By Tanya Plibersek

16 August 2021








Acknowledgements omitted.
COVID-19 has made us think a lot about what the future looks like – tomorrow’s case numbers; next week’s vaccination tally; economic growth for the September and December quarters.
And when we think about the future, leaders must think about a future that is worthy of the enormous sacrifices Australians have made in the last 18 months.
People want jobs, security and opportunity – for them and their families. Hope for their future.
To put my own twist on John Howard, Australians want to be relaxed and confident.
COVID-19 has been really hard. Sadly, it probably will be for a while to come.
But the adversity we’ve dealt with has shown what’s possible – and that we can build a better normal after this virus. 
As I’ve said before, a year ago people would have told you it was impossible for school children to shift overnight to online learning; impossible for banks to offer mortgage holidays; impossible to double unemployment benefits; impossible to house rough sleepers or put a hold on evictions; impossible to offer wage subsidies and absolutely impossible to get Australians to stay home from the beach and the pub.
But we did, and there are lessons to learn.
One of those is that so much good can be achieved if partisan politics is dialled down.
My great hope is that we can apply that lesson to university policy in Australia too. 
That’s why, as education minister, I would seek to end some of the political bickering over higher education policy by establishing an Australian universities accord.
The accord would be a partnership between universities and staff, unions and business, students and parents, and, ideally, Labor and Liberal – that lays out what we expect from our universities.
This is desperately needed given the long period of uncertainty for universities. The demand driven system has been and gone. There have been big changes to student fees. Research funding has been all over the shop. International student enrolments have been up and have been brought crashing down by COVID.
The aim of an accord would be to build consensus on key policy questions and national priorities in a sober, evidence-based way, without so much of the political cut and thrust. Building that consensus should help university reform stick.
People are exhausted by politics for politics sake.
Australia has a successful history of bipartisanship when it comes to national security and defence policy. For the most part that has served our country well.
It’s something I think we can, and should, seek to emulate in higher education.
This doesn’t mean an end to reasonable criticism. It doesn’t mean an end to accountability. It doesn’t mean supporting the current Government’s attacks on universities. It means putting our university system on a solid footing.
Governments will naturally have differences in emphasis. Governments would still be free to pursue their priorities and commit to extra support and resources. But an Australian universities accord would ensure that a higher education system with a strong base would be a constant.
The accord process would be led by the minister with advice from small group of eminent Australians from across the political spectrum. No aspect of the higher education system will be out of bounds.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light fundamental questions about how universities operate. We should be using the crisis to set our higher education system on a sustainable path for the future.
There are big questions that need to be answered about how higher education is structured and funded – so that it can keep offering affordable, high quality teaching, and produce world class research – and so that knowledge translates to prosperity and jobs.
We must look at the whole system rather than tinkering around the edges if we want to make sure we have the educated workforce necessary to drive economic growth. Australia’s future prosperity depends on it.
We need world class universities and the research they do to help diversify our economy, to generate new local industries and jobs. All the evidence shows that the more skilled and educated Australia is, the more prosperous it will be.
Supporting universities should be a no brainer for any government.
Supporting universities is a way of rewarding individual aspiration. There is still a ‘graduate premium’ on earning. Over their lifetimes, men with a university education earn $800,000 more on average. Women earn $600,000 more. Why would any government want to deny that opportunity to its citizens?
Supporting universities is also a good investment for government. For every dollar spent on higher education, there is a 200 to 300 per cent return to taxpayers.
Each year, universities generate tens of billions of dollars for the Australian economy.
Universities support more than 240,000 Australian jobs – from academics, to admin workers, to groundspeople, to the mum and dad small businesses that feed, clothe, and entertain students from overseas.
None of us have been good enough demonstrating the national benefit of our universities. We must do better.
Our economy needs highly skilled graduates, just like it needs the discoveries of our world class researchers.
Australia has become accustomed to punching above our weight: in foreign affairs, in science, in sport. But on some critical economic indicators, we are starting to fall behind.
The Australian economy has a worryingly narrow base. In global rankings of economic complexity, we’re languishing in 87th spot. That puts us between Uganda and Burkina Faso – and dead last in the developed world. With most of our eggs in a handful of export baskets, we’re more vulnerable to changes in commodity prices or a trading partner turning its back on us suddenly.
Given the importance of our higher education system to our national prosperity, negotiating last minute deals on the floor of the Senate is no way to design it.
Many of the most significant reforms made to Australian higher education – including after the Dawkins and Bradley reviews – sprung from years of thought and collaboration.
As a starting point, today I will lay out several principles for a discussion about an Australian universities accord.
Accessibility. Affordability. Quality. Certainty. Sustainability. Prosperity.
Accessibility. Where there are enough university places to meet the nation’s future skills needs. Where Australians who get the marks and want to study can earn a spot. And where vocational education and universities are cohesive, adaptable, equally valued and supported.
Affordability. Where students aren’t saddled with huge debts to get a university education.
Quality. A high quality university system, centred around the needs of students and workers over a lifetime of learning and work, including those looking to update their qualifications or change careers.
Certainty. A university system that gives students, universities and businesses the certainty to make long-term plans. Student fee levels that are reasonable and stable. Certainty of funding for universities and research – for example legislated funding cycles that go beyond elections, that would allow universities to hire more permanent staff.
Sustainability. Where good levels of government investment in higher education can be sustained for decades. And where there’s a strong international education offering that both adds to the student experience and our national export income.
Prosperity. Educating Australians for their dream job. A university system designed to underpin job creation, productivity and our national prosperity. And where the benefits of university research are used to create Australian jobs and economic growth.
I offer these principles are starting point for a genuine discussion that I hope Labor can take into government.
Delivering lasting reform for universities will require open minds, and some courage too.
As a nation, we are capable of the real leadership it takes to agree university reform that sticks.  
Over the decades, there have been many examples of this.
Labor deserves credit for introducing the HECS system which, as policy expert Andrew Norton notes, ‘…helped finance a large increase in total [university] spending, enrolments, participation and attainment’. Funded student places jumped by 23 per cent between 1988 and 1993. This reform was opposed by many at the time, including a teenage me. But the Hawke Government pushed through the difficult politics to deliver this big change. As a result, over the years, many more Australians, including many first in family, have had the chance to go to university.
The Liberals deserve credit for supporting the introduction of the demand driven system by the previous Labor Government. That reform gave an extra 200,000 Australians the opportunity of a university education. It is a great shame that the bipartisanhip did not hold.
But I have hope for the future.
Only a week ago we heard that in NSW there has been a six per cent jump in university applications for next year, following a record high number of applications last year.
After the final high school years from hell, it would be terrific if the Federal Government provided extra university places for those students in 2022. I would love to give the current Government credit for doing that. 
It’s easy to look back on our country’s big policy achievements as foregone conclusions.
But every single one of them has been the product of hard work, negotiation, and compromise.
We are in the position to build an even better higher education system as we recover from the pandemic.
A system that will give every Australian the chance of a university education if they want it, and the secure knowledge that they can get a job at the end of it.
An Australian universities accord to dial down the politics, and end the uncertainty.
I truly believe that Australia’s best days are ahead of us.
Some real leadership can deliver just that.
Let’s get to work.