Education in an election year

By TANYA PLIBERSEK | 16 May 2019

As we approach the election, I’m thinking carefully about how a Shorten Labor Government will be remembered for our reform of education. It feels like every week I meet someone in their 60’s or 70’s who reminds me about how Gough Whitlam was responsible for them going to university. I’m struck by the way they passionately talk about this – even after so many decades. They tell me how the opportunity of a university education transformed not just their life, but the course of their family’s life.

Labor sees universities at the centre of our economic, intellectual and cultural life. Universities serve the nation through knowledge, research and innovation. And of course as employers, provide the economy with the equivalent of 130,000 full-time jobs.

But universities have a broader role assisting the nation tackle issues like reducing inequality, building prosperity, spreading knowledge, and challenging societal norms and structures. That’s why I believe universities should think of themselves as anchor institutions – able to articulate and deliver social, economic and cultural missions for their community.

Labor knows that we can’t strengthen universities’ role unless they are funded properly. This is why we are prepared to invest billions more into education in this country. And our investment is not just limited to universities.

We are committed to universal access to three and four year old early childhood education – and a properly funded, needs-based school funding system – with a $14 billion commitment to extra public school funding.

We want a strong vocational education sector as well – with public TAFE back at the centre. Labor wants TAFE and university to be seen as two equal but complementary systems. That’s why we’ve outlined a range of significant funding commitments right across education.

In his Budget reply, Bill Shorten announced that a Labor government would reinstate the demand driven system. From 2020 a Labor government will lift the caps put in place by the Liberals and allow universities to enrol students in undergraduate programs according to demand. And it will return certainty and funding autonomy to the sector. It’s a very, very significant investment. It will see an additional $10 billion flow to universities over the next decade.

Last September I announced a $300 million University Future Fund to ensure fast-tracked funding for high priority research and teaching projects. And we will guarantee three-year funding agreements.

You can’t run multi-billion dollar institutions with an inadequate, one year funding agreement or caveat agreements in a way that makes them unworkable. No private company would be expected to enter into commercial arrangements on those terms and we will not ask universities to either.
 
Labor is prepared to make these significant investments but we will have big expectations in return. As publicly funded organisations Australians rightly expect universities to contribute to our social, cultural and economic development. That role should be reflected in the funding agreements signed between universities and the Australian government.

I’ve already signalled two areas that will require immediate action – raising standard of entry into teaching courses and addressing sexual assault and harassment on campus and in residential colleges.

At the moment the marks to get into teaching degrees continue to fall and fewer high achievers are choosing teaching courses. Teaching is complex, critical work and we want highly skilled, passionate teachers. That is why a future Labor government will target entry to teaching degrees to the top 30 percent of academic achievers. We will do this while ensuring there are pathways into teaching for those who might have struggled with their schooling for any number of reasons but remain academically capable of teaching our children.

One of the other key priorities will be to ensure equity returns to the heart of the system and that we better address the needs of regional and remote Australia. While great progress was made last time Labor was in government to ensure previously underrepresented groups entered higher education, too many students still miss out. A return to the demand-driven system will be critical in delivering increased participation. That’s why last September I announced $174 million for equity and pathways funding to support students from areas with low graduation rates get the confidence and skills they need to go to university.

I will task our National Inquiry into Post-secondary Education with setting new attainment and participation targets. An uncapped system, our new equity and pathways funding, and the Higher Education and Participation Program – HEPPP – will turbocharge our efforts to get more regional and remote, Indigenous and disadvantaged students into university.

I think it is a serious failing of our system that someone on the North Shore of Sydney is four times more likely to have a degree than someone in Outback Northern Territory. And the fact remains that regional and remote Australia consistently has a much lower education attainment rate than urban Australia.

We know that physical access to a campus is beyond the reach of many Australians. With the rise of high-quality online provision, more regional students are taking the opportunity of an online degree. Labor believes that all students, no matter where they live, should be able to get the support they need to study.

For regional and remote students the ability to access face-to-face tutorials, or language and learning support, or simply find a place to sit an exam can make the difference between finishing their studies and dropping out. That is why Labor supports the development of Regional Study Hubs as a practical measure to assist students and we welcome the 22 sites announced by the Government.

Labor will allocate $3.2 million over the next four years for mentoring and pathways programs in the 22 communities where we build Regional Study Hubs. We will make regional hubs places that build aspiration for tertiary study and that work with communities to develop new outreach, mentoring and tutoring programs. These place-based programs will be delivered by local TAFEs, high schools and community groups.

We also need to better understand the structural issues preventing delivery in regions and the unique needs of regional and remote students. That is why, if elected, we will be appointing a Regional and Remote Commissioner to our National Inquiry into Post-secondary education. The Regional and Remote Commissioner will be responsible for developing strategies and policies to support regional students as well as our regional TAFEs and universities.

Internationalisation of Australian education is a great success story – one that has enriched our society as well as our campuses. I’m a passionate supporter of international education. I’ve met dozens of senior leaders in our region who continue to speak fondly of their time studying in Australia and of the lifelong connections they made. I want international education to flourish.

Today, international enrolments are growing and Australia is poised to overtake the UK as the second largest major English-speaking destination for international students.

More Australians are heading overseas to study, driven by a surge in demand for short study programs which was boosted by Labor when we were last in office with programs like AsiaBound mobility grants.

International research engagement is a core focus of so many of our universities, giving us a larger share of high quality PhD candidates, access to the research infrastructure and resources of other countries, and the creation of a growing number of joint research facilities in Australia and around the world.

A Labor government will overhaul the memberships of the Council for International Education and ask it to develop a new international education strategy. A renewed international Council and strategy will support the work of Labor’s National Inquiry into Post-secondary Education. The Inquiry has been given an enormous brief – to fundamentally reconsider the structure of our post-secondary system and the way it interacts with technological innovation, labour market change, and the drive for knowledge and individual intellectual advancement. In the tradition of all great Labor reforms to education, we want the Inquiry to provide the framework for the next half century.
 
I will continue to argue the case for improving Australia’s education system – from early childhood education through to universities. We’re committed to substantial extra investment, but in return we want accountability and a better education system.

Labor has always been the party prepared to do hard reform to raise education standards and the next Labor government is ready for that challenge. I hope that if we form government people will look back on a Shorten Labor Government’s reforms to education as life changing for another generation – lifting people out of poverty, contributing full, rich lives – but also nation changing as our investments in education ensure our prosperity into the future.

(The Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP is Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister for Education and Training, and Shadow Minister for Women. This is an abridged version of her speech to a Universities Australia conference, 29 February 2019. )