17 March 2015

As a fair wage nation in a low wage region, we should never compete by cutting pay and conditions. Education is our strength – and we should build upon it.

Australia’s economic future depends upon getting smarter, this means investing in the skills and knowledge of our workforce. 

We will always be a fair wage nation in a low wage region. We should never seek to compete with economies in our region by cutting pay and conditions – that’s a race to the bottom we can’t win. Instead, we have to play to our strengths and build upon them.
We have to become a learning society, committed to quality education from early childhood right through to re-training in later life. 

By 2020, two out of every three jobs created in Australia will require a diploma or higher. This is why Labor’s last wave of university reform was designed to boost the number of Australians enrolling in university. We set a goal of 40 per cent of Australians under 35 obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree by 2025, and we are on target to achieve that ahead of time. 

We were also determined to extend the opportunity of a university education to Australians who had previously missed out: children from the bush, disadvantaged families and first-generation migrants. We set a goal of 20 per cent of university students to come from these disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020. Right now it’s just shy of 17 per cent – but still heading in the right direction. 

I believe in accessible, affordable higher education because if you’ve studied hard and got good marks, you’ve earned the opportunity to go to university. Your postcode or your parents’ wealth shouldn’t come into it. 

Investing in our people’s potential boosts productivity and encourages innovation; it helps us become a more competitive, more flexible and more agile economy. 

No matter how many times it is rebadged or rebooted, the Abbott Government’s plan for $100,000 degrees and a lifetime of student debt will never be reform. It will only close off opportunity and undermine our ability to compete as a smart and skilful nation. 

The real next step in university reform is to make sure that students who enrol in university, complete their degree. We expect children who start high school to finish year 12 and we expect our teachers, our schools and our system to help them achieve this. The same expectation must hold true for our universities. 

Last year the Department of Education tracked the progress of all university students who enrolled in 2005. Their study found that by 2012, just over 70 per cent of those who enrolled in an Australian bachelor degree had completed their studies. For students from disadvantaged families, the completion rate was closer to two thirds. 

Meanwhile, since 2009, there has been a steady increase in the number of students who enrol in a bachelor course and then drop out the following year. 

What this tells us is that right now too many Australians are leaving university with a student debt, but no degree. And the very students who we are most keen to see enrol in university, are among those most at risk of dropping out. 

Shutting people out of a university education is not the answer, continued enrolment growth is essential to our country’s future workforce challenges. We cannot force down enrolment to improve quality – instead we must lift standards to catch up to the new levels of access. 

Labor will continue to work with universities to ensure that students receive the support and quality teaching they need, giving the next generation of Australians the best chance of graduating, ready for a good job. We will continue to discuss the best way to provide universities with the support and security they need to produce the workforce of tomorrow. 

Funding certainty for universities is central to this. No-one benefits when universities can only survive by collecting as many students as possible and harvesting their fees. That’s a world where kids fall through the cracks. 

Labor is focused on the best mix of accessibility, affordability and quality. This means certainty for universities, opportunity for students and quality for employers. 

We must be a learning society, where students can make the right choice for their own future: university, TAFE or other forms of training. A better university system is at the heart of Labor’s vision for a smart, modern and fair Australia. 

This is the plan Labor is working on, this has been the focus of our consultations with the university sector and it will be the clear choice we offer Australians at the next election.

This opinion piece was published on The Guardian on Tuesday, 17 March 2015