Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

I’m really pleased to talk on this Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023, which amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003. I am looking forward, at some point, to seeing equal respect and value placed on those who have incredible skills through university education as well as on those who have extraordinary talents and skills through the vocational sector. We need to get to a point where we place equal respect on those achievements and skills.

This bill is going to implement two of the priority areas and actions from the Australian Universities Accord interim report. The objective of the accord is to provide recommendations and performance targets that improve the quality, accessibility, affordability and sustainability of higher education. It is equally as important that our universities are graduating students who are actually job ready and able to add value to whatever business, industry or sector they’re actually entering. In my opinion, the ultimate arbiter of the success of our entire education and training system is the person who is employing them—the employer: ‘Is this person capable of and up to the job that I’m paying them to do in my business or sector?’

I want to focus, in my speech today, on one of the recommendations of the accord and raise my concerns. The first recommendation is to extend visible, local access to tertiary education by creating further regional university centres. This is a very good measure. The government also announced an additional 34 regional study hubs. However, 14 of these will be located in suburban and metro areas. That is a change that really concerns me. Every one of these takes away another opportunity for young people living in regional and remote parts of Australia.

The regional study centres were an initiative of the coalition while we were in government. It’s an initiative that I’m very proud of. It has been a very effective way of enabling aspiring students from regional and remote parts of Australia to access higher education and be supported in their communities while they’re actually studying by distance with any Australian tertiary provider. It was and is an innovative model. There is no doubt that these centres make a real and practical difference to our students and their families.

These are the young people we actually need. They live hours and hours from tertiary institutions, which are, in many instances, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away from their homes. They’re the ones who can’t get on buses and trains to have access to a tertiary education. They simply live too far away. This is the gap that the regional university centres were specifically designed to fill. These great young people no longer have to leave their families, their friends or their local communities to pursue their higher education. They can actually stay at home while they’re studying. At the same time, their skills can be available to and boost their local communities and economies, which are sometimes really small local communities and economies.

The centre provides them with study spaces, videoconferencing, computer facilities and internet access as well as administrative, academic and wellbeing support for those studying in that method at any Australian university or vocational education and training provider. That’s a fantastic, practical option. It is one that clearly works, and I am very proud of it.

We know that people in regional Australia are less than half as likely to complete a university degree compared with people who live in cities. Our regional university centres are actually helping communities right across Australia to reverse this trend. This was part of our determination and focus while in government—that all Australians, no matter where they live, particularly those in regional and remote areas, deserve access to high quality education. These centres offer the facilities and support they need to access their tertiary education so that these young people can live at home and get the care and support they need from their families while they study. These issues are critical for regional and remote students, which is why I want to make sure that the new hubs are in areas that will benefit regional and remote students the most. This means study centres located in their own community, where they can pursue those study dreams.

I want to acknowledge all of my coalition colleagues who’ve worked with me constantly over the years to improve access to higher education for these wonderful young people who live in our regional, rural and remote electorates. We’ve been relentless on their behalf in the parliament, and we’ll continue to do so whether we’re in opposition or in government. This has been and still is an absolute passion and priority for us. We are committed to our young people being able to pursue their higher education or their training and their work dreams and ambitions.

In my very first campaign, this was a priority issue raised with me by families right across the south-west of WA, but when I came into this place I found that successive Labor governments failed to understand the lack of access and the disparity between rural, regional and remote students and those in metro and suburban areas. In fact, the Rudd government excluded young people who lived in areas defined by the ASGS classifications as ‘inner regional’ from accessing independent youth allowance, which is the financial help from Centrelink that they so badly needed to help with accommodation costs and higher costs from living away from home. That decision excluded countless young people from my electorate, and my colleagues’ electorates, who live well and truly over an hour and a half from Perth based universities. Those young people had no choice but to move to Perth to be able to do the courses they needed to do for their education and career ambitions.

I’ll never ever forget the conversation I had with one really distressed mum in a Busselton supermarket who had to decide which one of her children she could afford to send to university at that time. She could afford to send only one, and she was so hurt at having to choose one of her children. What hurt even more, I found when I visited the schools at the time, was those great young people who were self-selecting alternative courses at high school because they knew their families simply could not afford the cost of their university education while they had to live away from the family home. These are the critical young people we need to keep in our regional and remote communities to keep them thriving. It’s their new young ideas, their energy and what they’ll bring that we need. It’s also the equity of access for them.

Besides the significant changes we made to the conditions around accessing independent youth allowance for regional and remote students, one of the things we did in government was to initiate the independent review by Emeritus Professor Dr John Halsey. We as a government accepted all 11 of those recommendations, and that saw the first cohort of the 16 regional university centres located in all states and the Northern Territory announced in the same year, with a further eight added in 2022. The National regional , rural and r emote tertiary education strategy built on the Halsey report’s initiatives.

I am pleased that the current Australian Universities Accord has prioritised more regional university centres, but, as I said, I’m particularly concerned that the focus has shifted to extending these into suburban and metro areas. The RUCs, as they’re known, have been very successful in those regional and remote areas. You only have to look at where they’re located on a map to know why they’re so important and that so many more students in similar areas desperately need these centres. The accord itself notes that RUCs have been effective at improving student participation, retention and completion rates in regional and remote areas, and I believe that should be the continuing focus because that need is still there. There is no doubt that regional and remote areas are the ones most in need of regional university centres. But the actual centres need an enduring community framework around them to be able to be sustainable. We’ve seen them often supported and prioritised by their Regional Development Australia committees and local governments, established in places like Geraldton, Taree, Mount Isa, the Pilbara, the Bass Coast and Albany in Western Australia, for instance—all locations where young people would have had to move away from home just to go to university. They can’t take buses or trains to get there. They live hundreds of kilometres away from these universities.

There is also an additional cost involved in sending young people to university and supporting them while they are there. Rent and accommodation alone at the moment is a massive cost. It’s hundreds of dollars a week. Of course, these young people have to work and study as well, and they have to be able to cope with life away from their home. Recently, I was talking to a family in Margaret River with two sons. The father actually has to leave his job and move to Perth to be able to fund his son’s access to university. This is common story if you live in regional or rural areas. There is no doubt at all that regional country kids simply don’t have the same opportunities as students in cities or suburban or metro areas. Those of us who live and work in regional and remote areas know exactly what the challenges are for both the young people and their families in trying to access higher education.

There is a real need and commitment from the community to support the establishment and ongoing presence of a regional university centre. This cannot be underestimated. I saw this in practice at the Albany centre. There were whole wraparound supports there and a community commitment to that centre, because they actually understood, as did the local Regional Development Australia committee, how important this opportunity was for their young people. Some issues need to be considered. Does this RUC align with the community’s needs and aspirations? Is there physical capital in the community to do so? They are really important to the sustainability of any of these. Other factors include no existing local campus for them to go to, and the distances from other campuses as well. As I said, there is a real need for the community to engage, support and extend these regional university centres.

I have met some fabulous young people who have attended these. They are just extraordinarily empowered. They’ve had the best experience and now have opportunities as a result. Edith Cowan University in my part of the world, in Bunbury, has itself opened several regional learning hubs around the south-west, and one in the Peel region. They’re actually in the process of refurbishing their Busselton learning centre, which will open soon. I think there is no doubt that flexible learning options are what is needed both now and into the future.

The accord review itself states:
… a high-quality and equitable higher education system is now essential.

It is, but it is certainly that for kids and young people who live in regional and remote parts of Australia. As I said early in my speech, given the great young people I get to work with and the value they add to our regional communities, I hope we get to a point in this country where, through any of the education and training pathways, there is the same amount of value and respect for a person who has come through the vocational education process and added significantly to their area of expertise. Some of these people are absolutely brilliant. If you want a problem solved and you want something fixed, they are the people who will do it. Many of the jobs ahead will be in that space. I would say there should be far more equal respect and value placed on those talented young people with skills who come through the vocational sector, as well as those that do university, study and training. All of them are able to add the skills that we need to take Australia forward.