-driven approach allow unis to or incentivise unis to offer courses where they get the best margins not necessarily suiting the needs of the local job markets.

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, you have to be very careful that that's not an outcome, universities chasing the dollar. And that's why we want to have arrangements with universities where they explain to us how they are meeting the national needs and the needs of their local community because a lot of universities do go out of their way to make sure that they are responding to the sort of jobs that are likely to be available in their local community or in their state in coming years and they really specialise in those areas.

TILLEY: You're listening to the woman who will be your Education Minister if Labor wins the election. Her name is Tanya Plibersek. She'll also be your Deputy Prime Minister. I'm going to come back to Tanya Plibersek in just a moment. You just heard us talking about uni, but I want to touch on TAFE and vocational training and apprenticeships for a moment. Yesterday our reporter Avani Dias was at the Bomaderry TAFE highlighting the fact that TAFE numbers have actually dropped by 23 per cent around the country and that reflects a broader drop-off in apprentices and trainees as well.


TILLEY: Avani Dias reporting on the problems with TAFE and also apprenticeships and traineeships, clearly there is a lot of work to do in that sector   On the text line “we need more people doing trades rather than uni there are plenty of high-paying jobs there”. Toby says “will the government support trades school, apprentice overheads these are much higher than uni, everything is focussed on uni”. Yeah. Well, let's talk more about TAFE and the vocational sector, apprentices, with Labor's Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, what do you think needs to change to stop the drop-off in traineeships and apprenticeships?

PLIBERSEK: Well, you could restore the $3 billion the government's cut for a start. I mean there are a 150,000 fewer apprentices today than when the Liberals took office. We've got higher youth unemployment.

TILLEY: Just back to that point. Do you mean apprentices and traineeships or just apprenticeships when you when you quote that number?

PLIBERSEK: 150,000 is apprentices and trainees. So we've announced a $1 billion investment in TAFE and apprenticeships. It means 150,000 additional apprentice incentives in areas of skills shortage as well as a 100,000 students who will go to TAFE without upfront fees. We've got $200 million to rebuild TAFE campuses across the country. We've got specific supports for people who think they want to go TAFE but they're not really sure what they want to study, so 10,000 pre-apprenticeship programs. That gives people who are just starting to study the opportunity of seeing a broader range of what's available through TAFE.

TILLEY: So lots of money there - a billion dollars to restore, I guess, strength and integrity to the vocational and TAFE sectors. It's double what the government's promising to spend. How do you know that money's going to actually make meaningful change? I mean, how do you, I guess, change the –

PLIBERSEK: Because I visit TAFE, I visit TAFE campuses all the time and it's not just the extra investment. The extra investment is really important, but the fact that we have said one in ten jobs on Commonwealth funded projects will be apprentices, the fact we've got tax breaks for employers to employ under 25 year olds, having an apprentice advocate who would stand up for apprentices to make sure they're not ripped off on workplaces, that they're working in safe conditions and being properly paid - all of these things together work to make sure that we are filling our skills gaps. We've got skills shortages in many areas across the country and we've got high youth unemployment and we've got 1.6 million people who've got temporary work rights in Australia. We can actually do better to make sure that young Australians are getting the opportunity of getting the skills they need to fill local skills shortages.

TILLEY: Tanya Plibersek, you're talking a lot about strengthening TAFE and the vocational sector but in your election promises, you're promising $1 billion for that sector, but to increase university places you’re promising $10 billion worth of spending. Does that show where your priorities really are?

PLIBERSEK: No, not at all. It shows that we have a strong commitment to both TAFE and universities. TAFE is a shared responsibility with states and territories –

TILLEY: But 10 times more for universities?

PLIBERSEK: Universities are predominantly funded by the Commonwealth and a billion dollar immediate commitment to rebuilding our TAFE campuses, making sure that we give people the opportunity of a traineeship or an apprenticeship with appropriate education at TAFE at the same time is a really important difference between us in the Coalition.

TILLEY: Tanya Plibersek, your party has announced today that you'll bring back the Minister for Young People. What do you think that will actually achieve?

PLIBERSEK: Oh look, I think it's really important that young people have a voice when we're making decisions at the highest level of government. Having a minister who's responsible for making sure those voices are heard, I think we make better policy when we do that. The experience of teenagers, people in their 20s and 30s, of mental health is quite different to the experience of someone in their 50s and 60s. And we do need to have youth specific services and make sure through our Headspace program, through Headspace Plus, through our funding for Kids Helpline, that all of these services do really target the needs of young people.

TILLEY: Just last question, you mentioned mental health there, but the Coalition have outgunned you massively on spending when it comes to youth mental health this election. What do you have to say about that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've always been supporters of Headspace, of - we've just announced just on this weekend the Headspace Plus program that would allow more young people to get more intensive support for mental health. We know Headspace fills are really important role for community-based mental health and well-being services, but Headspace Plus is really designed to tackle the more acute presentations of mental illness that many young people are facing.

TILLEY: But why have you let them outspend you? Is mental health for young people not as important to Labor as it is for the Coalition?

PLIBERSEK: I don't know how you could make that argument at all. We've made really substantial spending commitments including, I think it was just $200 million dollars just in the last weekend alone.

TILLEY: But they're spending 500.

PLIBERSEK: Well after years of inaction and inattention, I'm not sure that people will be convinced that this is a sincere difference between the Coalition and Labor.

TILLEY: Tanya Plibersek great to speak to you on Hack. Thanks so much for joining us today.

PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.