SUBJECTS: Initial Teacher Education; Wentworth by-election.

GREG JENNETT, PRESENTER: Federal Labor will consider forcing universities to lift entrance scores required for teaching degrees if it wins the next election. The Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek, has long argued against allowing the trend of universities enrolling students in teaching courses with low Year 12 marks to continue. She thinks higher scores would attract brighter students and improve the reputation of the profession. Well Tanya Plibersek told political reporter Julie Doyle she wants to work with universities but if they don't take action, she will.
JULIE DOYLE, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for coming in to talk about teaching scores. Now this is something that we talked about almost a year ago now, so you've been raising this issue for a long time about the need to attract brighter students into teaching courses. We've seen this report today about the levels that students are achieving to get into a teaching degree. Does this foster your determination to act in this area?
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well we know that the most successful school systems around the world take their teaching students from about the top 30 per cent of academic achievers. I think Australia should aim to do the same. We want teaching to be as tough to get into and as sought-after as medicine. We want teaching to be a first choice, not a fall-back for Australian students. So I know that ATAR is not everything. I know that there are some students who have a bad time in high school for whatever reason they don't achieve to their full potential. But what does worry me is the ongoing trend that we're seeing of lower and lower marks to get into teaching. So we're not talking about the exceptions that have an ATAR that doesn't reflect their ability. We're talking about a trend. And so if you look at the years between 2005 and 2015, we went from about a third of students having an ATAR above 80 to only about a fifth of students having an ATAR above 80. That trend really worries me, that we're seeing lower and lower marks across the board. I accept that there are individual exceptions to the rule but I think as a general rule we should be making it more selective, targeting the brightest students and showing them what a fantastic, rewarding career teaching can be.
DOYLE: So if Labor wins the next election, you could very well be Education Minister, what would you do to address this then?
PLIBERSEK: I think we need to raise the status of teaching overall, and that means respecting the professionalism of the teachers who are already there, talking about the extraordinary complex and responsible work they do. When it comes to attracting new people into teaching, I do think we need to have hard conversations with universities and, to be honest with you, I have had this conversation with the universities already-
DOYLE: And it hasn't always gone down well, has it? Because they argue it's more than just marks. They want to look more broadly.
PLIBERSEK: I agree that it's more than just marks but we can't have lower and lower standards because what happens then is we turn kids who do really well in high school, we turn them off teaching as a profession. They have teachers, their own teachers and parents saying "Don't waste your ATAR on teaching". That is a problem if we embed that in the system. So universities do have to, I think, tighten entry criteria to make sure that we are attracting and retaining the best and brightest, that it's a first choice for students who passionately want to be teachers not the course that they do because they couldn't get into anything else.
DOYLE: So are you talking about enforcing minimum ATARs that they must, universities must apply. Will you use that, kind of, heavy stick with the universities?
PLIBERSEK:  I prefer the universities to make these arrangements themselves and there's a reason we uncapped student numbers. We think that universities generally have the capacity to make these decisions themselves. But if they don't then yes, I'm prepared to intervene.
DOYLE: What kind of intervention would that be?
PLIBERSEK: There's a range of options that we'd have to discuss with universities but we do have capped numbers for some courses like medicine. I think, as I say, I'd prefer universities to tackle this themselves. I don't want them using teaching courses as a way of cross subsidising other areas of their operation. It's not fair to students who put their time and money into a qualification that they won't be able to use in the world of work that comes afterwards. But it's also not fair because it really undermines the status of the profession to have lower and lower entry marks.
DOYLE: So do you think there's some examples where they're taking extra teaching students just to get them in and to get that money to help with their budgets? 
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think so.
DOYLE: How do you stop that then? Is it a matter like you said of putting those caps on how many they're allowed to take into teaching?
PLIBERSEK: That's a last resort. I would hope, as I say, that universities deal with this themselves. It's better than having the government intervene in this way. I'm saying it's not off the table.
DOYLE: Is it a matter…the Government has argued before that you should look at the person or the graduate at the end of their course and see if they're suitable for teaching rather than putting standards in at the start, that they can develop throughout the course and it's better to look at the person that's coming out of the degree?
PLIBERSEK: I think it's very important to accept that some students get an ATAR that doesn't reflect their ability. I accept that 100 per cent. Some of those students go on to make excellent teachers, I accept that also. But that student really should demonstrate some academic capability before they spend three or even four years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars of student debt getting a qualification that they won't be allowed to apply in the world of work. So yes, I accept that ATAR is not everything, but capacity for academic excellence is important and there are different ways of measuring that in mature aged students or students who for some reason had a tough time in high school. I think waiting for four years for someone to do a three or a four year degree or even longer in some cases and then saying to them, "I'm sorry you will never be able to teach in one of our schools." I think that's not fair. It's not fair to anyone. 
DOYLE: From what you have been saying you could be up for  a bit of a stoush with the universities if you do win the next election and you are not backing away from that?
PLIBERSEK: I'm not. I'm not backing away from that. We have excellent policies for universities, we will uncap places again, that is a $10 billion commitment to universities over the decade. We have said that we would spend $170 million on making sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, low SES backgrounds and so on will get the chance of having a university education. I make no apologies for our university policies which democratise access to university. What I am saying is that if we want our kids to be taught by the best and brightest - and I think we do - then we need to make sure we are choosing teaching students from amongst high achieving - academically high achieving - students themselves. 
DOYLE: Now just finally Tanya Plibersek before we let you go, the Wentworth by-election, neighbouring electorate to yours. You won’t be able to escape obviously all of this when it is going on, but is Labor swinging some resources behind the independent candidate, Kerryn Phelps?
PLIBERSEK: Well I can tell you who I am campaigning with, and that's Tim Murray who is our fantastic Labor candidate. He is someone who's got long experience, decades of experience in the business community. He is very successful in his business ventures in China, he speak Mandarin. He is a very, very impressive candidate and I will be campaigning with him, I'll be door knocking and out on the street stalls with Tim. 
DOYLE: Well you will be, but is the Labor Party putting other resources in, for example, how to explain the former Labor staffer Darrin Barnett working on Dr Phelps' campaign?
PLIBERSEK:  Well I guess if you want to talk about Kerryn Phelps' campaign you should talk to Kerryn Phelps. Darrin is an independent contractor who can work for whomever he chooses. 
DOYLE: Tanya Plibersek, we'll leave it there, thank you very much.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you.