Higher Education Reform

21 September 2015












It’s great to be back at Monash, this campus holds a special place in my heart.

Not just the beautiful buildings, a living tribute to East Germany – or the refreshing breeze that blows through the place.

My Mum studied here, she taught here, my twin brother and I played here when we were kids.

I always wanted to study here, and I count myself lucky that I did.

That feels like only a couple of years ago…but a lot has changed.

After all, this time last week, Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister.

Now, the Liberals have changed their sales team and they’re promising a new style.

But elections are not about style - they are about substance.

I want the next election to be a battle of ideas, a referendum on the future.

A choice as to who has the best set of policies to advance Australia beyond the mining boom.

There will, undoubtedly, be policy areas where Malcolm Turnbull and I agree and can work together.

For example, on Friday I wrote to him recommending he abolish Knights and Dames…and he has agreed to ask his colleagues about that.

But there will be issues on which we fundamentally disagree.

And Higher Education is one of them.

Labor will never support this government’s plan for $100,000 university degrees.

We have a very different view of higher education.

We believe higher education can be a transformative life experience.

It offers people a new and greater sense of themselves and their abilities.

And we know education is - and always will be – much more than an instrument of social justice.

It is an essential source of economic growth.

And we urgently need to lift growth.

Because for the past two years, our economy has been wallowing in mediocrity.

  • Rising unemployment and under-employment

  • Record youth unemployment

  • A 75 year high in inequality

  • Falling confidence

  • And stalled wages

And there is a bigger transformation underway, around us:

  • A changing climate

  • A growing region

  • An ageing population

  • An evolving digital economy

  • And, at last, the move to the equal treatment of women in our society.

  • The emergence of services industries.

This is not a political list – it is an inevitable one.

Australia cannot choose the challenges we face.

But we can choose whether we see them as opportunities or risks

We can choose to participate and engage.

We can choose to be active, confident, adaptive players in the future of our region…

My vision is for an Australia competing and winning in the world on our terms: as a smart, innovative and creative country.

Exporting our knowledge and our services – such as international education – to the world’s largest consumer class.

An education and innovation economy.

A wealth-creating, competitive, productive Australia where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless their parents’ income.

Investing in universities is an investment in our national productivity – and our international competitiveness.

We cannot afford a deficit of ambition for higher education

In 2013, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency found that every extra dollar invested in tertiary education would, on average, grow the economy by $26 within the decade.

The OECD estimates the real rate of return from investing in tertiary education was over 13 per cent, per annum.

By any measure, money well spent.

Australian universities are research and innovation leaders.

We are less than 0.3 per cent of the world’s population but we account for over 3 per cent of the world’s scientific research.

And every day millions of people around the world rely on Australian discoveries:

Well-funded universities and TAFE are central to the jobs and economy of the future.

The real economic winners in the digital age won’t be countries with big workforces and cheap labour.

Prosperity will belong to countries with a highly skilled, highly adaptable, technology-literate population.

People who create the technology and know-how to drive high quality products and deliver specialised services.

This is the second machine age - and I want those machines to be designed and built in Australia, by Australians.

Developed, tested and improved here.

Financed and operated here.

Australia needs a new era of collaboration between university, research and industry.

A new generation of manufacturers, designers, city-planners, programmers, medical researchers, data scientists and environmental engineers.

A generation ready to adapt to jobs and industries we can’t yet identify or imagine.

Not just filling the jobs of the future – creating the jobs of the future.

If government is going to expect that of you, then we have to do our bit in return.

But I don’t think the Liberals understand how hard life in modern Australia can be for young people.

You are the first generation to deal with the full combination of:

  • Paying the Medicare levy

  • 5 per cent in superannuation, out of your wages

  • A HECS debt

  • And a housing market where the best chance of you owning a home, is inheriting one.

Yet whether it is increasing the GST, or jacking up uni fees,  the Liberals are always asking young people to pay more.

Pay more and,­ through their attacks on penalty rates and wages, earn less.

Labor will offer young Australians a better deal.

A Shorten Labor Government will invest in you, the students of Australia.

We will put you first.

We will help you prepare for the new reality of working life in the 21st Century.

We will keep downward pressure on the price of university.

Not long ago, women weren’t encouraged to have a career – and men were not expected to change careers.

Today, the average time spent in a job is 3 years and 4 months – many of you will spend longer at uni.

Australians already average 17 different employers in a lifetime and at least five separate careers.

And as our economy continues to diversify and adapt, those numbers are only going to increase.

This creates new opportunities for individuals – and new responsibilities for government.

You will need to embrace a lifetime of learning – and governments will need to create a society that supports lifelong learning.

A Labor Government will deliver an education system which invests in you – giving you and your fellow Australians the skills and knowledge to secure the jobs of the future.

A system which supports a knowledge economy, growing through science, innovation, research and collaboration.


When last in government, Labor’s university policy was focused on equity, access and a commitment to research.

We stand by our commitment to Australian science, research and innovation.

Under my leadership, we have set a co-operative national goal, aspiring together – universities and government, public sector and private – to devote 3 per cent of our GDP to research and innovation by 2030.

And equality of opportunity in education, will always matter to Labor.

We want to open the doors of our universities to more students from disadvantaged families, more first-generation migrants, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, more Australians with disability.

More mature-age students, upgrading and updating their skills.

And more students from the regions – and from our growing suburbs.

That’s why this campus was created – to bring the dream of a degree within reach of Australians from suburbs like Dandenong, Pakenham and Hampton Park – and to unlock the new potential of those communities.


But the next wave of university reform must put new emphasis on completion and quality.

I want Australian students who start university – to finish university.

To graduate, not just with a piece of paper, but with a passport.

A qualification which helps you cross borders, and the skills and knowledge to succeed in the global economy.

Right now, too many students are leaving university with a student debt and no degree.

The national drop-out rate reached 14.84 per cent in 2013, the highest since 2005.

If we look at 2006 enrolments as an example: one in three students from low-income families who entered university that year, left without a degree.

One in two Indigenous students, dropped out.

Right now, there is a six per cent gap in completions between students from the regions and students from the city.

There are some who see this exclusively through the prism of university places, who argue the only way to improve quality is to jack-up the price of a degree, and freeze enrolments.

Not me, not Labor.

Every step of the way, we have fought the Liberals’ plan for $100,000 degrees.

We have stood against the government’s plan to impose a real, compound interest rate on student debt.

A policy that would have inflicted the harshest punishment on women who took time out of work to start and raise a family.

Some experts have estimated as much as an extra $10,000 in debt, per child.

I believe university education is an opportunity earned on merit – not a privilege determined by your parents’ wealth.

A university degree is going to be needed for two out of every three jobs in the future.

So, at every age and every stage, access to education should depend upon your hard work and your ability – not your capacity to pay.

Labor’s support for a demand-driven university system gave an extra 190,000 students the opportunity to attend university.

We believe if you study hard and get good marks, then you deserve the chance to be your best.

If you’re 40 or 50, and lose your job, you should not live in fear of never finding another one.

If you’re an Australian from an industry, disrupted and dislocated by economic change, then you deserve support to re-train, to gain new knowledge and new skills so you can access new opportunities.

Rather than throwing new walls up around our campuses, making it harder to study at uni - our priority is lifting standards.

Making sure our universities keep up with growing enrolments and greater demand.

This means shifting the way we measure success, to recognise both enrolment and completion.

And we must chart our progress.

This is why Labor is setting an ambitious new target.

We want to dramatically cut the rate of non-completion, so that an extra 20,000 Australian students are graduating every year.

Of course, every degree is different – some of you might complete your study over a longer period, balancing family responsibilities, taking up an opportunity overseas, changing campuses or universities…

These are all success stories.

The real test comes when you leave university.

Are you equipped with the confidence, the skills and the knowledge to succeed in your careers?

Our universities need to have the resources and the certainty to focus on quality teaching.

I don’t want our universities to be forced to operate as businesses, with an interest in education.

I want students to get the right individual attention, preventing them from slipping through the cracks.

This means acknowledging the complexity of this challenge.

Working with universities, to ensure our new focus does not create the wrong pressures for admissions or selection…or greater casualisation, lower wages for teaching staff and passing students who shouldn’t be passed.

Recognising the different issues faced by universities in our regions, or mature-age students, or working parents seeking to enhance their qualifications.

The Commonwealth already invests $14 billion of taxpayers’ money in universities every year.

Australians are right to expect outcomes that benefit the entire community; young Australians from graduate and postgraduate study becoming teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists - enhancing our society and our economy.

And in asking for greater accountability, Labor is offering better support.


A Labor Government will put Australian students first, because university funding is an investment in the future.

We will reverse the Liberals’ proposed 20 per cent cut to student funding and introduce a new ‘Student Funding Guarantee’.

Our plan goes beyond reversing harmful cuts, it represents an increased investment in every Australian student.

From the first semester of 2018, Labor will boost university funding by more than 27 per cent.

On average this is an additional $2500 per student, per year, compared with the Liberals’ plan.

On average, over the next decade, a Shorten Labor Government will invest an additional $9,000 in each Australian student’s education for a typical 3-year degree.

And to ensure the value of this investment is protected over time, not eroded, Labor will ensure it is indexed and sustainable into the future.

We will also maintain the student income support system – and the essential income contingent loans scheme.

These are vital for student access and support – and will not be unpicked by a Labor Government.

We will not increase the burden on graduates by changing how HECS debts are indexed, or applying the GST to university fees.

Our new Student Funding Guarantee underpins our commitment to students and to the future.

But this is not a blank cheque - Labor is expecting universities to step up.

We must work together to ensure that all of you here today, graduate ready for success in the new economy and ready to contribute to our society.

All of us, government, parents, employers are entitled to expect the best for Australian students.

And with additional funding, comes a greater expectation on our universities.

A new Labor Government will work with our universities to improve the quality of your education.

We will invest an extra $31 million into Tertiary Education Quality Standards Australia to ensure more Australians graduate ready to win the jobs of the future.

Studying at university should open the way to a good job – a job with some security, opportunity for advancement and fair pay.

And our graduates should be ready to succeed: from the day they pose for photos in their gown, to their second and third career.

This requires an understanding of the labour market, and the needs of students.

Labor will co-operate with our universities, industry and science agencies to get the incentives right, to fill the gaps in our workforce: from skill shortages in key occupations to new productivity opportunities in new industries.

This isn’t about dictating enrolments at our universities, or undermining the demand-driven system.

It’s a question of improving the incentives we offer to universities, so students are equipped with relevant, beneficial skills and learning.

This isn’t an exact science- but there are jobs we know we will need, now and in the future.

And Labor will work together with universities to establish an independent Higher Education Productivity and Performance Commission to deliver the right labour market outcomes.

We will build a better partnership between the Commonwealth government, and universities - upholding a new focus on accountability and performance and lifting productivity in our universities.

And if we think of the demand-driven system as a marketplace for students, I want you to be the best-informed consumers.

Picking a degree suited to your skill, interests and abilities.

You should know, before you enroll in a degree in engineering, what the average salary is upon graduation and the career opportunities which exist.

Technology can help empower informed choices.

The Government has taken a good first step with the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website.

But there is more we can do, learning from initiatives like President Obama’s new ‘college scorecard’.

These are the reform priorities that would be pursued by a Shorten Labor Government.

  • Access to university

  • Quality education

  • Informed choices for students

  • Job-ready graduates

  • Support for science, research and innovation

The cost of these policies will be offset by some of the responsible budget choices Labor has already made: cracking down on multinationals, closing superannuation loopholes and abolishing the wasteful emissions reduction fund.

And by our decision not to proceed with some of the government’s low-priority policies in higher education.

Our policy seeks a better return on public investment.

An investment which will boost productivity in teaching and research.

But we should also give new thought to broader funding options.

Encouraging universities to better utilise their assets.

New sources of investment in research and teaching infrastructure, including from superannuation funds.

Re-balancing public funding, back to public facilities.

We will work together with our universities, through a genuine green and white paper consultation process.

No more moving the goalposts or redrawing the lines.

This is why I am making Labor’s intentions clear.

  • No $100,000 degrees

  • More productive universities

  • More students going to university

  • And more students completing university.

We are, absolutely, committed to a demand-driven system.

A system that puts downward pressure on prices, keeping degrees affordable.

A system which ensures more hard-working students get a high-quality university degree, without a lifetime of debt.

A system that puts productivity at the centre of universities.

A system of innovative universities preparing graduates for new and very changed industries, organisations and professions….an essential source of economic growth.

The challenges of life after the mining boom: boosting economic growth, creating jobs, enhancing productivity and nourishing our national creativity demand more than rhetorical flights of fancy.

Governments must match their words, with deeds.

And a Shorten Labor Government will demonstrate our faith in the future, by investing in the next generation of Australians.

We will back our people to compete and succeed in the world.

Securing and creating the jobs of the future, winning the knowledge race.

Creating an education and innovation economy.

Setting our nation up for a new wave of prosperity, in which we all share.

This is how we succeed, together.

This is how we advance Australia.