Video: Regional MPs must stand up for a national regional education strategy
Posted September 13, 2017
Cathy says regional Members of Parliament must stand up for their communities and adopt a national regional education strategy. She called regional colleagues to account for failing to adopt the strategy proposed in her amendments to the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. The measure had the support of the Australian Labor Party and cross bench but was rejected by the government.
Text of speech below video.
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (17:03): I'm pleased to speak to the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. I believe that this bill does not adequately support regional universities and their students. I will not support the bill in its current format and will be proposing amendments in the consideration in detail stage.
In my speech I will address three points. Firstly, I will outline my amendments as practical solutions to ensure that regional universities and their students are not disadvantaged. Secondly, I will recognise the central role regional universities play in driving the economic, social and cultural value of our communities. And finally, I will acknowledge the role of my community and the role of regional universities. It's not only working actively to raise these issues but coming to the table to genuinely work with me and identify solutions.
My amendments will legislate for a national regional higher education strategy and provide some financial relief to students studying in regional Australia through a HELP debt repayment. The national regional higher education strategy will ensure regional higher education is prioritised and remains a focus of future governments. It will require the minister to table the strategy in parliament in early 2018 and review and update the strategy every four years. The introduction of a regional student HELP-debt-repayment-free period will create a HELP-debt-repayment-free period for students studying at regional universities.
This will provide a financial incentive to students to study in regional communities. It will encourage regional students to remain in the regions, and potentially attract students from the major cities. The Parliamentary Budget Office has costed this proposal as having only a $21.6 million cost to the headline cash payment over the forward periods to 2020-21—let me stress: only $21.6 million. It is a very small investment with an enormous return on investment for regional communities and those who live there.
As you know, our regional universities do more than educate. They are one of the largest and most visible physical, intellectual, cultural and sporting assets in our regions and cities. They are a critical player in workforce planning. They are a driver of economic growth and development. They are key employers. They innovate and they inspire. They act as major attracters to young people, and they can make the difference between economic survival and going backwards.
All regional MPs in this House know the many advantages related to living in regional Australia's towns and cities, including affordability and livability. Small cities can have the benefits of big cities without the disadvantages. They can be both highly productive and great places to live. The government knows this, too. They tell us in Regions 2030: Unlocking Opportunity:
Regional Australia is not just important to those of us who live here. The Australian economy is largely driven by its regions. Australia’s agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining industries, predominantly located in regional Australia, made up 57 per cent of the value of Australia’s merchandise exports in 2016.
Fifty seven per cent! It says:
Forty five cents in every dollar spent in Australia by international or local visitors is spent in regional areas. Most of the gas and electricity which powers city households is produced in regional Australia.
It is only logical that we should invest in Australia’s regions because Australia’s regions power Australia’s economy.
So says the government report. It continues:
Investing in our regions pays massive dividends for our nation—strong regions are the foundation of a strong Australia.
That's from the government's own propaganda. Let me say that again: it's only logical that we should invest in Australia's regions because Australia's regions power Australia's economy.
My community knows the value of regional universities. They know that regional universities enable the best use of human capital and resources and contribute to educational opportunities, economic prospects, innovation and community capacity. The universities' teaching and learning activities, research and innovation, and services functions contribute to human capital development, regional governance and planning, community development, health and ageing care, arts, culture, sport, environmental sustainability and industry and business development. Our unis provide leadership in stimulating positive change and staff and students play active and visible roles in the community. For many regional centres, a strong university presence is intrinsic to a strong regional presence.
Large regional centres, such as Albury-Wodonga, have surely benefited from the presence of Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities. In the border's case, there is the added advantage of two university colleges. I would particularly like to acknowledge the role of Wodonga TAFE. Charles Sturt University, Australia's largest regional university, is the result of the formation of the Bathurst experimental farm and the Wagga Wagga experimental farm in the 1890s. In one form or another, research, innovation and education have been integral to the university's character and mission for more than a century.
My communities recognise the values of access to education, specifically tertiary education. They have consistently raised this as a priority. In the postbudget survey that my staff and I carried out in May of more than 1,000 people across the electorate, 92 per cent of respondents identified education as their top priority. They made the following points: forcing graduates to repay loans at a lower income threshold will just create a new category of poor—it's better to leave them enough money to spend, to live, to invest, to pay for housing and to have their families. So, clearly, regional universities and the ability to have money and live in your community are really important.
Marilyn Bakker told me 'something needs to be done to support kids for their tertiary education when they can't live at home'. Ian Jarvie said that 'education and equitable access to all ensures diversity, access to information, better decisions and innovation'. Support for regional kids to attend universities includes regional subsidies, better and more relevant transport and more connectivity within the regional centres. Adrian Twitt tells me: 'Country students are handicapped in accessing tertiary education. There needs to be more support for such students.' So today I'm standing up for those in my electorate who have asked me to do so, to stand up for accessibility and for positive discrimination for rural and regional people, and universities.
La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities and the Regional University Network told the Senate inquiry into education and employment that the net effect of this complex package can be summarised as government reducing the level of public investment in higher education while increasing the amount of student contributions. Students are asked to pay more for a university education that is funded less, and country students have to pay even more. The evidence provided that the bill runs counter to the importance of the sector to Australia and our regional economies. It sidesteps the critical issues of support for regionally delivered higher education, and creates disincentives for improving the participation and retention of under-represented student cohorts.
They went on to say, that the proposed bill in its current form would destabilise the foundation of Australia's world-class university system, and Australia cannot afford to risk our economic future and jeopardise the potential of our students by undermining the capacity of our higher education sector. I believe this legislation will do that. We know that regional students remain under-represented in higher education institutions, and data shows that regional and remote students make up just 18.8 per cent of domestic undergraduate students at universities—compared to 26.4 per cent for the population as a whole.
We know the real threat to rural communities is the declining population, particularly of our young people. The trend is to lose young people to the cities, as they leave their country homes for opportunities related to employment, education and training, and leisure in urban centres and overseas. Statistics show that they are unlikely to return in a hurry. The Regional Universities Network reports that people who study in regions largely stay in the regions. A study undertaken by the Regional Universities Network demonstrates that between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the employed recent graduates of those universities were employed in regional Australia. If they study locally, they stay locally. And herein lies the problem.
The government's proposed package will disproportionately affect low-income households. For students who are studying and working part-time, financial pressure has been shown to be a major contributor to a student's decision to drop out, or not take up higher education. Far away from family and community support, this captures regional students who go to metro areas at a disproportionate rate. And, while the independent review considers students who will look to travel to metropolitan universities, it does not support the students who elect to continue their education at a regional university. These very issues are, at best, barely adequately addressed and, at worst, ignored completely.
In closing today, I want to reflect on the words from this week's editorial in The Border Mail, my local paper. It supports my call for a national regional higher education strategy:
For several decades now though some of the larger regional centres, such as Albury-Wodonga, have benefited from a university presence. In the Border’s case, it has had the added plus of go-ahead TAFE colleges – especially in Wodonga.
Charles Sturt University has certainly long championed the enormous value for regional economies that comes from developing and providing courses that turn out graduates with a commitment to rural Australia, as well as having a significant commitment to research.
La Trobe University, which of course also has long had a Border presence, has a similar commitment.
And that is why all must be done to ensure there is no attempt to water-down these universities at a time when their commitment is to expand in order to even better serve regional areas.
In closing, I'm speaking against this legislation.
I ask my colleagues opposite to stand up for rural and regional Australia—to actually do what needs to be done and support my amendments when I bring them on, to show their dedicated commitment for what we know to be true: without support, our rural universities, which underpin our whole economic development in our regions, will be at stake. It is too important to let go on a whim—as to which, let me say: the National Party opposite and the Liberal Party vote because they're told to vote. So, in closing, colleagues, can I say: will you please stand up for rural and regional Australia. Will you please do the right thing. Will you please—please—convince the government that we've got to do better by our regions.