SUBJECT: The Liberals’ cuts to universities; NSW Senate vacancy.

KIERAN GILBERT, PRESENTER: Let's go to the Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, thanks very much for your time. The mid-year budget update went ahead with some cuts to the higher education sector. Now, the Minister, Simon Birmingham, says that funding for the tertiary education sector's gone up by double growth in the broader economy. Why shouldn't they take a bit of a haircut?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well indeed when Labor was in government we substantially increased university funding. In 2007 it was about $8 billion a year, by the time we left government it was $14 billion a year so we have seen substantial increases. But those substantial increases are because there are a lot more people going to university. There were 190,000 extra students when Labor uncapped university places and what we saw yesterday was a reversal of that policy, that used to have bipartisan support, of uncapping undergraduate places. We know that the jobs of the future are going to require young people to have post-secondary school education, whether at TAFE or at university. We set targets to make sure that we had enough people with bachelor degrees. It's actually a good thing to be educating and skilling our workforce. So as well as individuals missing out because of the massive cuts that the Government announced yesterday, our economy will suffer - 

GILBERT: Massive or modest? It's $2 billion in terms of the cap - 

PLIBERSEK: Is $2 billion a lot of money Kieran? I reckon it is. And the universities - 

GILBERT: When it's such a big sector, is it really massive?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah it is. The universities are telling us that this will make it harder for young people who have worked hard, who have got the application and the desire to go to university. There will be young people in that situation turned away because of these cuts. And the regional universities are saying it will hit the regions particularly hard. The technology universities are expressing their concern. It means that courses that are more expensive to teach, like nursing and engineering, where we already have skill shortages emerging, universities will be less inclined to teach those expensive-to-teach courses. 

GILBERT: Let's look at a couple of the specifics here. The threshold for the HELP loans, the repayment, reduced from $52,000 to $45,000. That doesn't sound like that big a shift. Why is that not reasonable? To help students contribute more to the cost of their degree, sooner.

PLIBERSEK: Australian students already contribute a large proportion of the cost of their degrees by international standards and you think about what's happening when a student is graduating from university, they're moving out of home, they're trying to buy a house, they're trying to start a family. We think the threshold is about right now. We've already helped the Government to reduce the threshold to $52,000 a year. But taking it lower than that, well the Government haven't made a case for that. Also remember, these are the same students that will be facing an increase in their Medicare levy costs, so they're actually going to be paying more tax as well as more HECS, as well as facing a very difficult housing market, as well as trying to establish themselves as independent, moving out of the family home. It really feels like a war on young people when you start piling all these expenses on to young people.

GILBERT: But when you've got a sector that's growing so dramatically as you alluded to earlier, isn't it only prudent then to say okay, let's reassess the cap for two years. You're saying there's no room for savings across the administration or the bureaucracy of these very large institutions?

PLIBERSEK: No I never say there's no room for savings Kieran. I think it's important to spend every single dollar of taxpayers' money well, but you also have to recognise when something is an investment in our future, and properly funding schools and TAFE and universities is an investment in our future as a nation. Look at the way the world is changing. Jobs are becoming increasingly more complex, people will have not one job or even one career throughout their working lives, they will have to constantly retrain and upgrade their skills to remain competitive, and for Australia to remain competitive. It is shortsighted in the extreme to do what this Government's done: cut schools, cut TAFE and cut universities. And it's not just individuals that will suffer, it's us as a nation.

GILBERT: From 2020 the performance-linked funding of bachelor courses that enable their students to get jobs will receive additional funds. Is that a good or a bad thing in your view?

PLIBERSEK: What does it even mean? I mean, this is another one of those thought-bubbles released by the Government with no detail, no ability for universities to judge how they will be judged, what they will be judged on. It looks to me, and to people who follow these things closely, like another excuse to cut funds to universities. You think about the crude measures that the Government has described so far, and it's things like attrition rates. Well of course we want people to go to university and to finish their courses. But sometimes we're talking about people whose lives are very complicated. We're talking about, for example, mothers in regional communities who take a long time to finish a university degree because their life gets in the way, they're raising children and so on along the way. Should universities be punished for taking that student as a student rather than a kid fresh out of high school who's got all the family supports and all the economic supports they need to finish university quickly? I think we want people who are from low-SES backgrounds, regional communities, Indigenous students, we want them going to university and if Simon Birmingham's making it harder for those people to go to university, he's not doing them any favours, and he's not doing our country any favours either. 

GILBERT: Last question relates to who will replace Sam Dastyari in the Senate. Should it be Kristina Keneally or Tony Sheldon, the Transport Workers Union chief?

PLIBERSEK: They're both excellent candidates and fine people, and we'll go through our internal democratic processes over the coming weeks. There's absolutely no hurry, we've got proper processes and we'll follow them.

GILBERT: What's your personal view?

PLIBERSEK: I like them both. I think they're both terrific.

GILBERT: It would be good for Penny Wong to bolster the Senate ranks wouldn't it, in terms of the calibre of the former Premier, for example?

PLIBERSEK: They're both excellent candidates and we'll go through our democratic processes and make a decision that way.

GILBERT: Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.