By Tanya Plibersek

12 August 2020



SUBJECT: University Fees; COVID-19.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has released the draft exposure plan for changes to university fee structures. Now, the changes would see students pay more for degrees in humanities, in law, accounting and economics but less for degrees in health and STEM subjects. But the Coalition's junior partner, the Nationals, are ready demanding wholesale changes to the plan. The Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education, Andrew Gee, says the subject classifications will exacerbate the shortage of mental health services in the bush. Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training and also my guest this afternoon. Tanya Plibersek, welcome.


KARVELAS: Good. What do you make of the Government's draft exposure plan for changes to university courses?

PLIBERSEK: Well, this package is pretty friendless. And the reason it's friendless is because overall students will pay more. They will pay 7 per cent more on average for a university education. So, at a time with extraordinarily high youth unemployment, we should be making it easier and more affordable to get an education, instead we're making it more difficult and locking people out of universities. And I'm not surprised that the Nationals' Minister, Andrew Gee, is critical of this package. Most people are. What's surprising is that Andrew Gee and Dan Tehan are two Ministers who share a Department that's drafted this legislation and they haven't talked about it beforehand. Instead, they're having this public fight. So, instead of focusing on how to help people get an education and ultimately how to help them get a job, they’re fighting each other.

KARVELAS: Do you agree with the Nationals that some of these changes could exacerbate the shortage of mental health services available in the bush?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, of course they will. I mean, we actually making it more than twice as expensive to get a social work degree. Many of the clinical psychology, for example, and other types of psychology subjects will increase in price quite substantially. There's a whole range of problems with this package though. I mean, the Minister has tried to focus, Dan Tehan, originally tried to focus on the courses that were going down in price, but there are many, many courses that are going up in price, including some that more than double in price. The Minister said that he wanted more clinical psychologists. The course cost of a clinical psychology degree will increase by well over $20,000 dollars. He's putting up the price of a social work degree, as I said, by about a hundred and thirteen per cent and we know that across Australia we are desperate for people like child protection workers who do such important work. Why on earth would we be putting up the cost of these courses when we can't find enough people to fill these positions in the first place. You mentioned earlier STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths. And of course, I hope people do study STEM subjects. But what the Minister's not saying is that government funding for those courses will also decrease so students will pay less and the government will pay less. Universities are already saying they can't afford to offer places under those conditions. So, instead of encouraging more people into these courses, there’ll be fewer places available.

KARVELAS: Okay. Is Labor opposed to the idea of charging humanities students more for their degrees on principle, or do you see room here to negotiate?

PLIBERSEK: We think it's a real shame to be charging students more for a degree. And you know, we were very happy when the Minister said he was dropping the cost of some courses, but you know, like most things this Government does, you get the headline one day and all the nasty detail the next. The nasty detail here is that courses including humanities, commerce, arts, as I said social work are going to more than double in price - about a hundred thirteen per cent increase. Now these jobs, these courses actually for the most part have pretty good graduate employment prospects. So, the Minister's reasoning that he wants more people to study in areas where there are jobs just doesn't hold true. And truly, I mean what a shame it is to be looking at doubling the cost of going to university for any student at a time like this when hundreds of thousands of people are joining the dole queue when students - I mean, just one more point Patricia. Think about those final year high school students this year. The ones in Victoria at the moment who are remote learning again - kids all over Australia who have struggled through their final year at school with the intention of studying social work or commerce, or you know, one of these areas, being told now at this late stage that the cost of their degree is set to more than double. It's just not fair.

KARVELAS: Okay, so it's just as Labor just going to oppose this whole bill or are you prepared to negotiate?

PLIBERSEK: Well, look we haven't seen - Today is the first day we've seen the exposure draft of the bill. So, I'm looking at that in some detail. But making it harder and more expensive to get a university education at a time like this makes no sense. New South Wales alone, the number of students who have applied to go to university next year is double the number of last year. So, we should be making it easier and more affordable to get an education not harder and more expensive which is what this government is doing.

KARVELAS: The Vice-Chancellor...

PLIBERSEK: Can I just say other one of the thing about the jobs. Okay go on.

KARVELAS: I just I do want to ask. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Australia has proposed folding the State's three universities into two and reorganising TAFE. Do you think that that is a sort of sensible idea given we're seeing the reduction of international students - a university sector that's clearly facing a crisis?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think if universities want to talk about working more closely together, merging or allying themselves with one another or with TAFE, I'm happy to countenance that. I think it's really up to the universities themselves to make those proposals. What's sad about this is they're doing it from a position of desperation. We've lost billions of dollars an international student revenue. So far, we know that more than 3,000 full time jobs have been lost from the university sector. We don't know how many thousands of part-timers and casuals because, of course, the contracts are just not renewed so they don't show up as people being sacked from the universities. But one of the reasons that the Nationals would be so upset by this proposal is when you take a few hundred jobs out of a regional community, that has a huge impact. So it's you know, early career researchers, it's academics, but it's also people who work in admin - people who work in the cafeteria or on the grounds of the university. It’s having a huge impact across Australia.

KARVELAS: You have been critical of Minister Gee, raising these issues or breaking ranks as you've described it. Do you think he should go?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's the other way around. I'm critical of the legislation and I'm gobsmacked by the fact that two ministers who share a Department can't get the legislation right before they release an exposure draft. I mean, these are two parties that are in coalition. Two ministers that share a department. Seriously, how hard can it be for them to at least have one unified position on you know, making it harder and more expensive to go to university, if that's what this government wants to do.

KARVELAS: Does Australia have too many universities given we're unlikely to see international students return in large numbers for a while?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think it's important that we do think ahead to bringing International students safely back to Australia when we can do that and that means making sure that we continue to have a high-quality education here in Australia and that we work on a brand Australia approach to attracting international students when our borders reopen when it's safe to do so. As for whether we've got too many universities, I don't think so. I don't think that's the real issue here. The real issue here is the government continues to cut billions of dollars from their own funding of universities plus we've lost revenue from international students. Universities are having a hard time and I can't really understand why this is the one sector that the government is so determined to turn its back on.

KARVELAS: I just wanted to return to something you've already raised which is the year 12 students, but also the broader cohort if we can a Victorian or Melbourne-based students who are now doing this remote learning. What do you make of the sort of consequences of that and what sort of questions need to be addressed in relation to whether they repeat a year or the way that they're managed given a lot of their year is now being spent at home?

PLIBERSEK: Look, it has been an extraordinarily difficult year for children, for students, for their teachers and for their parents and I think there's quite a few issues that come up. We have to follow the health advice. Obviously, if it's not safe for kids to be at school and it's not safe for school staff to be there, we have to follow that health advice. But, remote learning does come with a cost to a child's education and that cost is much, much greater for kids who are already educationally disadvantaged. So, they've been a lot of proposals about how we can help kids catch up there, you know, Grattan Institute have one proposal. Teachers and their Unions are talking about different approaches. But one thing is for certain, we're going to have to put extra resources into helping those kids who have fallen behind catch up. It's just not good enough for kids to keep progressing, particularly through those early years of school, where they're learning so much of the foundations of literacy and numeracy. We have to make sure that they've got those basics under their belt, particularly before they turn 8 years old, because it gets much harder after that. So, we need extra resources to help those kids catch up. And it's true also of those kids in their final years. They've really struggled as well. That's why it's doubly cruel to make it harder for them to go to TAFE or to go to university, to make sure that they're employable in this extraordinarily difficult jobs market.

KARVALAS: Just finally on New South Wales and the way COVID-19 is being managed in New South Wales. Today, 22 new cases. Do you think the case has been made for stronger shutdowns in New South Wales? Are you concerned about the numbers coming out of New South Wales?

PLIBERSEK: I think the case has been made for all of us to keep following the medical advice - not to become complacent. It's so very important that we can continue to do all of the, you know, hand hygiene, social distancing, not going to work, not going out when we're sick, getting tested if we've got symptoms. All of those things are absolutely critical. I'm not going to second-guess the medical advice, but we should be following it what it whatever it is.

KARVELAS: Just some breaking news Tanya Plibersek and I know you won't have lots of insight into what's happened here. But today the Victorian Premier is made the point in a hearing...

PLIBERSEK: You are making me very nervous Patricia! Yes, go on.

KARVELAS: No, no. You are going to be okay. I'm just interested in what your view is in terms of how we clarify this. There are now two different positions. Victorian Premier said this morning that these ADF resources that are apparently been offered to Victoria to deal with hotel quarantining hadn't been offered. But, the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has just released a statement contradicting the lines given by the Victorian Premier this morning. It says that there were offers to help that were made to Victoria and the Government in Victoria said help wasn't required. Who are we to believe when we've got a Premier and then the Defence Minister saying different things.

PLIBERSEK: Look, you know, I can't possibly know the details of conversations between the Commonwealth Government and the Victorians. What I would say is that Daniel Andrews has been doing an incredible job, including an incredible job of standing up and answering questions every day. Those press conferences that go sometimes for an hour. He has been available. He has been open and it's you know, it's a pretty sharp contrast to a Federal Government that doesn't want to answer questions about the Ruby Princess and isn't prepared to answer questions about aged care.

KARVELAS: Thanks so much for your time.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training.