By Tanya Plibersek

23 September 2020


SUBJECT: The Liberals’ uni fee hikes.
MARTIN AGATYN, HOST: Now as mentioned in the intro Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Shadow Minister for Education and Training, is a little bit upset at the moment. I can understand why. We’re finding out that some university courses, the fees for those are going to go up which again, as I said in the intro, I can’t understand in this day and age why there can't be a freeze on those as there is with so many other things during the pandemic. Tanya joins me now, good morning Tanya.
AGATYN: Yes, good good. Nice catch up to catch up with you again. It's been a little while, but just to the people who don't understand the background of this story. You are quite angry and you've used some fairly strong words. What's actually happened to your cause you to react that way? 
PLIBERSEK: Okay, Martin you think about the year that high school kids have had this year. They have had the year for from hell, you know remote learning all the uncertainty, and now the Government is saying to them it's going to be harder and more expensive to get a uni degree. So they’ve cut TAFE, they’ve cut uni in the past. Right now as young people are graduating from high school, shouldn't we be making it easier for kids to get an education or get some skills? But instead the Government's got legislation in front of the parliament that will mean students pay more. Thousands of students will see their fees more than double. It'll be harder to get into a degree. Billions will be cut from universities. And the Government says this is about getting people into areas where there's more job opportunities, but in fact what this legislation does is the exact opposite. It makes this harder and more expensive for kids to get an education. 
AGATYN: Actually you've called some of the universities cowards I think, fairly strong language, but we know that universities have also been hit hard too. We've had retrenchments at quite a number of universities around Tasmania, around Australia I should say, including UTAS. Somehow the universities still have to make money. They have to run at a profit. They are a business but you're suggesting that they should get back to the core values, and be more of a high school principal approach rather than a CEO type approach. 
PLIBERSEK: Yeah. I just said I'd like to see university leaders more like high school principals and less like CEOs. You would never see a high school principal agreeing to funding cuts that would hurt their students and I think the problem is the universities are - I understand that they feel under pressure, there was $58 million dollars cut in 2017 from UTAS, which actually means 3,800 students won't get the chance to go to university because of those funding cut. I understand that they're desperate for some level of certainty but this legislation will lock in funding cuts for years to come and in fact the funding cuts are worse for Tasmania than they are for the mainland. On average there'll be an 8% drop for funding for each student in Tasmania, compared with 6% on the mainland. It's a bigger funding cut for UTAS students than for mainland students, that's just not fair. 
AGATYN: When you look at it that way I don’t necessarily - we are often saying to the Tasmanian Government you know can't you give locals a bit more of a go than visitors. I know that overseas students they pay a lot more than what Australians students do don't they? So isn't this just an extension of that?
PLIBERSEK: Well look, one of the things that we are facing is that there has been a huge drop-off in international student numbers and those International students pay, as you say, top dollar for their education and then the universities use that money to subsidise their research, or subsidise the teaching of Australian students. But that money's gone from the system and the Government could have helped universities by saying, ‘okay, you've lost all that income from overseas students, we're going to give you JobKeeper. We're going to give you access to JobKeeper’. They changed the rules three times to stop universities getting access to JobKeeper. That means thousands of people in universities have lost their jobs, 11,000 so far have lost their jobs. 11,000 people. They're the people who are doing research that will find us is the cure or the vaccine for COVID-19, but they are also the people who are researching better crop yield, better soil health, better cleaner waterways in Tasmania, all of that great research that gets done that makes the Tasmanian community healthier and wealthier – that money has been lost. So we could have fixed it by offering JobKeeper support, they denied Australian universities JobKeeper, but they've given it to New York University that's got a $16.5 billion a year income. New York University Sydney campus got JobKeeper, UTAS not eligible for JobKeeper. If you can explain that to me you're a better person than I am Martin because I don't get it.
AGATYN: I'm not even sure why New York University has a campus in Sydney, for goodness sake, it doesn't make any sense at all. 
PLIBERSEK: Well it's a very small campus. But why would you deny JobKeeper to Australian Universities? So I'm worried. I'm worried about the students who had the year from hell, who have been told that the course they've got their heart set on has increased in cost to $14,500 a year. So all those kids who have seen the course that they set their hearts on, they've been working really hard to get in to, had their heads down studying, doesn't matter how disrupted their learnings been. A bunch of them, thousands of them have been told that there course costs have more than doubled, if this legislation gets through, to $14,500 a year. So if you do four years at uni, you're graduating with a $58,000 debt at the same time as you may be forming a relationship, moving out of home, thinking about buying a place of your own, getting your first job. $58,000 of debt before you even start adult life.
AGATYN: To be fair that doesn't kick in until you earn over a certain amount of money. So if you're on an average income...
PLIBERSEK: That's true, Martin. But think of it this way the longer you wait to hit that average income, so if you're in Tasmania and the jobs market is stressed because of COVID-19 and you find trouble getting a job, that debt is just accumulating. It's always waiting for you. It's not like it goes away. So the lower your income, the longer it takes you to pay back your debts. So the estimate is that people will be taking up to 20 years to pay back the debt on their humanities degree. So, who wants that sort of debt hanging around their neck for years to come? 
AGATYN: Yeah. I think a mortgage is enough to worry about...
PLIBERSEK: Yeah it'll be a real discouragement for kids to study and we don't, at a time of high unemployment and particularly high youth unemployment, kids are better off at TAFE or at uni than on the dole queue. 100 per cent.
AGATYN: So in a nutshell, there's been a retrenchment as we know with universities. The federal Government has said they're going to cut back the funding and the only way that universities can recap that is to either retrench more staff or to put up the fee, the courses and the fees for the courses I should say. It's not a done deal yet though, it's currently before Parliament. So it will have to go to the upper house at some point and we know that the Government doesn't necessarily have the numbers there and you can work with across benches to bring it down upstairs. But it's still a little way away or is it likely to take effect, you know if it goes through, from day one?
PLIBERSEK: Yes, look it's already got through the House of Representatives because the Government's got the numbers in the House of Representatives, but the Government doesn't have the numbers in the Senate. So Labor and The Greens, we've already said will oppose the legislation. It's really up to the crossbench now, so of course we're talking to Jacqui Lambie, talking to the Centre Alliance senators from South Australia. We're talking to Pauline Hanson. We're talking to anyone who will listen about how unfair it is to ask young people who have had the year from hell to pay more for a uni degree.
AGATYN: So if it does get through the Senate then it will take effect from next year onwards?
PLIBERSEK: It will, that's right. So all those kids who have been trying to get through remote learning this year. They're going to cop it in the neck. I mean, to be fair, some courses will go down in price, but 40 per cent of courses will go up in price and thousands will more than double in price and universities are going to get less to teach every student on average. So universities are still going to lose billions of dollars of funding. So it's just going to be harder to give students a decent quality of education, if they manage to get one of these more expensive places.
AGATYN: You're certainly old enough to remember when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister and I know during his election campaign he said ‘I will abolish university fees’ and we thought that was going to be the end of them but that didn't turn out to be the case did it?
PLIBERSEK: Well they're back and they're back with a vengeance. Look I think it's fair that students pay a share of the cost of their own education. Like I'm a supporter of the what used to be called HECS, called HELP now. That when you are earning enough money you pay a share of the cost of your education. The problem with this is some students will be paying more than it costs the university to deliver their degree and honestly $14,500 for a humanities degree - they're joking. 
AGATYN: Yeah. Well now when you say that it's going to cost more, the debts actually going to be more than it costs to deliver the courses, that's almost illegal, isn't it? I mean, that's a bit dodgy, business practice wise.
PLIBERSEK: It's legal if the Government makes it legal. But that's the proposition before the Parliament at the moment and it's so unfair. It's so unfair to kids who've, you think about, I mean not everyone knows what they want to be when they are a grown up but there are young people who think I want to do a business degree. I want to go and work in the family business. I'm going to work hard. I'm going to get the marks, I‘m going to study hard so I can choose this course. Well, they've just been told that their course costs are now going to be $14,500 a year. Or I want to do law like my mum or dad or I want to be a journalist - you know communications degrees for people who want to follow in your footsteps Martin, they're going to be $14,500 a year, who can afford that?
AGATYN: I'm not sure if those communications degrees are effective because I still see lots of from spelling mistakes and things like that, I'm a bit old school so it's interesting that they come out of there with a university degree and still can't spell but that's another story. You mentioned, you suggested that the bosses are willing to go along with this, don't the university administrators have any power to be able to stand up to the Government and say hang on a sec this isn't fair, or do they have to toe the line?
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well Martin to be clear, most Vice Chancellors, so most university bosses across the country oppose this package. The University of Tasmania Vice Chancellor, the boss of UTAS had said that he supports it and I kind of understand the position he is in. He had $58 million cut from his budget in 2017. That's 3,800 people who won't get a university education, who otherwise would have, because of that funding cut. He says he just wants certainty. I think it's, to be honest, I just think it's weak because really what you're locking in is students paying more for degrees and he hopes that there'll be something in it down the track for University of Tasmania. There's nothing in the legislation that is good for the University of Tasmania. There's nothing in this legislation that's good. And they've already had to have redundancies at UTAS. You take a few jobs out of say the Burnie Campus or Launceston, you really feel the impact of those job losses in regional communities. Every job counts. Every job counts and instead of cutting funding to universities, this Government should have given universities access to JobKeeper, They should guarantee that Year 12 students, who had this shocking year, can get a place at TAFE or university if they can't find a job. And they should make sure that research funding is protected because we're counting on our researcher now to make Australia healthier and wealthier in the future, and right now we're at risk of losing thousands of research jobs.
AGATYN: You mentioned the Burnie Campus there Tanya, there's a plan to have it relocated or it's actually in the process now of being relocated to the CBD in Burnie. I imagined that is costing quite a large amount of money and if we have these fee increases go through we'll have less students take them up because they simply can't afford them, we may end up with a white elephant. 
PLIBERSEK: Well, I hope not because I know Burnie is a terrific town and I love the plans that I've seen from the University of Tasmania for what they want to do in Burnie. They've done some great work there already, same with Launceston, you know connecting the university campus more into Launceston CBD. I think that's a good thing because university students and university staff support local businesses. If they're buying a sandwich or they are doing their grocery shopping on the way home, you actually want them to be as much a part of the local community as possible. It makes the town more lively, it feels safer when you've got people walking around in the evening. So there's a lot of good reasons to think about these really big employers being part of an urban, like a city, community. I think it's good where you can do it, but the most important thing, of course, is making sure that universities have the money to educate Australian students. For the benefit of their students, because we know that youth unemployment in particular is really high at the moment and you get a better chance of getting a job if you've got a university or a TAFE qualification, as well as your high school qualification. So good for individual students, but our economy needs these skilled workers. Before COVID-19 hit, three-quarters of Australia's employers said that they couldn't find the skilled staff they needed. We had the highest ever rates of people here on temporary visas filling workforce shortages. We can't afford that. As we recover from COVID-19, we have to be training unemployed Australians to do the jobs that need doing in the economy as it starts to grow again. Universities are a really critical part of that, cutting funding to universities, making it harder to go to uni for Australian kids is mad.
AGATYN: Yeah, can I be honest I don't think too many people can understand the logic in cutting funding to universities because you know education is so important these days.
PLIBERSEL: And TAFE. They've cut funding to universities and TAFE. It's just nuts. So if you wanted to build a bridge, you need an engineer to build the bridge and you need the tradies to actually do the formwork, you know, pour the concrete do the rest of it. We need strong universities and we need strong TAFE and we've actually seen cuts to both. It just makes no sense. 
AGATYN: Well we like to call ourselves the clever country but if it keeps going down this track, then we won't be able to do for much longer. 
PLIBERSEK: That's so true, Martin. 
AGATYN: Tanya, thanks very much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it. We'll watch the progress of the Bill through the upper house. From your point of view hopefully it won't get through, anything that affects the education and opportunities for young people I think is not necessarily a good thing. Tanya, thanks for your time. 
PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Martin. See you.