Local, Independant and Effective

Higher education one of the pillars of a developed nation

Posted March 26, 2018


Cathy has reiterated her plea to the Government to consider a regional higher education strategy that will underpin workforce development and promote economic growth. 



Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (18:38): Tonight, in my comments regarding the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 I particularly want to focus on its impact on rural and regional Australia. Today, in this place, I introduced a private member's bill which spoke of the importance of positive discrimination in favour of, just as my colleague has just expressed, rural and regional Australia, and that one size does not fit all. So I want to take my opportunity tonight to further that argument. I want to take the opportunity to ask the government to seriously consider a regional strategy that actually takes holistic thinking and looks at the national good and at how we, as a nation, can educate ourselves, have the workforce that we need and have the economic growth that we need, as a direct result of good education.

I just can't enforce enough in tonight's debate, as I know many of my colleagues have, the fundamental importance of education—tonight we are talking about post-school higher education—as one of the pillars of a developed nation. What I'm so sad to see in the discussion we've had from the government is the lack of a vision, the lack of a strategic approach, in how education is going to come together to be the driving force that we need. In the five years that I've been in this parliament, higher education and the government approach to it has been one of the significant disappointments with the lack of vision, the lack of a way forward and often the lack of partnership in our ability to actually move forward.

I wanted to talk a little bit tonight about my electorate of Indi, why this topic is just so important and why I think that the changes are going to have a negative impact on my community. I quote from Higher education information navigation: an exploration of parent information needs in the Hume region, presented by Regional Development Australia and RDV. It says on page 6:

It is of concern, therefore, that the Hume Region has some of the lowest educational outcomes in Victoria. For example, the region shows lower retention rates for Years 7-12 than the average for non-metropolitan regions. The region also has an estimated 22% of young people leaving school through years 10-12, in comparison to metropolitan Melbourne where only 15% of this cohort leaves school.

The percentage of people aged between 25-34 years in the Hume Region in 2006 with a Bachelor degree or higher was 17.35%—

Let me read that again:

The percentage of people aged between 25-34 years in the Hume Region in 2006 with a Bachelor degree or higher was 17.35% compared to the Victorian rate of 30.4%. Hence, the region has just over half the Victorian average of people aged under 34 years with a university degree.

They're shocking statistics, and I live in a really well connected part of Australia. We are getting better internet. We've got trains that sometimes work. We've got roads that work. Yet we've got those appalling statistics for young people accessing tertiary education.

So what happens? The young people leave. It's our biggest export. The consequences for a nation that doesn't pay attention to this are really serious. Obviously you have bigger cities, but not having a young, educated, well-trained cohort and not having universities in our regional centres to drive economic growth are just the most short-sighted policies we could possibly have.

So I'm beseeching the advisers tonight. I'm beseeching the minister to actually seriously do something about this, to do something about a region. If you can't solve the problems for the nation—and I get that it's complicated—surely for regional Australia we can begin work on a strategy and we can actually do something for the regions where I live and where those appalling statistics are in existence. Not wanting to be totally negative, my office has been working with the Parliamentary Budget Office to come up with solutions for how there might be some positive things we could do to make it easier and better for the regions. I've sent them across to the minister's office with some of the costings the Parliamentary Budget Office did around changing the HELP repayment-free period and amended it for rural regions. I've got all the details but, in summary, they came back with an expected fiscal balance impact of minus $9.7 million over the 2017-18 budget forward estimate if we just changed the payment-free period. This is such a small impact compared with the government's expected saving of over $3.8 billion.

So I say to the colleagues in the House: at what cost do we keep going with this track of making higher education harder and harder to get and we as a nation not accepting the responsibility I believe we have not only to give people equity but to actually provide education, which provides the driving force for our regions and will enable the whole of regional Australia to take its place in the nation in the years ahead? By this legislation, by not paying attention to the impact on the regions, we're really working against the ability of our regions to do that.

I say to my colleagues here tonight: you can make some great friends listening to what I've got to say, because it's not just me who thinks this. Clearly I'm on the back bench. I'm an independent member of parliament, but the Rural Universities Network put out a press release that says:

The Regional Universities Network (RUN) strongly endorses Cathy McGowan MP's motion on regional universities before the House of Representatives, and the need for a National Regional Higher Education Strategy.

That's the RUN universities. La Trobe University's John Dewar supports strong local campuses because we need them for regional development.

The thing I really want to bring to the House tonight is a letter from what I thought was a most surprising ally—and please forgive me for making that assumption—the Group of Eight. I have a letter today from the Group of Eight and I'd like to read it into Hansard as part of my speech. It is signed by the Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive of the Group of Eight, which represents the universities in our cities:

Dear Ms McGowan,

As Chief Executive of Australia's leading research universities, the Group of Eight (Go8), I'm writing to you to offer my support for your Private Member's Bill, the National Regional Higher Education Strategy.

There often appears to be the view that the Go8's teaching and research is confined to the major cities. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Go8 remains committed to ensuring not only equitable access for students to higher quality education, but also long-term sustainability and economic growth for the regions—

as should the government be, let me say. The letter goes on to detail the Go8's contribution to regional Australia:

More than 25,000 regional and remote students study at a Go8 university each year—

that's our great export—

One in eight rural and regional students study at a Go8 university

50 per cent of agriculture and environmental students in Australia study at a Go8 university

60 per cent of veterinary students in Australia are trained by Go8 universities.

They tell me they invest in outreach to regional communities, which of course they do, and it's important. But the point is: imagine the situation we've got today. Here I am on the back bench, independent and a strong advocate for the regions and I've got the Go8 onside, we've got the rural universities onside and I'm beseeching the government to please do something to make sure that the unintended consequences—and I say that kindly—are not going to be felt in the long term by the nation because at this particular time we fail to pay attention to the impact of this legislation before the House tonight on rural Australia. I don't know how to say it other than the consequences are going to be enormous for us. We can't say we didn't know because the debates in this House tonight were so strongly put forward by my colleague from Herbert talking about the impact on rural and regional communities.

I really want to say to the minister, to the Prime Minister, to the advisers in the House tonight, to my colleagues on the government side and to the members of the National Party, in particular: stand up for your principles and your values, and stand up for rural and regional Australia. And to members of parliament from the Liberal Party who represent our regional electorates, I say: stand up for rural and regional Australia. Just don't let this go through tonight. It's poor law. It's poor law and it will have incredibly bad consequences for us.

What is so distressing and so disappointing is this sense that one size fits everybody when clearly with university education we need to differentiate. We need to make the case that those in the regions need special treatment. Government has done it in some areas—there's a limited loading there, but it doesn't go nearly far enough to actually address the imbalance of those statistics that I put up earlier. Seventeen per cent of my young people are going on to higher education—it's an appalling figure. It's something we really should be ashamed about. Certainly, it's something that I absolutely want to see changed. Part of the reason why I became a member of parliament was to do something very specifically about accessing higher education in the regions.

I say to the minister: it's time for a vision, and, if you can't have a vision for the whole of Australia, could you please have a vision for regional Australia? Could you please really consider the call from the Go8 and the call from the RUN universities and work together on a strategy that, over a period of time, will deliver equality. Sure, equality is important, but then it will deliver us a trained workforce. We are doing all this international work to bring foreigners to the country because we can't, in the regions, get enough of our own labour force, yet we do nothing positively to make sure that our young people are trained in the jobs that we've got. We've got so many jobs that we could have people working in in the country. It just seems to me quite ludicrous that we're not addressing the labour shortage in this most obvious way by training people in the regions, which seems so sensible.

The third area, to me, is so obvious. I'm on a committee at the moment, with many government members and opposition people, looking at regional development and decentralisation. It's a very productive committee to be on. We are working together to say, 'How do we grow the regions? How do we use decentralisation as a tool of government?' Universities have to be one of the most cost-effective ways—cost-effective investment of government money—for growing our regions. So much money goes from the Commonwealth coffers into the regions. It's such a good opportunity for us; with such a small increase—or appreciation of the impact—we could have the most amazing multiplier effect.

It's a call from the heart to the minister, to the Prime Minister, to my colleagues on the government side. Really, if you can't support us on the move here, could you please pay attention to a regional strategy and work with the parties so we can make sure that in the longer term, when we look back on this particular parliament, we can say: 'That was the year the government got the regions. The government got the role of education in supporting the regions and helping the regions be the answer that they can be to so many of the problems this nation is facing'?

I bring my comments to a close with a real call-out to the advisers in the box tonight and to the minister: reconsider your decisions around a regional strategy for rural and regional Australia.

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