A life of learning: something all Australians deserve  

29 June 2018

Terri Butler, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Universities and Member for Griffith


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Labor wants every Australian to get a great education. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to university or TAFE, regardless of postcode or income, if they have the inclination and the aptitude.

That’s why Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made such strong announcements in his Budget Reply speech. Restoring the demand driven system means around 200,000 more Australians will go to university if Labor is elected.

Growing up in a regional town, I knew very few people who had been to university. My parents, like almost everyone their age, had left school at grade ten. Dad joined the postal service; mum went into her parents’ business.

As with many Labor MPs, I was the first in my family to go to university. At James Cook University I lived at a college, played in the uni games, joined the orchestra, and became the editor of the weekly Bullsheet. I got involved in the students’ union, and National Union of Students.

Occasionally, but not as often as would have been desirable, I went to lectures. When I started, Labor was still in power and HECS was low. I became a supporter of HECS, believing it had increased the funding available to universities and had been a continuation of, not a departure from, the Labor project of making university a possibility for kids like me.

I did most of my actual undergrad study at QUT. I loved the Gardens Point campus, the gardens, and the student club, though I didn’t get to spend much time at any of them because I was working. It was a juggle, but rents were much lower then, and more decently paid casual work was available.

For my family, my graduation mattered. My parents and grandmother were so proud they travelled to Brisbane to come to the ceremony.

I paid off my HECS loan in my twenties, like a lot of people my age whose HECS obligations had been accrued under the rates set by Labor. As a lawyer hiring people who were younger than me, the differences that the Howard government had made became obvious. My younger colleagues and staff were taking much longer to pay off their higher HECS obligations. It was a topic of discussion, and it affected their saving and spending decisions.

In my mid-thirties, I decided to start a masters. A regular commitment was out of the question, but the University of Queensland offered intensives. Each class was an oasis of quiet, and an opportunity for considered thought and learning – quite a juxtaposition to my ‘real life’ of my frantic practice and my most demanding work, caring for two very small children. I completed only three subjects; I decided to put the masters on hold indefinitely when I unexpectedly became a federal MP.

One of the things that seems obvious in retrospect is the relatively small amount of professional development available to parliamentarians. As a lawyer I had been accustomed to undertaking development as a condition of practice. I had also been fortunate to be at a firm that took leadership development seriously. I participated in the leadership development program at the Melbourne University’s Mt Eliza Business School, which was perhaps one of the most satisfying and useful things I had ever done.

When I became an MP, I had the benefit of development arranged internally within Labor, and of course, there is training available from the Clerk and the Library on an ad hoc basis. I wanted additional structured, ongoing learning, so I took a look at what might be relevant, and available via what we used to call “distance education”. I’m now a card-carrying student of the University of New England, enrolled in a graduate diploma in economics and studying online, late at night, and on planes (we do a lot of flying).

My experience — various universities, various disciplines, at various times across a working life — is likely to become more common. The challenge is that at the same time as people need to increase their engagement with higher and vocational education across their lifetime, the diminution in public support and tougher economic conditions are making that harder, not easier.

With Australia’s skyrocketing household debt, and the impact that can have on consumption and therefore growth, our nation should be very reluctant to increase the proportion of the cost of education that is shifted into the private, and away from the public, sphere.

Labor understands that pressure, and also understands the central economic, social and cultural significance of post-secondary education and training, and of research. We also understand the importance of education to mitigate increasing inequality and strengthen communities. If we’re given the privilege of governing,

I look forward to working towards greater equity, accessibility and quality, for the benefit of students and in the national interest.