Local, Independant and Effective

Policy needed to address education and higher education in rural and regional Australia

Posted October 21, 2015



CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (09:48):  I would like to congratulate the member for Durack on that excellent speech in relation to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (More Generous Means Testing for Youth Payments) Bill 2015 and the way she explained how the changes are going to make such a difference. I would like to build on those comments to do three things. I want to acknowledge and say to the government, well done. You have done a really good job on this one; thank you.

I now want to say, let's get serious: if we can do this bit well, let's tackle the really big issue, which is picking up on what the member for Durack said. Let's have a policy that actually addresses education and higher education in rural and regional Australia.

Let's all of us put our shoulders to the wheel. Let's really deliver on this, because it is too important not to.

Thirdly, I would actually like to talk about what the ingredients of a policy would be. So I have three things to say today: I want to acknowledge and talk about the good work that has been done; I want to talk about the research that has been undertaken on the issues and what a policy would look like; and I want to finish off on a call to action to my colleagues opposite, particularly to the National Party, to say, 'Show us seriously—let's go to the next election with a higher education policy and an architecture that actually addresses the issues that my colleagues have been talking about today.'

Let's get underway. Why is this so important? This bit of legislation is so important because the process has been good; with the senator and the committee, the work has been done. We have had a need; we have listened to our community; we have consulted—we have gone out to community groups; we have set up an interdepartmental committee on access to higher education for rural and regional students; and we have had hearings all around the country, including in my community of Wangaratta. This legislation is a direct result of all that. So—well done government! You can do things when you apply your mind to it—you can do good work. I just want to see more of it in this place. I particularly want to see more of it in this topic of higher education.

Why is it that I am so passionate about this? Because I know that already in rural and regional Australia we do not have a comprehensive policy to address the issue. We have significant underrepresentation by regional students in higher education, we have lower levels of higher education attainment in our regions and we have this enormous unfulfilled potential for developing regional Australia if we can get the education, if we can get the skills and if we can get it working properly?

I am particularly concerned because in my electorate of Indi only 57 per cent of the 20 to 24-year-olds finish year 12. Only 57 per cent finish year 12, compared with 78 per cent in Melbourne. And only 19 per cent of those between 20 and 39 years of age hold a bachelor degree or higher compared to 31 per cent across Australia. Sixty-three per cent of people in Indi are in the bottom half of the Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage. And many young people in my community move away from home to study. In my home shire of Indigo, there are 420 people aged between 17 and 18, but just 200 aged between 21 and 22. The young people go. The saddest thing that I can see is that our biggest export from rural and regional Australia is our young people. The major way that I can see us getting them back and holding them is by having quality education and addressing the many barriers that we know to having that.

I would like to introduce to the House three reports that have recently been done covering this topic. The first report I would like to talk about is a study of four towns undertaken by Ballarat university and commissioned by Regional Development Australia Hume and supported by Regional Development Victoria and the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. This report tells us of four towns in my electorate—the towns of Wangaratta, Mansfield, Myrtleford and Benalla. And under the Australian Standard Geographical Classification system, they are all rated as RA4—remote Australia.

The Hume region has consistently lower retention rates for years 7 to 12 than for nonmetropolitan areas. As I said, 22 per cent of young people leave school through years 10 to 12, compared with 15 per cent for metropolitan Melbourne. And compared with the state-wide average of 30.4 per cent, the percentage of the Hume population aged between 24 to 34 with a bachelor degree or higher was recorded as substantially lower at 17.35 per cent. So my own electorate is particularly disadvantaged, and we absolutely need to take some action on this.

The research shows the major barriers: economic barriers, geographical barriers, information barriers and what the researchers call 'class' barriers. We know what the issues are, and it is really clear that we know what to do. I will not bore the House by going through all the recommendations—I will just say that they are here and in the report. We need to have better information; we need to have more flexible delivery; we absolutely need to work with local, state and federal governments to develop economies and to have the jobs there; and we absolutely need to lobby government to have a holistic approach to solving this issue. The recommendations are there in great detail and, as I said, to be looked at.

The second thing that I would really like to make mention of is what my colleague, the member for Durack, asks about, 'What happens in rural and regional Australia when you do not have enough money, you get into uni and then you defer?'

This idea of deferring is really important. It is a good thing to do, at some levels, but the latest available data for Victoria says that 16.5 per cent of non-metropolitan school completers and 8.1 per cent of metropolitan school leavers defer. So 16 per cent of our rural kids who finish year 12 defer but only eight per cent do so in Melbourne. What is going on? Why would that happen? What does it tell us? Further, we know that three years out from school a little over two-thirds of regional deferrers in this study ended up at university. It is good that two-thirds did, but it means that one-third never took up the offer or dropped out soon after doing so. The reasons are related to financial stress and travel related factors. The biggest issue seems to be in picking yourself up and getting to Melbourne once you have deferred. It is no easy task, as members of this parliament who live in country areas have done and know. It is a huge social adjustment, it is an enormous financial cost and you need to actually study on top of everything else you do.

The work has been done, we know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are. I particularly want to talk to the work that deals with the problems and solutions for young people. The third area I would like to deal with is the problem of funding universities. There has been some excellent work done in this area as well. The Australian government's former Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations did a review of regional loading and presented a very worthwhile, well-researched report. The report tells us that we know how to solve this problem. We know what the issues are, we know what the policy impediments are and we know what needs to be done. The thing we are lacking is the political will for both sides of parliament to come to the party and do what needs to be done.

I would like to pick up on some of the higher education issues that are mentioned in this Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations report. The current regional loading formula is not appropriate for the needs of regional higher education. The cost of regional higher education provision is greater than the funding provided. Regional higher education faces significant economic disincentives. There is a need for much greater cooperation between all institutions. There are huge economies of scale that we could achieve. There is a low participation rate of regional students, as I have talked about, and the deferral rate is a real problem. The report proposes that regional higher education differs from metropolitan areas in the following key ways: participation rates are lower; completers of year 12 are less likely to go to university; students face greater disincentives to study; students are more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; students are more likely to be female, to be older and to be caring for dependents than their metropolitan counterparts; students are more likely to be enrolled in enabling courses and less likely to be enrolled in research doctorates or masters coursework; students are more likely to study part-time and via distance; and, once graduates in regional areas get through, they tend to stay in regional areas.

The report makes a very strong case for why it is important for the nation to invest in a regional higher education infrastructure or architecture. There are external benefits. We make significant contributions to our community. There is a market failure in rural and regional Australia. And surely it is a matter of equity. Students, wherever they are, deserve access to quality education. The policy objectives outlined in this report are really important to bring before the House today. Regarding the major contributory outcomes, we need to increase participation rates, we need to address the low SES and Indigenous participation rates, we need to meet regional workforce needs, we need to improve the sustainability and quality of regional higher education and we need to address regional social and economic development. There is a clear policy framework that needs to be addressed.

There is much more in this report, and I commend the authors of it. They have done a fantastic job. The arguments have been made. But, in bringing my talk to a conclusion and again acknowledging the work that has already being done, I really call on my colleagues opposite. You know how to do this work. You absolutely know how to work collaboratively. We have worked with the budget. We know how to address some of these problems. We have done the baby steps. Now we have actually got to tackle the real problem.

The real issue is how to have a regional higher education policy that actually does the things that we need it to do that have been outlined.

In bringing my comments to a close, I say to my colleagues opposite, this issue is about infrastructure. This issue is about nation building. This issue is about innovation and creativity. This issue is about equity and about outcomes. If we truly want Australia to be the great place that our new Prime Minister is telling us it can be, if we truly want to take up the opportunities of living in the best time in Australia's history, then we cannot afford to leave the young people of rural and regional Australia behind.

We cannot afford to say, 'Yeah, we knew about the problem, but we didn't have the political will to act.' So I call on my colleagues opposite, particularly the National Party, 'Go to your Liberal Party colleagues.' I call on the member for Durack: 'You are a good Liberal woman. Go to your colleagues. Go to the party meetings.' I call on the member for Richmond, who is a really good member of the Labor Party and an excellent member of the opposition. I say to all: 'Go to your party rooms and argue the case for the infrastructure and the architecture, so we are not having a debate in this House in five years time about disadvantage in rural and regional Australia.'

Clearly, one size does not fit all. Clearly, we need special consideration for rural and regional young people. To Senator McKenzie, you and your committee have done a great job and you have begun the process. Do not stop there. Work in a cooperative bipartisan approach so that all the people across rural and regional Australia get the education they deserve in the way that they deserve, so they too can be part of this great nation and bring their intellectual capacity to bear on the many problems we face. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell. I welcome the chance to support this bill and look forward to the many bills that will follow in consequence.

IMAGE: Cathy with Nationals Senator for Victoria, Bridget McKenzie, and Nationals candidate for Indi, Marty Corboy, at the regional higher education forum in Wangaratta in June, 2015.