By Tanya Plibersek

17 September 2020


SUBJECTS: Job losses in universities; Cuts to university funding; Energy and renewables.

PETER STEFANOVIC, PRESENTER: Joining me live now out of Sydney is Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek.


STEFANOVIC: Thanks for joining us. You've had some pretty strong words this morning for some university leaders, even accusing them of being cowardly. Why so?

PLIBERSEK: Well because this Government's cut two billion dollars from universities a couple of years ago. They've denied university access to JobKeeper, so 10,000 jobs have now been lost in the university sector. Right now the Government's trying to cut billions more and double the cost of thousands of degrees at a time when we should be making it easier for kids to get an education, and I really want university bosses to stand up against that. Some have, some have been fantastic but others have just rolled over and had their tummies tickled, and I understand it's a difficult time but that's the price of leadership. Leadership requires them to stand up for their staff and stand up for the students who won't get a chance of getting an education or are being asked to pay double what they would have previously for a degree.

STEFANOVIC: But isn't it better for them to support these measures now and some of them have said this rather than continue with uncertainty?

PLIBERSEK: Well, the uncertainty is caused by the Government. What they should be demanding is that the Government properly fund universities and make it easier for kids to get an education. Think about the education that kids have had this year in their final year of high school: disrupted remote learning, so uncertain. Why would we be saying to those young people, when we've already got a million people on the dole queue, that it's going to be harder and more expensive for them to get an education? We should be encouraging them to go to TAFE or university rather than join the dole queue. This Government is doing the exact opposite. And what I say to the university leaders is, you know, you think if you hand over your lunch money to the bully one day they 'say thanks very much' and leave you alone. They don't - they come back for more, they do worse.

You don't forget Pete, this is our fourth largest export industry. If the coal industry, if iron ore, if gas had lost 10,000 jobs already the Government would be there with JobKeeper to help. They've made a deliberate decision not to help universities and the cost is 10,000 jobs lost already and an estimate of 21,000 jobs lost by Christmas.

How can the Government turn its back on these people? And for the students, I just can't imagine. You know I've had a child not so long ago do the HSC, I've another one who will do it in a couple of years time. Supervising that remote learning, supporting those kids and now for those young people to be told that if they want to do Humanities degree or Communications, it's going to cost them $58,000. The price has gone up by a hundred and thirteen percent. It's just cruel and I don't think any school principal in Australia would accept this sort of behaviour. I think some of the university bosses need to be bit more high school principal and a little bit less CEO.

STEFANOVIC: Well, yeah, I mean you talk about job losses, reports this morning suggest that another 250 are going to be gone from the Australian National University.

PLIBERSEK: It's every university. It's shocking, I think because they've come at you know, 3000, 2000, 500, 200. They've come in dribs and drabs, that people haven't appreciated the full impact of this. We have lost more than 10,000 jobs already and that's not all university professors and tutors. This is groundskeepers, librarians, admin staff, cafeteria workers. There are thousands of jobs in regional areas that rely on universities. This is affecting whole country towns. If you take a few hundred jobs out of a regional community the impact is felt right throughout the community. So this is bad for university staff. It's terrible for students and I think as a sector the universities need to band together and call it out because, as I say, if this was any other industry of this scale and the Government had turned its back in the way that this Government has on universities, there would be an outcry.

STEFANOVIC: The vice-chancellor of the ANU though, says it's struggling to attract international students. It can't get its international students here, which is why these job losses are coming not because of a lack of funding from the Government when it comes to JobKeeper. I mean does he have a point there?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's both isn't it? The JobKeeper would have kept the university's going as the international student numbers were paused, while we've got no international students coming to Australia. JobKeeper would have made a huge difference and the Government changed the rules three times to stop universities getting access to JobKeeper. If this was any other big business in Australia, the Government would have been there to help. I don't know why that made this decision about universities.

Don't forget universities teach students, it's a really important role, but they also do research. So we've turned to our universities right now to say, can you help us with COVID-19? Can you help us develop a vaccine for COVID-19? It's international student funding that use to cross subsidize that research. That's not there, the JobKeeper is not there and on top of that, an extra about billion dollars a year the Government wants to cut now. They cut a couple of billion in 2017, they want to cut more now, denying JobKeeper. I mean this is an absolute attack on universities and the people who suffer are the staff and particularly students who will get a lesser quality education or will have to pay through the nose for the education that they're getting.

STEFANOVIC: Does this dovetail into the argument though, there's lack of students, that you've got to increase the caps. The states have got to increase the caps to get more international people here, more international students here and even the border wars at the moment, I note that some of the university leaders over in Western Australia say that you need to get those state borders open because they're missing out, they're falling behind, that the university student levels are dropping because they can't attract students there at the moment.

PLIBERSEK: Of course our first priority has to be looking after Australians who are stuck overseas and I know in my office we've got dozens of cases where we're advocating with foreign governments and with the Australian Government to try and get people back home safely and quickly. It's awfully stressful, but for people who are stuck overseas and stressful for their families here who are worried about them, so that's our first priority. But when we can safely do so, I look forward to welcoming international students back and to having students able to travel for their education. We just have to do it in a way that's safe where it might require quarantine overseas before they leave it might require quarantine here when they arrive, it might require both, but we definitely need to get the safety of that flow right before we invite international students back and like I say, Australians of course who are stuck overseas are our first priority. We need to lift the caps, we need to lift the numbers.

STEFANOVIC: Just a couple of quick ones before you go Tanya, big tech announcement today from the Prime Minister. There's going to be a focus on hydrogen and so-called green steel, rather than wind and solar. What's Labor's position? Or its response to the announcement today?

PLIBERSEK: I think the hydrogen industry is a really exciting opportunity for Australia, but you'll forgive me for being a little bit sceptical about anything the Prime Minister says about a new energy policy. This is now the 21st energy policy of the Liberals and Nationals in Government and what we've seen is higher energy prices and higher pollution. We need to invest in the technologies of the future, renewables are cheaper and cleaner and will drive more jobs in Australia. I think the problem with the Government's position is they come up with these thought bubbles periodically, they're driven by internal politics in the National Party and the Liberal Party instead of being driven by the science. We need cheaper, cleaner energy to support jobs in Australia and every time the Government starts talking about gas or coal, what they're talking about is more expensive energy, that is more polluting. But at the end of the day, there's so much uncertainty. I think that the real problem here is there's no private sector investment because the Government can't make up its mind what it wants.

STEFANOVIC: We've got 20 seconds left. Just a quick response jobs figures coming out today. It's going to make pretty bad reading whichever way you look at it. What are you expecting?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not in the business of prediction, but it's heartbreaking to see so many people losing their jobs. It's taking a huge toll on our community.

STEFANOVIC: Tanya Plibersek, as always appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Pete.