By Tanya Plibersek

08 September 2020






SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison's plan to make it harder and more expensive to go to university; #strandedAussies; international students returning to Australia; Scott Morrison reducing pathways to permanent migration.

SENATOR KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Well, good morning everyone and thank you for joining us with our virtual press conference this week. As we begin, I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we are all meeting, I'm coming to you today from the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and as well as the traditional owners of all the lands where we're all currently situated, I'd like to acknowledge and pay respects to elders past and present. I'd also like to welcome Tanya Plibersek, Labor's Shadow Minister for Education and Training and the Member for Sydney, and Tanya it's great to have you this morning.

Now, I want to touch on some housekeeping just as we kick off. So thank you for those who submitted questions when they registered, we will come to those shortly. You can ask questions through the Q&A function here on Zoom and we'll try to get to as many of those as possible, and a transcript and a video of this media conference will be distributed afterwards. Now before we hear from Tanya about higher education, I want to highlight an emerging issue and that is it there are 25,000 Australians currently stranded overseas, either Australian citizens who are trying to get home, many of whom have been trying to get home since March during a global pandemic. With borders shut, with caps on international arrivals and with price gouging by airlines, these Australians are increasingly in dire circumstances and unable to get home. We know from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that some 3,500 of these Australians are right now considered financially or medically vulnerable. They're also separated from their families and their homes. A tragic story, yesterday I heard about a husband - he's a Nurse Unit Manager at an aged care home in Victoria on the front line of this virus and he has been separated from his wife and 11 month old baby since March. They travelled to India late last year to see family, to introduce the baby to the family. He returned in February. His wife and daughter were due to come back in April, but then COVID hit and they have been stranded there ever since. And he's just hoping they get home in time for their daughter's first birthday, but for months now he's been separated from his wife and child. And this is just one of many, many stories - some 25,000 Australians who are registered with DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who want to come home and can't get home. Last week in the Senate, Senator Penny Wong and I put a plan that's up for a vote shortly in the Senate. We put a plan before the Senate to call on the Government to temporarily increase the cap to allow international arrivals, to allow people to come home, to stop price gouging by airlines that fly to Australia and to put all options on the table including sending out charter flights to bring home these stranded Australians. So we need to do everything we can to help get these stranded Aussies home in the middle of a deadly global pandemic.

But of course, another important topic that we need to discuss this morning is the Morrison Government's plan to make it frankly, harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. And for that, I want to hand over to Tanya Plibersek.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Thank you very much Kristina, and thank you so much for organising this press conference. I've been very much looking forward to it. And we've got some great questions, as you say, already. I'm on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. So essentially, in a nutshell, what the Government is proposing to do with the legislation that's passing through the Parliament at the moment, is make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. And that's at a time, of course, when our Year 12 students have been very much struggling and at a time when we've got hundreds of thousands of young people on the unemployment queues. So just taking a step back, if you have a look at how young people have been faring this year during the Covid-19 lockdowns, they've been remote learning, they've had their studies disrupted, they've sometimes been able to go to school sometimes not being able to go to school. All of those young people who are graduating Year 12 this year will be affected by this change. So people who have been hoping for years to study a particular subject may have been told that the cost of their degree will increase very substantially, and they might not be able to afford it at all. 40 per cent of students will pay more for their degrees under this proposal, and some students will pay much more.

Thousands of students will see the cost of their degrees more than double. So I just wanted to run through a couple of the subjects. The cost of Law will increase to $14,500 a year. That's a 28 per cent increase. The cost of Commerce will increase to $14,500 a year, again a 28 per cent increase. Economics will increase in cost to $14,500 a year, a 28 per cent increase. Accounting will increase to $14,500 a year, a 28 per cent increase. But if you look at degrees like Arts degrees, Humanities, Communications, Society and Culture - so that would include Politics, History, the Australian International Culture and History, International Studies and so on - the cost of those degrees will also increase to $14,500 a year, but this is a 113 per cent increase for the cost of those degrees. Overall, on average, all together students will pay 7 per cent more for the cost of the student contribution to higher education funding, and universities will receive about a billion dollars less a year from the government. So the government share of the cost of education is falling by about a billion dollars a year. The student contribution to the cost of education overall is increasing by hundreds of millions of dollars a year and the cost on average is 7 per cent higher for students. 40 per cent of students will pay more and some will pay much, much more. Some will see the cost of their degrees more than double.

Now that's at a time when these young people have had their final year studies disrupted beyond anything that any of us could have imagined. But there's another group of people I'm very concerned about as well. And that is young people and people who are mid-career, who are finding themselves unemployed, in some cases with no history of unemployment, who have been in the workforce for years. We've now got a million Australians who are unemployed, about 350,000 of those are young people under the age of 25. It makes no sense to me at all that we would make it harder and more expensive for people to get a university degree or a TAFE qualification at a time when there aren't jobs for them. With the very best will in the world, with the very best skills and attitude and capacity for hard work, when we see more than a million people on the dole queue already, an extra 400,000 expected to join the ranks of the unemployed by Christmas, it makes no sense to increase the cost of education, make it harder and more expensive to go to university, at a time like this. And one of the reasons I'm so concerned about this is obviously the individual impact on those people. It makes much more sense to be upgrading your education and skills than just being unemployed. But also our national economy. Before COVID-19 hit, productivity was at historic lows. We had three quarters of Australian businesses saying they couldn't find the skilled staff they needed. Why on earth would we not be training people for those job vacancies that will emerge as the economy recovers right now. That is beyond me. It's short sighted for individuals who will miss out and it's short sighted as an investment in improving the productivity of the Australian economy. Kristina, I'm happy to turn to questions now if you'd like to do that, because we've seen some great questions come in.
KENEALLY: Terrific. Thank you, Tanya. And just to remind people, you can use the chat function on the Q&A if you want to submit a question, but we'll start with some of those who've been pre-submitted.

SBS Punjabi asks "What do you have to" and this is to you, Tanya, "What do you have to say about the various plans being floated around to bring back international students to Australia? Is the country ready to take them back? Or should it first let Australians stuck overseas return to their lives and their loved ones?".
PLIBERSEK: Of course we are eager to see international students return to Australia as soon as it's safe for them to do so. This is an important export industry for Australia - in fact, it's our fourth largest export industry and it employs about 260,000 Australians when it's working well. Of course, that can't be at the expense of Australians who are currently stuck overseas. And like you Kristina, in my office I'm being contacted almost daily by Australian citizens or permanent residents who have families here in Australia, who have been separated for months. They're facing, as you mentioned, the cap on international arrivals, but also price gouging by airlines. I've had so many constituents who've bought multiple tickets, who've turned up to the airport with all their bags packed, only to be turned away. And when they’re turned away, they're often told that they might have better luck in the future if they buy a Business Class ticket. And some of those with Business Class tickets have been told they'll have better luck if they buy a First Class ticket. I find this really concerning. It's been devastating for the individuals concerned.

So of course we need to make sure that our focus as a nation is getting those people home as quickly and as safely as we can in the first instance. But we do look forward, when it's safe to do so, to welcome international students back here because not only do they make an important economic contribution, I think that the relationships that are formed by international education students who come here and have a great experience of living and working in Australia, those are lifelong relationships that are built with the Australian community. And I've met a lot of international leaders when I have been, particularly in our region - the Asia Pacific and Indo Pacific region, you meet people who studied in Australia 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and they often have very fond memories of their time here and a very healthy, good disposition towards Australia that I think, you know, money can't buy that.
KENEALLY: I would agree Tanya, if I could I might just supplement that from a Home Affairs perspective and say, of course, we would like to see international students return when it's safe to do so, but this would require a plan being in place to manage their safe return, and to date the Government has shown no indication of even a plan to have a plan. And when I talk about a plan, I mean things like "What is the testing regime in their home country? Where are the airports that they are going to come into and will there be any caps in place on their arrivals? What will the quarantine arrangements be at this end? And who will pay for that?" These are all questions that need to be resolved before we will simply see international students returning in anything approximating the numbers they were present before. The Commonwealth often talks about the need for a vaccine to be in place before we can open our borders. But what we are now seeing, whether it's with agriculture workers, or other key workers, is people being brought into the country. Well, if we're going to do that in any systematic way that supports the return of international students, we're going to need a plan in place, and that will be the biggest step forward before a vaccine that would allow that to happen. So we're keen to see the Government, in fact that’s why we're calling on the Government to develop that plan. Tanya though, I will go on to SBS World News, which has a question for you. "The changes target, the changes in universities, target humanities subjects. How does this specifically impact culturally and linguistically diverse students?".
PLIBERSEK: It's a terrific question. And of course, what it means is that the whole range of humanities degrees will increase in cost to about $14,500 a year. And we know that the humanities are studied very broadly by Australian students in an effort to understand Australia better and in an effort to understand the world better. So if you're studying Australian history, Australian politics, Australian arts and culture, Australian society, you'll pay more. If you're studying the art, science, politics, culture of another country, you'll also pay more. So I think it really profoundly affects not only Australia's ability to understand and examine ourselves, but also our ability to understand and examine the world around us, our neighbourhood, the history and culture of other nations. Being a good international citizen requires us to better understand the world that we're living in and being a strong multicultural society requires us to better understand ourselves. So I think anything that makes it harder and more expensive to understand ourselves and the world has a negative impact. Of course, there are a lot of CALD students who are studying these subjects. But you know, there's a lot of CALD students who are studying maths, accounting, economics, law, commerce, the other courses that are going up in cost as well. This is a raid on the future of 40 per cent of students who will be paying more for the cost of their university degrees.
KENEALLY: Tanya the next question is from South Asia Times. They ask what is Labor’s plan to keep university education equally good for all subjects?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the best way to answer that is to point to our history. It was Gough Whitlam that opened up Australian universities to working class kids before that universities were the preserve of the rich in Australia and ever since then, Labor has worked every time we were in government to open universities up more; to make them more democratic institutions to make them more available to ordinary families. My parents could never have afforded to send three of us to university if Gough Whitlam hadn't opened up universities to working class kids like us. And when we were in Government last time, we increased university funding from around $8 billion a year to about $14 billion a year. When we uncapped university places that meant that 190,000 additional people got a university education on top of the growth that we already saw in the system. And we saw a lot of people who are the first in their family from low SES backgrounds and non-English speaking CALD backgrounds go to university, the first generation in their family to do that. That's our record. In contrast, the Liberals have prevented 200,000 students over the decade getting a university education because they have recapped access to university places. And with this proposal that's gone through the House of Representatives, and it's now being examined in the Senate. And they will take another billion dollars a year out of university funding. So fundamentally, that I think the most important thing to say about Labour's approach to university education is we want more people to have the opportunity to go to university if they're prepared to work hard and study hard, there should be a place for them, particularly at a time like this of high unemployment when the alternative is the dole queue.
KENEALLY: Tanya I think the next question is going to segue very neatly off of that answer. It is from Radio 4EB 98.1 FM Brisbane. They asked arts degrees at $45,000 are going to go beyond the financial capacity of most people. Does this mean these courses will be limited to the size of people's wallets rather than the size of their intellect?
PLIBERSEK: Well, absolutely, absolutely. And this is the problem with these massive fee increases of more than 113% for some areas of study. This will make it more expensive, in some cases to study these subjects, then dentistry or medicine, it makes absolutely no sense to do that. And it also makes no sense. The Government has said that there are certain outcomes they want from this legislation. And yet, the legislation is so badly drafted that it actually does the exact opposite. So the Government has been very open about the fact that they want fewer people studying humanities they've said, No, we don't want people in those areas. They've sort of suggested that these are pointless areas of study. Well, the education Minister himself has three arts degrees. So it didn't stop him getting a job. And when we look at the three year employment outcomes for people who have studied maths and science, which are the areas that the government said they want to increase student numbers, and the employment rates are people who are three years out of studying a humanities degree. In fact, the humanities graduates have the same or slightly better employment outcomes, and they're on average earning higher wages. So it's nonsense to say that they're increasing the cost of these degrees because you can't get a job and you don't earn a good income. The Minister should know better, because he's got arts degrees himself. And incidentally, so have quite a few of the Liberal cabinet members who are supporting these changes that there's quite a few of them who've got arts degrees, and it hasn't stopped them making it into the, you know, one of the most senior political positions in our country.

Also, one of the problems here is, the Government has said they're dropping the cost of some degrees to encourage people to study those degrees like science and maths. But what they're doing at the same time as dropping the cost of students is they're dropping the amount that the Government gives the university to teach the same subject. So the universities are saying, “Why on earth would we take more science students? Why on earth would we take more maths students?,” when all together, the Government and student contribution will be less than we used to get for teaching the same subjects? So again, you have this perverse outcome where the Government saying they want the legislation to do one thing, but they're doing the exact opposite. The other great example here is the Government has said they want more people studying social work and psychology. But they're putting up the cost of social work and psychology degrees. So it's a dog's breakfast of a legislation, Kristina, it really has all sorts of unintended consequences, well I presume they're unintended, because of the very poor drafting of the legislation itself. And that's why we've sent it, as you know, to a Senate inquiry to try and give the opportunity to universities and to parents who are beside themselves with these changes, and to students and to professional organizations to say, hang on a minute, this, this legislation is not going to be good for the country.
KENEALLY: Yeah. It’s just extraordinary, isn't it, the extent to which the Government are actually giving universities an incentive to enrol people in the more expensive courses...
KENEALLY: If I'm understanding your argument correctly. But yet the courses where they cut the fees, why would universities want to enrol people in those courses?
PLIBERSEK: So this is it, it's doing exactly the opposite of what they've said they wanted to do, they'll get less money to teach the subjects that they say they want more students to enrolling. They'll also get the universities will get more money from the Government to teach some of the humanities subjects so students will pay more. The Government will give the university more, there's an incentive to over-enrol in the subjects that the Government has said they want to discourage. Just, you know, some mystery, the whole thing’s a mystery.
KENEALLY: Alright Tanya, we have a question here, online, and I might have the first go at it, but you may want to also chime in. It says how can we attract overseas students to study in Australia if there's no clear certainty to gaining a job or residency? And this question goes to the heart of a policy change made by the Government, which narrows the pathways to permanency for students as well as other temporary visa holders. This policy change by the government is really a hoax when it comes to migration. The Government says they are capping permanent migration numbers at 160,000 a year yet they have overseen an expansion of temporary visas to historically high levels. There are currently some 2 million people in Australia on a temporary visa and most of those people do not have a pathway to permanency. And what troubles me about this is that we are a nation that has been made great by permanent migration. I think here on this call, you've got Tanya – whose parents came out as a part of the Snowy Hydro scheme – isn’t that right Tanya?
PLIBERSEK: That's right. Both of them came from Slovenia in the 1950s.
KENEALLY They came here to settle down; to became part of the permanent history of this country. They raised a family and they were a part of the community. You know, I came in the 1990s as a permanent resident. We are a country made great by permanent migration. But the policy changes by this government, which are impacting on international students as well to limit the pathways to permanency, to allow temporary migration to grow to historically high levels, changes who we are as a country. It creates a second class group of people who live amongst us who don't have the same rights to services or opportunities, who are not able to have a stake in the long term future of the country, who cannot plan and begin their lives here if that is what they choose to do.
One of the great benefits of having international students come to Australia is that we get the opportunity for some of the best and the brightest in our region to come here and choose to become part of us. Now we're narrowing that, we're denying that opportunity. And when we think about why do we have international students come, and Tanya has touched on a few of those things:  the idea that when people leave when they do leave -  they have a very fond disposition. We create trade links, we create person to person relationships but we also create opportunities for Australia to continue as the most successful multicultural nation on earth, when people come here and study and then we provide a pathway for them to stay and contribute. With cutting that off, I would say two things before I go to Tanya. Number 1 - cutting that off, does lesson the value of the offer to come and study in Australia. Unfortunately, that is what it does. Secondly, the way the Government has responded during COVID to deny temporary visa holders access to things like JobKeeper, JobSeeker and other forms of support points out that temporary visa holders are a second class group of people in the community who don't have access to the same rights and services. That is not who we are as a country. It's not who we should become as a country. If we are going to remain a country that is the most successful multicultural nation on Earth, we need to, and particularly for international students, increase the pathways to permanency, not narrow them. Tanya, would you like to add anything on that?
PLIBERSEK: Just very quickly Kristina, I think you're absolutely right. We have benefited enormously from international students coming in and settling permanently in Australia. When I was the Health Minister for example, we had fantastic Australian doctors who were international students who did medical degrees here and stayed. They filled positions in areas of workforce shortage and  we couldn't have run the health system without them. What worries me about the issue you're describing - this closing off of pathways to permanence - is not only do we miss out on the talent of these people and their connection to Australia and so on, but we also leave them much more vulnerable to exploitation and wage theft has been a problem in Australia in recent years and students have been particularly vulnerable to it. We've seen some reports that show a close to a half of students experience very low levels of pay or underpayment and that's not good for anybody.  It's terrible for those students. You see how exploitative the relationships are when times get tough, like when we've had lockdowns and these very vulnerable workers just have the tap turned off on their income overnight, with very little support. There are queues of people queuing up around the block, trying to get their only hot meal of the day from charities. That shouldn't happen in a country like Australia. And so, I think we need to be particularly vigilant about the vulnerability of people who are ripe for exploitation as you as you narrow these pathways to permanence.
KENEALLY: Thank you, Tanya. We no more questions from the Q&A. So I'd like to thank all of you for joining us today and I particularly would like to thank Tanya Plibersek, Labor's Shadow Minister for Education and Training, for spending the time with us today. It's been incredibly useful for our participants and want to thank you, Tanya, for the work that you're doing to ensure that all Australians, including those from multicultural backgrounds, get the opportunity to go to university.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Kristina. Thank you so much for organising the press conference and to all of the participants for joining. And can I just finished by saying this: I know from my own family's experience, you know, what my parents gave up to migrate to Australia - the language and culture and family - everything that was familiar. One of the main drivers for them was the determination that their kids would have an easier life than they had. Education has always been such an important part of that migrant story. People who leave behind everything that's familiar to give their kids a chance of a university education and job that is satisfying and rewarding. I know that those people who are on this press conference today, a lot of them will identify with that story and a lot of the readers, viewers and listeners will too.
KENEALLY: So true. All right, Tanya, thank you so much. Thank you, everyone. And I wish everyone a very good day.
PLIBERSEK: Thanks, bye everyone.