Local, Independant and Effective

Debate on Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 - 11/02/2015

Posted February 11, 2015


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (11:31): I rise to speak about the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. I acknowledge the previous speaker. I would like to explain why I will not be supporting the bill in this House. My message is that accessible, regional tertiary education is the key to the future of regional Australia. Any reforms need to put the needs and the future of rural and regional students, communities, businesses and institutions at the centre. I will be talking today about a forum we held in Wodonga last week and I will call for a plan B, C or D until we get this right.

Reform is needed in the higher education sector. I agree with the government on this issue. There are beneficial amendments in this current bill. However, there are many consequences of the proposed deregulation of universities. As the minister has stressed, the core of the legislation has too many disadvantages for those of us who live, work and want to study in regional areas.

I have been listening to students, to teachers, to tertiary education staff, to business owners, to local government, to parents, to the many Indi constituents who have sought to meet with me and express their concern with the deregulation of universities. They have told me stories and are worried about the unanswered questions, the cost, the many detrimental impacts that a deregulated system would have on the future viability of regional and rural communities. I have heard too many stories of unintended consequences, too many stories unanswered questions and problematic situations for me to support this legislation. My constituents have asked me to work with the government to come up with a better approach, a more inclusive approach, an approach that does not make regional students, communities and businesses suffer even greater disadvantage.

Uniformly I have been told that regional universities are much more than teaching institutions; they form the economic development and innovation hub for communities around them. They are the essential ingredient for the growth of regional professions—agriculture, health, accounting, the legal profession, business management, pharmacy, planning, engineers, bankers. They all rely on locally based, quality provision of graduate and post graduate courses.

I was elected to this House with a clear vision for my electorate: to work for a prosperous, caring community alive with opportunities for all. A significant part of this vision was a call to action on behalf of my community to address the inequalities currently being experienced in regional Australia, especially by young people. Specifically, these inequalities include access to quality, relevant, accessible educational opportunities.

I am opposing this legislation because I believe it will neither make regional Australia a more caring place, a more prosperous place nor will it create greater opportunities in the region. I have not been convinced that the changes made—and here I would acknowledge the minister for his taking on board many suggestions made by my colleagues in the other place—in mark 1 and now mark 2 will make tertiary education more accessible, more relevant or of greater quality for regional communities. I believe that regional communities will be severely disadvantaged by this legislation. I also believe that the process to develop the legislation is faulty. In rural parlance, we talk about  making a silk purse from a sow's ear. This process has not been inclusive.

The way we do things, the people, the stakeholders we involve, are equally as important as what we do. Talking about process, about consulting with stake holders, I would like to place on record the outcomes of a forum held in Wodonga on Monday 2 February. Over 130 participants attended from all sectors of my community. This forum was hosted by La Trobe and Charles Stuart Universities. Key note speakers included the two Vice-Chancellors, local business people, representatives of the Regional Universities Network and Albury Wodonga Health.

There were three key themes: considering regional students in the proposed education reforms by Professor Sue Trinidad, Director National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education from John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University; opportunities and challenges facing rural universities and the regional workforce by Dr Caroline Perkins, ex Director Regional Universities Network; and the role of higher education, particularly in health, by Adjunct Professor Susan O'Neill, CEO Albury Wodonga Health.


One of the more interesting consultative processes of the day were the three participatory workshop sessions and panel sessions. We talked about pathways to success—raising higher education aspirations and participation levels of regional and rural people. This was facilitated by Mr Vern Hilditch, Principal of Wodonga Senior Secondary College. We had a workshop on higher education and building sustainable regional and rural communities. This workshop was facilitated by Professor Richard Speed, Pro Vice-Chancellor Regional for La Trobe. The third workshop was on the role of higher education in the regional and rural workforce was facilitated by Julia Coyle, Dean of Students and Head of Campus at CSU.

There were some key findings from the forum. The first finding was about student equity. University participation is lower in regional areas, and it is not increasing as fast as in metropolitan areas. This situation has not changed and is not changing. As a result, in 2014 the proportion of 20- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor qualification or higher in regional areas was 17.7 per cent in regional areas; 16.2 per cent in remote areas. This is compared to 32.6 per cent in metropolitan areas—which is totally unsatisfactory. The reasons behind this—provided by DEEWR—include: access, cost, schooling, socioeconomic status and aspirations.

At the forum, we discussed taking a student-centred approach to education. How does this information manifest for young people in regional areas. There are two ways; there is a lack of knowledge about university—only 25 per cent of students currently at university had parents who attended university. So most young people's parents did not attend university so they do not understand what is involved and they cannot offer firsthand advice on higher education. Secondly, there is a lack of confidence in young people's ability to attend university.

The forum considered student outcomes, and the group asked the question: 'When designing higher education for rural and regional communities, what are the key considerations?' There were two main findings. Firstly, create engagement with schools, students and parents; build pathways; early outreach to schools and communities linked to later-year outreach; pathway programs; scholarships; bridging programs at school; establish pathways to enable students to move from school to TAFE or university, not only from the country to the city, but also within the regions.

The second major strategy was to build partnerships with schools, community and industry. The key to doing this is to talk about university education in general and its relevance to career and life goals; to start early with regular contact from year 7 onwards; to go deeper, increasing knowledge about universities, and building confidence for university study.

At the forum, we also discussed the role of higher education in the workforce. This is a particular passion of mine. Albury-Wodonga Health is the second-largest employer in Albury-Wodonga. It is a regional health service and it takes at least four hours to drive to the nearest metropolitan centre—in our case, Melbourne. The service relies on community and care interdependencies.

There is a slow and low turnover of staff; people stay. The attraction, recruitment and retention of health professionals is directly related to our ability to provide tertiary education. Some of the specialist skills employed by Albury-Wodonga Health include: professional nurses, paramedics, physiotherapy, speech therapy, social work, occupational therapy, psychology, accounting, business management, human resource management and marketing. And we need these locally; because, as we learnt, in Albury-Wodonga 70 per cent of jobs for that health service require professional tertiary qualifications, but it is estimated that only 20 per cent of the people have the necessary tertiary qualifications. And that is now; that is not talking about the future. But we absolutely know that when people study locally they stay locally.

So, while the forum confirmed that people are looking for reforms in the sector, we all agree that it could be better, more relevant, more efficient, more accessible, more student friendly—and we all need better access to broadband and mobile phones—the very strong response from participants was that what was being proposed, would not meet the needs.

I believe we are faced with a question of process and outcome. I have always liked this quote about the future: 'The future is not some place we are going to; the future is a place we are creating. The paths to it are not found but made, and the making of the pathways changes both the maker and the destination.' In reforming and improving the higher education sector, we are making a new path. The paths are not pre-existing. We are making them. And it is in the making of these pathways that we make our future. I want a future for regional Australia. I want a future of win-win; better in regional Australia and better in the cities.

But this current legislation has focused particularly on the needs of the university sector. It is true that it has many of the VCs agreeing with it, but it has not focused on other important stakeholders—businesses and employers, those who employ the graduates. And it has not focused on the key role of government investment in infrastructure—what universities are—education infrastructure. Universities act as an engine, drivers of regional development, regional innovation and regional growth.

I believe that in the formation of this second draft of legislation, the process has been flawed. The people who have a vested interest in the outcome, the people I represent, have not being involved: the rural and regional students, who are already paying excessive amounts for accommodation, travel and living expenses; the regional businesses desperate for locally trained skilled professionals; and the regional development and planning authorities who are calling for the Commonwealth to play a lead role in the long-term planning of sustainable regional communities with a solid foundation in excellent infrastructure.

As an Independent member of this House I see it as my role—my duty, my job—to speak up on these issues. I need to stand up to fight to be heard with the best of my skills, to ensure that we as a parliament have the best legislation possible. I need to take action and to walk the talk of participation. I need to be evidence based. And I need my actions to be informed by my electorate. This is my intention in speaking to this legislation: to share the knowledge and outcomes of our regional forum, to make a sincere offer to the minister to meet and work with him on how these issues can be addressed, and to be solutions focused.


Let me remind this House that the expense of university study and living away from home is already too great for many rural and regional students. Our participation is significantly lower and it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to see a pathway for themselves without the burden of debt from higher education. The time is here and now to focus on an alternative framework—a framework that is equitable and accessible for all Australians no matter where they live.

In closing I would briefly like to mention some of the specific outcomes from the forum and call on the minister to consider a plan C. Regional tertiary education warrants a higher order policy focus. There is a need for holistic consideration of relationships between communities, employees and individuals within regional tertiary education policy design. There is a need to better support interaction across TAFE and higher education and to cut through perceptions of cost shifting between the state and the Commonwealth government.

Higher education is too important for Australia to let through poor legislation. It is too important for all Australians. We need to consult and involve all sectors. We need to look for a win-win. We need a strong university sector. We need strong undergraduates and, most importantly, we need good legislation.

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