By Tanya Plibersek

17 September 2020


SUBJECTS: Job losses in universities; Cuts to university funding.
MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: Let's return now to the latest job cuts at universities. The ANU is shedding 465 staff, 250 will go from the University of New South Wales and in news breaking last night, RMIT in Melbourne is set to cut the hours of 1,200 workers.
LISA MILLAR, HOST: University leaders have been criticised for not doing enough to fight cuts to the sector. Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek joins us now. Good morning. Welcome to breakfast. 
MILLAR: I just keep thinking about Year 12 students -
MILLAR: - and all of people who thought they were going to be hoping to head to university. It can't, you know, you've got all these cuts happening. Surely it's going to be affecting this sector. 
PLIBERSEK: Oh 100 per cent. So we've lost about 10,000 staff from universities and this comes because of $2 billion of cuts that were made a few years ago and then the hit to our international students because of Covid-19 and now the government's got legislation before the Parliament that will cut billions of dollars more from universities. So it'll be harder and more expensive for kids to get an education and those Year 12 kids who've had the year from hell, they're being told now that thousands of degrees will more than double in cost. So we've got the job losses, but we've also got, you know, the fact that it's going to be harder for these kids who have struggled through an awful Year 12 this year to get into university.
MILLAR: Yeah and I'll get to the reforms the government has in a minute. I just want to concentrate on these cuts right at the moment, which are directly linked to the lack of international students coming in. Do you believe that these decisions are the best way to go for the university leaders? Do you think cutting staff is their only option at the moment? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, they're facing billions of dollars of cuts from government funding and billions of dollars in lost revenue from international-
MILLAR: As someone suggested, RMIT could sell buildings, you know, that there are other ways to try and make money. 
PLIBERSEK: Well you've actually got to have buildings to teach the kids in. This is billions of dollars worth of cuts. And I think the comparison: this is our fourth largest export industry. If coal or gas or iron ore were facing this huge hit to their revenue, the government would be there to help with JobKeeper. This government's deliberately changed the rules three times to make sure universities can't access JobKeeper support. So the thousands of jobs lost are a decision the government has made. That it's okay to lose jobs in this sector. I don't understand it. I really say, if coal or gas or iron ore, our three largest exports were suffering in the same way as universities, which are our fourth largest export earner, our largest services export earner, the government would be there to help. And university bosses should be demanding that the government stand in, step in and help. 
MILLAR: Yeah well some of the university bosses though, and you know this, have you know, they've agreed with these reforms that are coming in. Some degrees are going to cost more, some less. There's going to be a bit of extra funding for research. If you've got university leaders who say "Yeah, okay. We'll go down the road with these reforms", why won't you support it in Parliament? 
PLIBERSEK: Well because we stand up for students and we think that any package that more than doubles the cost of university degrees is not right for Australia, particularly when we've already got a million people on the unemployment queue and 400,000 more likely to be unemployed by Christmas. Why would we be making it more expensive to get an education, either TAFE or university education, at a time when unemployment has gone through the roof? Why would the government want people on the dole queue rather than getting an education. Now as for university bosses, I understand that they feel like they've had billions of cuts, their JobKeeper denied, the international students, that they're feeling under pressure. I get that. But truly I could never imagine a high school principal agreeing with something that hurt the students, funding cuts or anything that stood in the way of kids getting an education, and I think university bosses need to be a bit more high school principal and a little bit less CEO in this instance.
MILLAR: Yeah, just on the issue of wages theft with the universities, I haven't heard a lot from you on this over the last few months. Do the universities still have to deliver some answers on this?
PLIBERSEK: Oh 100 percent and of course, we're worried about university staff that have been systemically underpaid, it seems, at some institutions. We're worried about job losses, we’re worried about underpayment but at the end of the day these institutions exist to teach students and what blows me away is that right now, with unemployment going through the roof, the government is doing nothing to protect university jobs and nothing to help students get an education that would help them be more employable when our economy recovers and the government really ought to answer on both those counts - what they're doing to support jobs in universities and what they're doing to support universities to deliver the next generation of trained Australians that will be there to help us come out of the recession that we're in right now. 
MILLAR: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us. 
PLIBERSEK: Thank you.