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Tanya Plibersek follows Dan Tehan at the 2019 Universities Australia Higher Ed Conference

James Davis

The counterparts announced initiatives, told stories about their lives and took (not so) subtle shots at each other.

Thursday morning saw two political rivals meet. The audience shuffled to their seats with pens and laptops at the ready. Education Minister Dan Tehan was first to speak, regaling the audience with stories of young adulthood. He began with his selection for the DFAT graduate program and the exercise his cohort of thirty underwent, being sent to a farm in remote NSW and asked to round up sheep. Given his country background, he knew to line the sheep up single-file along a fence and herd them into a nearby paddock, turning the one hour exercise designed to teach teamwork (in which the graduates were supposed to fail) into a fifteen minute farce.

He was adamant that education was key for his selection. “If I didn’t have a master’s degree,” he reminisced, “I would not have been one of those grads.” This underpins his disappointment that so few university students from rural backgrounds are receiving similar opportunities. In terms of investment, “the love must be spread around.” It was here the first sly shot was taken; Tehan remarked people from Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek’s home region were about twice as likely (roughly 45% versus 28%) to receive higher education.

Tehan then moved to international students. He mentioned only 3% of international students end up in rural campuses, despite Australia nearly topping the UK as one of the most popular English-speaking study destinations. He said this isn’t a zero-sum game; we can still encourage international students whilst supporting rural campuses.

After this, Tehan left early for other engagements, time Plibersek was happy to have. “I’m intending to give you the full Fidel Castro today,” she joked before thanking the traditional owners of the land. Her priority on the stage quickly became clear when asking the rhetorical, “what will be the story of a Shorten government if we win?” She then outlined priorities for a labour government, stating unis have a broader role in tackling inequality and challenging socio-economic norms. They have the power to deliver cultural and economic missions in their communities. Despite the liberals thinking there’s a “vast marxist conspiracy,” she scolded, creating cultural/ ideological wars is “what you do when you have nothing of use to say.”

In response to the threat perceived from opponents, she declared there will be billions in additional funding for education. Plibersek then preempted questions of where funding might come, stating improved university education needn’t come at the expense of TAFE.

Should labour win next election, she said, they will lift the current cap on university places implemented by the liberal government, blaming the current lack of education funding on “liberal neglect.” She condemned the fact tertiary institutions must expect financial uncertainty, saying it’s like expecting private companies to go into business without any deals, contracts or certainties available. Why then, Plibersek argued, should unis?

Other priorities she outlined included reducing sexual assault on campuses, as well as increasing the minimum entry requirements for teaching degrees. Under a labour government, only the “top 30%” of high school leavers will be eligible for teaching degrees via traditional entry. She also intends to use a national inquiry for new participation targets, with HEP programs to increase rural students.

Plibersek then addressed Tehan’s earlier remark, agreeing with the injustice of her district being more likely to receive higher education. In response, she pledged to build regional study hubs to develop mentoring and outreach, with local high schools and TAFEs delivering. She hopes this will help reverse the effects of the “liberal spree.” There’s also the appointment of a ‘regional and remote commissioner’ on the table, the purpose of which is providing advice on how current systems can provide for these students. The fact TAFEs only receive 8% of tertiary students is also a concern of hers to be addressed.

We risk reliance on very few source countries for international students, so we must diversify according to Plibersek. Reform will need to support sector adaptations to new technologies. The general reform she wishes to implement and terms of inquiry will be as significant as Gough Whitlam’s reform, she estimates. “We cannot let this unreformed system remain unreformed.” She closed by saying labour has a better offering than its opponents.

It’s certainly clear what each speaker had in mind for this conference, but there are some thought-provoking takeaways from each. For instance, Plibersek bringing up Tehan’s comment in reference to her own initiative regarding rural and remote students. Was this an attempt to stomp on Tehan’s well-established ‘country boy’ image and one-up his offering? It wouldn’t take a genius to speculate thus. Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s important to remember Tehan had significantly less time to speak, albeit of his own volition. Plibersek merely utilised the situation presented for the benefit of her party, which is arguably wise, but could also alienate the audience given Tehan’s mostly apolitical speech. Regardless, Plibersek’s promises and concrete initiatives were compelling. Tehan doubtless has the interests of rural and remote students at heart, but it’s hard to compete with an onslaught of promised initiatives, commissions and ambitious reform.

What remains to be seen are the details of all these promises. For instance, lifting caps on university courses, commonwealth supported or not, is not without its challenges. How’s it going to be funded? How do we mitigate or assist underperformers admitted via these additional places? Wednesday’s keynote speaker French Minister of Education Frédérique Vidal mentioned a new French system, wherein applicants come from all walks of life, but predicted underperformers must complete a mandated one-year preparatory course prior to commencement. Would this be applicable to Australia, given we aren’t exactly doing away with entry requirements as with France? Are there are other alternatives to assisting our low SES or struggling students when given improved access to tertiary education? These are questions that must first be answered, but are certainly worth the effort if it means more people get a chance at education.

Overall, a thought provoking lineup and brisk Thursday morning. Seldom do two ministerial counterparts meet without the presence of allies and goons alike. With a federal election on the horizon, it’ll be exciting to see whether Tanya Plibersek’s grand ambitions for the sector bear fruit, or if Dan Tehan gains the time to implement initiatives of his own for the benefit of low SES, rural or regional students. As stakeholders in the sector, it’s a small relief to know matters of education are a priority, no matter who wins.