Opinion Piece - HIGHER ED.ITION

17 October 2018

I am excited to be given an opportunity to serve as Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Universities and Equality, and to work with Australia’s world-leading university sector. 

My history degree from the University of Western Australia (UWA) in the 1990’s sharpened my interest in social, economic, and political change and ignited my commitment to progressive politics.

Ensconced in campus life and the UWA Student Guild, I became involved with the National Union of Students, and with debates about funding, access, equity, quality, research, student incomes, and welfare. During this time, I also worked for a small independent company, Ashenden and Milligan, who at the time were the writers and publishers of the Good Universities Guide. 

Through these experiences I began to be exposed to the great diversity of universities that serve the Australian and global public interest. I also gained a much deeper appreciation of the importance of and the drivers that support higher education and research.

As I look back on these times, I recall the first student protest I attended — a protest with many placards and much shouting — against HECS increases outside the electorate office of the then Education Minister Kim Beazley MP. He completely disarmed us by inviting us in to his office for an engaging, in-depth policy discussion about John Dawkins and his radical re-design of Australia’s higher education system, the introduction of comprehensive universities, the HECS scheme and the great expansion in university access that had come with it. 

For me, it was an inspirational taste of real public policy deliberation involved in the creation of funding the public goods provided by universities. 

I could see with my own eyes how access to higher education stagnated through the Howard years. When Labor came to office in 2007, the higher education attainment rate for 25 to 34-year olds was only 30.6 per cent. This was despite escalating HECS debts and reduced repayment thresholds creating additional revenue. Our participation rates slipped internationally compared with similar economies.

Labor’s policy renewal with the 2009 introduction of the demand-driven system lifted the attainment rate to nearly the 40 per cent target recommended in Labor’s 2008 Bradley Review. 

The growth of enrolments under the demand-driven system did what it was supposed to do and unlocked growth in much needed locations and students groups. Over the years, from 2008 to 2016, the greatest growth in higher education came from the outer suburbs of Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. The demand driven system, with access and equity funding, dramatically boosted first nations, disability, mature age and low SES area participation. No other policy tool has been as successful as driving equity outcomes. 

The Government’s back door funding freeze as you all know put the brake on enrolment growth for these groups, regional, outer suburban areas and among poorer students. 

I have spoken to many universities about the individual impacts of the freeze on their institutions. Young people who would have liked an opportunity for a university education are again missing out under the Morrison Government and our whole nation will be the poorer for it. Some universities have dipped into reserves and changed priorities to try to keep enrolments on track this year but all have highlighted how unsustainable this is. 

I want to pay tribute to the work Tanya Plibersek has done as Education Shadow Minister, with the backing of the whole Labor team outlining our clear policy agenda in education. This includes increased early childhood education and fair funding for our nation’s schools, especially our public schools. Our commitment is to return to a demand driven higher education system, with a $10 billion commitment over the next ten years. This significant funding boost for universities will be complemented by our $174 million funding commitment to boost equity and pathways, and our recently announced $300 million University Future Fund.

Importantly, Labor knows it is also time to engage in a new landmark National Inquiry into post-secondary school education in Australia.

If Australia is to remain a highly-educated, prosperous nation, we must boost participation in quality post-secondary education. Countries in our region are investing heavily in skills and education and Australia risks being left behind. No Australian Government in history has ever looked at vocational education and unis as a whole, and it has been terrific to see the university sector recognise the importance of looking at these relationships. 

As I get my teeth into this role I am particularly enjoying talking to individual universities about their ambitions, students and how they drive change and innovation off the back of their research. I relish the opportunity to see first-hand the important issues institutions are enmeshed in. I look forward to engaging in the Respect. Now. Always. campaign, with international students and student organisations. 

Now, as I get out across university campuses across the nation in the lead up to the next election I know what I am campaigning for. I will be arguing for the role of universities as our local, national and international leaders and innovators of both today and tomorrow and the strong independent institutional drivers of the national and public interest. I will be standing up for the sustainability of funding for our nation’s universities and I will be fighting to unlock opportunities for smart, hard-working would be students who will, without the election of a Labor government, continue to miss out on the education opportunities they deserve.