SUBJECT: Productivity Commission Report; Kevin Rudd.


PETER VAN ONSELEN, PRESENTER: Thanks very much for your company. Are you concerned by this Productivity Commission report in relation to education in particular, obviously, your portfolio, but also what do you make of the reaction this morning to Kieran Gilbert by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not concerned by the report at all. I'm always interested in new ideas on how we can best spend taxpayers' money. Every dollar has to be spent well and wisely. I just think it's a bit ironic for the Treasurer to be out there discovering that investment in health and education is good for our national productivity. I mean, Labor's been saying this for many decades now and it's like the Treasurer woke up this morning and picked up Labor's talking points. The problem is, he doesn't have the policies to back it up. It's a bit rich to be talking about education as an investment in productivity when you're cutting $17 billion from schools, close to $8 billion from universities, almost $3 billion from vocational education and training. These are vital investments in our nation's prosperity and that's what we've been saying all along. 

VAN ONSELEN: Is it really that surprising to you or should it be surprising to anyone that one in five university graduates is underemployed. They're not unemployed, but they're just not in full-time employment. Firstly, it's always relative, isn't it, to what it's been in the past, but secondly, we're giving so many more Australians an opportunity to get a university degree compared to in the past, it doesn't surprise me that that number might tick up just a little.

PLIBERSEK: Look it's a problem actually across the whole economy. We're very concerned about that fact that there's over a million people who now report being underemployed and you're talking about university graduates in this instance but it is an issue right across our economy. We are worried about that, we're worried about the fact that people are trying to make up one full-time wage out of several part-time jobs. But this isn't a feature of, your question implied, too much university education. What we know is that the jobs of the future will require post-secondary school education. We estimated that setting a target of around 40 per cent of Australians having a bachelor degree or equivalent was suitable for meeting the needs of our future economy. We also need to be looking at other types of qualifications, diplomas and so on, because what we know is that work is becoming increasingly complex. People will be having multiple jobs across multiple careers throughout their working lives, so initial training is important but life-long learning continues to be important. So it's not, I think, a feature of too much education, it's a feature of an economy where we've got unemployment that's too high for where we are in the economic cycle, and underemployment which is becoming endemic.

VAN ONSELEN: One of the things I found really interesting, particularly being in the university sector myself, in this report from the Chairman of the Productivity Commission was the issue around foreign students. Now you alluded a moment ago to the lower comparative level of higher education funding from this Government versus what Labor is offering. Foreign students are increasingly being used, aren't they, as full-fee paying students that, if you like, give more cash into the coffers of universities. This report though, seems to be suggesting that the problem with that is that universities are worried about their international rankings, international rankings that attract overseas students come courtesy of better research, and it's teaching that is falling as a result of that. Now it sounds logical, but what do we do about that if universities are dependent on those foreign students for funding?

PLIBERSEK: I think it is important that universities continue to deliver excellent quality education to all their students, Australian students and overseas students. So we do need to make sure we're focusing on the quality of teaching and learning in our universities. There is a lot of pressure on academics to be researching and publishing for their own career advancement as well as, of course, for the prestige of the university, so we need to be able to value teaching in universities as well as the research that's coming from them, but both are important - 

VAN ONSELEN: Can I jump in? How do we make sure that both are equally important when the international rankings are predominately about research? Because I couldn't agree more that the focus on teaching not just research is what students need, but the problem that Australian universities have is, like it or not, we're in a global marketplace and it's very much that research focus that drives the rankings.

PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to say that research is a bad thing, in fact it's a great thing and a lot of research is contributing to our national wealth as well. So I don't think we need to get into a headspace where we're disparaging research, but what we need to say is that teaching also has to be excellent. And I think that the best way of ensuring that is that we continue to have very transparent measures of student satisfaction and of the employment and starting salaries and ongoing employment opportunities for graduates of different universities. 

Now I think we also need to be careful when we're doing that that we don't measure the wrong things, because we don't want a scenario where universities are only cherry-picking the students who are going to go and succeed in life anyway. We want universities to be reaching out to first in family, to kids in regional and rural areas, who didn't expect to have a university education, more Indigenous students. And we've seen some improvement in all of those figures after Labor opened up universities to 190, 000 extra students going to universities because we got rid of the cap on undergraduate student numbers, and that is a good thing. 

We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time when we're designing university policy. We want great research, we want great teaching, we want students to achieve their full potential, and for some students who come from very privileged backgrounds a university education's always been their expectation and they'll do well and they'll thrive. But we also want universities to be life changing. I mean, I'm meeting a lot of mature-aged students who are going on to develop a profession that changes their own life. It changes the financial circumstances of their family, it gives hope to their extended family and their community. That's a good thing too.

VAN ONSELEN: What about, on the issue of the experience that university provides for someone, what do you make of this recommendation around the idea of mass online courses? I mean on one level yes it's technologically possible these days, there's more online courses, but that university experience on campus that you enjoyed, so did I, that'd be a shame for more and more people to miss out on - 

PLIBERSEK: Maybe a little too much Peter, from what I hear from your friends. Maybe you enjoyed it a little bit too much. I think it's important to use technology well, and there are opportunities for terrific lectures to be shared globally, so that you can hear from the best expert in any particular field, and it doesn't matter where you live or what time of day you've got available to learn, you can do it. I'm certainly not against greater incorporation of technology in our teaching. What I don't want to see is a replacement for the conversations that you can have one-on-one with your tutor or a lecturer, the learning that you do with your peers. University is about gaining knowledge for your future and the workforce, but as you say it's about a lot more than that. It's about learning to think critically, to communicate, to collaborate. It's about creativity and pursuing your interests or developing new interests that you never have been exposed to in the past. So we do want university to be more than just a download of information into someone's brain. 

VAN ONSELEN: Just finally, Tanya Plibersek, on an unrelated topic, Kevin Rudd is back in the media, he's spruiking his memoir, or one of two volumes of his memoir. One of the things he's talks about is the idea that the Labor Party should dislocate itself from the CFMEU. Is it a welcome return to see Kevin Rudd front and centre?

PLIBERSEK: I'm very proud of what we achieved during the Rudd Prime Ministership and the Gillard Prime Ministership. I'm very proud of some of the things that Kevin did, the Apology, working with him on homelessness. So I think he's got every right to tell that story, but going after people in his memoir, you mentioned the CFMEU, I think everybody's got a right to participate in democracy. If someone in a union has been accused of doing the wrong thing, that's a different matter, but as for unions standing up for better pay and conditions for their workforce, that's an absolutely fundamental part of our democracy and of our Labor Party. Unions get to have a say, business gets to have a say, non-government organisations get to have a say, and we actually want every ordinary Australian to have a say as well. We want citizens participating in our democracy. So setting up these sort of artificial 'some people shouldn't have a say' kind of scenarios – that doesn't sit well with me.

VAN ONSELEN: Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek, thanks very much for joining us on Newsday.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.