House debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021


Higher Education

12:41 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to speak today about higher education. I noticed that the Prime Minister made an announcement yesterday about higher education and research funding for a number of universities yet to be selected. Of course, Labor is supportive of any extra funding for higher education. Universities have had a very tough couple of years with COVID-19, losing billions of dollars of revenue because of international students not being able to come to Australia. Universities need more support. As I have said many times before, they are one of our country's most vital sets of institutions. Universities drive innovation, they underpin new industries and products, and they help educate a new generation of skilled workers.

But it is really a bit much to listen to the Prime Minister talk about this sort of university funding after two years of ignoring universities, with the traumatic impact that has had, ripping the heart out of our universities. The government has spent years ignoring the impact of the pandemic on Australian universities. The Prime Minister deliberately excluded universities from JobKeeper wage subsidies. Those opposite changed the rules three times to make sure that universities would be excluded. The consequence of that has been thousands of jobs lost right around the country—in our cities, our suburbs and our regional communities as well. Thousands of university workers—40,000, in fact—have lost their jobs. It has been an astonishing attack on one of our most important export sectors.

New technologies don't come out of thin air. Breakthroughs don't come out of thin air. We need researchers to invent or discover them, and thousands of researchers have been amongst those who have lost their jobs. An estimated 7,000 researchers have lost their jobs in just the last two years. The Prime Minister announced something yesterday about industry-university research collaboration. Who does he think will be doing this work? It is so disappointing. These researchers were from science, technology, engineering, mathematics, IT, the humanities, medicine, law. We've seen campuses closed, including in Central Queensland. Those opposite claim to stand up for regional communities. What about Biloela, the Sunshine Coast and Yeppoon? All of them have lost university campuses.

We've had important research programs close their doors. Recently, the National Centre for Flood Research in Lismore—which I've visited twice—has closed its doors. World-leading research was being done on the campus of Southern Cross University in Lismore. Right now, much of New South Wales is actually under water. We're talking about the weather for the coming years and how the El Nino effect will mean a higher risk of floods, and we're closing the doors of this unique research centre. This is one example. I could give you dozens like this. The government has spent eight years savaging our researchers, and the Prime Minister thinks he can make up for that with scraps at the last minute. The problems go so deep.

In 2016, a survey of medical researchers found that 83 per cent of them had considered leaving the profession. The Australian Postdoctoral Reference Survey found that over half of our early career researchers have thought about moving overseas. We need to turn this around. If we want to be a prosperous and successful nation, we can't have our best and brightest fleeing overseas because they can't get a job in Australia. According to research by Harvard University, Australia has the economic complexity of a developing nation. We are squashed between Uganda and Burkina Faso as the 87th most complex economy in the world.

We won't turn this around without strong universities. We won't rebuild our universities with a Liberal government. It is only ever Labor that invests in our universities. Instead of trashing our universities and turning his back on our researches and then thinking at the last minute that he can announce some funding and turn the whole show around, the Prime Minister should be held to account for the devastation that he has inflicted on our tertiary education sector.