Federal Labor will flag greater investment in Australia's universities in a major speech by Tanya Plibersek on Thursday that will criticise the federal government for treating them as the enemy and describe the loss of thousands of jobs in the higher education sector as a "national tragedy."
The opposition education spokesperson is expected to tell the Universities Australia conference that universities have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Morrison government had been "systematically trashing" the sector and ignoring its pleas for help as thousands of workers lost their jobs.
"The Prime Minister deliberately excluded you from JobKeeper wage subsidies," Ms Plibersek is expected to tell the Canberra conference.
"No other industry of your size received such a pointed silence. Businesses with soaring profits got millions in wage subsidies. Casinos got wage subsidies. But universities didn't."
Figures released in February by Universities Australia showed the devastating impact on the sector of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 17,300 jobs were lost in 2020 and revenue fell by an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue compared to 2019.
International education is worth more than $17 billion to Australia's economy, but Ms Plibersek is expected to tell the conference that the government treats higher education with suspicion, scorn and as a subversive enemy.
"Unfortunately, this government treats our best services export, and our fourth largest export industry, like a fifth column," she will say.
"Like a problem to be managed - not a treasured asset to be encouraged.
"It goes without saying that if you were coal, iron ore, or natural gas, you'd be treated very differently."
The case of the Australian National University in Canberra almost losing its esteemed Eccles Institute of Neuroscience is highlighted.
In a cost-saving move, it was almost shut down earlier this year with the loss of 52 jobs. It was saved, but in the end 15 positions were lost.
"The fact that this was even a possibility, that we were on the verge of losing the neuroscience school at our original research university, is a scandal," she will say in the speech.
"Not of the ANU's making - but of the government's."
Federal Labor is now promising, if elected, to nurture higher education by including it in the ALP's plan to create a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund to "help translate your brilliant discoveries and inventions into new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs."
And it is promising a shift in viewpoint.
"II promise you that a Labor government will restore universities to their rightful place. You will be respected again," she will say. "You will have a partner in government once more."
"And you will be given the support you need to do what you do best: world class teaching and world class research."
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