Morrison needs to start supporting universities - Transcript, 2CC Live


SUBJECTS: University cuts.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: Joining me now, the federal Member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.


DELANEY: Obviously the ANU has a terrific reputation. It's a hard-earned, hard-won reputation. But why is that at risk now, do you think?

LEIGH: Leon, ANU departments take decades to build up, but they can be lost in just a matter of years if funding is cut and they're forced to close. What we've seen with ANU is the government take away support, cut funding to universities at the very time of which they're losing their international student body. And so that's really thrown a whole lot of jobs out the door. We've seen the ANU literally decimated - lose one in 10 of its staff - but also real threats to the research capability of the university. We turned to universities to come up with solutions to COVID, and yet at the very same time we’re taking resources away from them.

DELANEY: I am very impressed by the fact that you actually know the literal meaning of decimated.


DELANEY: Because it's a word that is so frequently misused. But that's aside. Why the ANU in particular? Aren’t all Australian universities facing similar battles?

LEIGH: Look, they are. The National Tertiary Education Union estimates that there's been more than 17,000 jobs that have gone and courses closed ranging from engineering to arts, languages, science and math. The ANU is heavily impacted, Leon, because they made the decision to scale back a little their international student numbers prior to that pandemic hitting, and that then meant that when it was turned off entirely they didn't have a financial buffer to be drawing on. They made a responsible decision, but they've been punished for that. And the ANU is really fundamental to the research capacity of the nation. You look at my seat, named after Frank Fenner, a great virologist who is part of coming up with the myxomatosis virus and who announced the end of smallpox to the World Health Assembly. ANU has been responsible for all manner of breakthroughs, including, of course Brian Schmidt's Nobel Prize. So it's an institution we ought to be investing in. I'm really worried that at the time when the federal government seems to have hundreds of millions of dollars of JobKeeper to give to profitable casinos, it's not supporting universities.

DELANEY: Well, that was always controversial from the beginning, wasn’t it? JobKeeper was an excellent program, but its main flaws were the holes in it, the gaps in the support measures where entire sectors like universities missed out altogether. But weren’t universities also given other forms of support?

LEIGH: Look, universities in that first year got about a billion dollars, but the estimates of the revenue they've lost is much more than that, potentially a couple of billion dollars every year. So the federal government's support didn't make up for it. Private universities got JobKeeper. Bond University and New York University’s Sydney campus got it, but public universities were shut out by three changes in the rules which prevented universities having access to JobKeeper. And the shutdown has affected not only international students, but also international staff. I mean, ANU’s a very international place. It's of course headed by somebody who was born overseas. When I was the director of the Economics Group in the Research School of Social Sciences, I was one of just a couple of Australian-born researchers there. So being able to get access to overseas talent is really fundamental to what the ANU does and that's one of the secrets of its success.

DELANEY: Why would it be particularly difficult to attract international staff and students to come back to Canberra once the travel restrictions have been fully lifted? Why wouldn't they come back?

LEIGH: They're keen to come back. But of course, we're still getting those rules in place that allow people to come through. The prior quarantine process has meant that there's been a big hit to universities so far. And of course, the places are still capped. So the government recapped university student places in 2017, which reduced the number of people that got to go to university. So we're not training as many people as we should be. A natural thing to do during an economic downturn is to say, ‘alright, the labour market’s not so good, go and use this opportunity to get more education’. But we didn't do that, as a society. The government chose not to do that.

DELANEY: Now, the university rankings, of course - although you know, a lot of people might think ‘oh, it's just a league table’. But it does have some importance, because it's how people make decisions about what university they would like to attend. If we don't fully support the research and the research output suffers as a result, that's one of the criteria that is used to calculate those rankings, isn't it?

LEIGH: It sure is. It's a reflection of the quality. And so what you’ve really got to worry about isn't the rankings themselves, it's the underlying quality of the institution. ANU’s ability to continue to attract great philosophers, for example, it's got one of the best philosophy departments in the world. Their ability to continue in an area like astronomy and astrophysics, where it's got extraordinary strength there. The strength of the economics department, I'm a little biased here, but-

DELANEY: [laughter] I'm sure that all went downhill after you left.

LEIGH: [laughter] I don’t think they’d necessarily say that, but it’s got a great economics department, which has had a big impact in a whole lot of policy debates. Policymakers from both sides of Parliament draw on expertise in the ANU. So we've got to make sure we continue to invest in research. The higher education expert Andrew Norton has said that the Coalition's higher education reform package couldn't have come at a worse time and ‘put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years’.

DELANEY: Yeah, that reform package is still a difficult one to get your head around, making it more expensive for people to get degrees. Particularly, you know, I know they're trying to encourage people to take particular pursuits where they perceive some sort of area of need, but you risk being very short sighted there and not necessarily knowing with any great certainty what the future areas of need are going to going to be. It's a bit restrictive in that respect, isn't it?

LEIGH: Yeah, sure is. The cost for art students more than doubled. It's now $58,000 for a four year degree. Frankly, that's not far off what you’d pay in America. People look at the cost of the top universities in America sometimes, but if you average it right across the system, we're now charging our students as much as America does go to university. And I just don't see how we become a smarter nation that’s skilled up and able to deal with technological advances the future if we're making it harder for people to go and get that training.

DELANEY: Bring back Gough, I say.


LEIGH: I don’t know if everything has to be free, but I don't think $58,000 is the right price either-

DELANEY: It's an investment in the future. It's an investment in the future. There are other countries that make it work, free universities for everybody. On merit, of course, you've got to have the capacity to actually do the work. But yeah, free universities. Bring back the good old days. Thanks very much for chatting today.

LEIGH: Thanks so much, Leon.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.