SUBJECT: The Liberals’ cuts to universities.

JULIE DOYLE, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining me today. Let's talk about what the Government announced yesterday as far as funding for universities. One of the big changes is the freeze in funding for the next two years at this year's level. Other sectors of the economy need to be more efficient, so why shouldn't universities have to make some efficiencies?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: I certainly agree that every dollar of taxpayers' money should be well and wisely spent. But it's been our ambition as a country to see more young Australians with a post-secondary school education, a university degree or a TAFE education, because we know that the world is becoming more complex and the jobs of the future will require that post-secondary school education. It's actually in our national interest to see more students going to university, and these measures will mean fewer students going to university, or getting a poorer-quality education, or most likely both.

DOYLE: The Government argues that universities have room in their budgets, the Minister talks about money that they're spending on marketing and advertising instead. Could some of that money be diverted to help provide these extra places? 

PLIBERSEK: Maybe we could divert the Government's advertising budget to fund university students getting a decent education, or schools or TAFE for that matter. I mean, it is a little ridiculous that they say that an industry that earns, I think, $22 billion in exports shouldn't be advertising. I think it's a really superficial point. Yes, of course, every dollar should be well and wisely spent, but the reason that university funding has increased in recent years is because more students are going to university. And that's a good thing. We actually have students that would have worked hard, studied hard, sweated over their HSC this year, who are expecting information about whether they got into the university course of their choice over coming days, who will actually be worried now that the goalposts have changed. And that's even more true of future years, when this funding freeze really hits hard. People who, under the system that existed a week ago, would have been able to go to university, will be turned away from university. Now, it's pretty hard to argue that that's good for those individual students, and it's certainly hard to argue that that's in the national interest.

DOYLE: Do you think universities, though, have any room in their budgets to move money around and to cope with these changes? 

PLIBERSEK: Universities have already taken the scalpel to a lot of the things that they used to offer. The real danger with the Government's $2.2 billion of cuts are that fewer students will have the opportunity of going to university, lecture sizes will increase, tutorial sizes will increase, the quality of the university offering will decrease. Or universities will substitute cheap-to-teach courses for what we really need. I mean, we know that we've got shortages coming up in areas like engineering and nursing. Those courses are more expensive to teach than another arts degree or business degree or a law degree for that matter. This sort of freeze actually doesn't make sense, it doesn't benefit the nation, it doesn't benefit individual students. And, actually, one of the things that's very interesting about the demand-driven system that Labor introduced when we were last in Government, that had bipartisan support until two days ago, was that the rate of increase of students attending university had slowed down. So with the Government's freeze, we're actually looking at restricting numbers that were already tapering off. There's no good outcome for university students with these cuts. It's just about savings. It's not about sensible policy at all. 

DOYLE: If numbers were already tapering off, as you said there, capping at this year's levels, wouldn't that be okay then, if those numbers had started to slow? 

PLIBERSEK: No, because funding freezes are the same as cuts, in real terms, because expenses continue to increase. Wages go up, electricity costs go up, expenses continue to increase while funding is frozen. So you're actually getting the same amount of money to do something that is costing you more. That means you have to reduce the quality of what you're offering, or reduce the number of people that you're offering courses to. 

DOYLE: We're in a situation now where this freeze element doesn't need to be legislated, so there's nothing that Labor or the crossbenchers can do about this one, is there?

PLIBERSEK: Well we can make a strong case against it and try and convince the Government on the merits of our policy argument. And, in fact, we did have some success in protecting the HEPPP program, which is the program that supported students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university, and has seen really substantial increases in the number of kids from rural and regional backgrounds, Indigenous backgrounds and so on going to university. We were able to protect that. We have been able to protect enabling courses from fees being charged, so the courses that help students who perhaps have had a tough time at school and haven't got the marks that they need to get into university, or people who are looking to requalify halfway through their career, who didn't finish high school. These enabling courses, the Government wanted to start charging money for those, and we've managed to ward off that very retrograde move. So I think it's very important for the community to show that it values higher education, that we as a country understand that investing in our schools, our TAFE system and our universities mean greater prosperity for us all. 

DOYLE: But on this major element though, which is where the big savings are coming from, the fact that it doesn't need to be legislated pretty much means that the sector is stuck with it now. Do you think it would have been a better approach to perhaps work with the previous plan that was put forward in the budget that didn't include this element?

PLIBERSEK: You're asking whether I prefer poison to car crash. I mean, neither of these packages were good for higher education or good for students. And they're not good for our country. Everybody understands that the world is getting increasingly complex. The jobs of the future will require a better-educated, more highly skilled workforce. What kind of short-sighted nonsense is it to cut university funding, cut TAFE funding, cut schools funding, when we should, in fact, be making sure that our young people are ready for this changing world? And why are we doing it? We're cutting funding to higher education, we're imposing a $44 billion new tax over the next decade on low and middle income earners through the increase in the Medicare levy. Why are we doing it? To give a $65 billion big business tax cut and a cut to people on higher incomes, so that your average millionaire, someone earning a million dollars a year, gets a $16,400 a year tax benefit. That's why we're making all of these cuts, so we can afford big business and millionaires' tax cuts. It's nuts.

DOYLE: Alright Tanya Plibersek, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for joining me.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.