09 August 2023

Education is life changing. It opens doors for people, no matter their background, if they get the chance to engage in it. My higher education, from my bachelor degree to my PhD and everything in between, has given me opportunities I could never have thought possible back when I was a little girl at my 15-student, one-teacher primary school in the tiny little community of Eurack—the very same little school that my dad went to; he travelled there on horseback and was forced to leave when he was 13 after his father died, a story that remains familiar for many kids in economically difficult situations.

Obtaining a higher education degree is becoming more and more important. In the next five years more than 90 per cent of new jobs will require postschool qualifications, and over 50 per cent of these jobs will require a bachelor degree or higher. To meet these figures, we’re going to need around 53 per cent of our students in the education system to come from rural, regional and remote areas of this nation. But there are very big challenges to regional Australians accessing higher education. It’s a problem that really has been persistent, long before my dad and long after. In regional Australia we are less likely to complete year 12, less likely to gain a certificate IV qualification or above and less likely to apply for and accept a university offer. Indeed, in my electorate of Indi we have persistently low rates of applying for let alone completing university.

According to the ABS, less than 20 per cent of people in regional and remote areas have a bachelor degree or more, compared with over 35 per cent of people in our major cities. And if we’re going to improve this number, regional Australians simply must have better access to quality education opportunities and facilities. The Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023 implements some of the priority recommendations of that interim report released just last month. I am so pleased to see the accord, so pleased to see it truly acknowledge the importance of and the barriers to education faced in rural and regional Australia. And I acknowledge the work of the Hon. Fiona Nash, the regional education commissioner who’s on the accord panel and who I’ve had the great honour of speaking with many times about rural and regional education.

I will closely read the recommendations in the final report, and I want to use its findings to work with the government on improving regional higher education outcomes. I can think of no greater thing to work on, actually, because we know that if we get that education piece right then our income levels rise and our health improves. This bill implements two of the five recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord interim report. It uncaps the numbers of Indigenous students who can enrol in a Commonwealth supported place by extending eligibility for demand-driven funding to all Indigenous students rather than only those living in regional and remote areas, and I welcome that.

The bill also removes the requirement that university students successfully complete at least 50 per cent of their courses in the first year of a bachelor degree to continue being eligible for FEE-HELP assistance and to continue as a Commonwealth supported student, and I really support this. We know that those students who are unsuccessful have pretty good reasons for being unsuccessful, and we need to wrap our supports around them. In place of this rule, the bill will require higher education providers to have a support-for-students policy to help them identify those students who are at risk—and many of them are rural and regional students—of falling behind, of failing, and to support them to successfully pass their course.

I did part of my education in Sweden, and if anybody was failing, the teacher was brought in to explain why their students weren’t doing well. Imagine if we had the same here—and I say that with the greatest respect for our teachers, knowing the pressure that they’re under and the lack of resources they have. But that applied in the university system. In fact, I sat a series of exams once and many people in the class failed, and the lecturer had to come back, quite red faced, and explain to us why she hadn’t taught the course well enough. I couldn’t believe it at the time, but it’s maybe not a bad idea.

Providers face financial penalties for failing to comply with their support-for-students policy. The Department of Education will shortly release guidelines for what a policy should look like. I note that this bill reverses two parts of the former government’s Job-ready Graduates bill. I have to say that when I voted on this bill in 2020 it was, at that time, the very hardest decision I’ve ever had to make on a piece of legislation, and of course, as an Independent, I have to make a decision on every piece of legislation that comes before the House. The thing is that that legislation implemented several of the recommendations of the Napthine review into regional and remote tertiary education. I had been a steady visitor to the education minister’s office calling for those recommendations to take shape. One of the things in that were included in that bill was providing scholarships to help young people move out of home if they needed to for university. That support is absolutely critical for rural and regional students when 70 per cent of students from the regions have to relocate to undertake tertiary study.

I voted in support of that bill because I could not in good conscience vote against a bill that involved significant new measures to support regional universities and give them some funding certainty at the time, but—gee!—I had serious questions about the evidence base for the other measures in it that bill. It really was a heartbreaker for me, I’ve got to say.

The accord panel has since heard concerns that aspects of the job ready package are having a negative impact on students and the higher education system. The panel found that the 50 per cent pass rule, which this bill is abolishing, is ‘causing undue harm to students’. They said it disproportionately impacts students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a conscientious legislator—I hope I am—I support reversing harmful measures when the evidence says so. I support the abolishment of the 50 per cent rule because I want to see support, not punishment, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are struggling, and I emphasise that I want to see support for our teachers, our lecturers—our university staff—many of whom are on a difficult employment contracts, to help those students succeed.

I support extending to demand driven funding to all First Nations students, not just those in the regions. Indi has almost 200 tertiary students who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The government says this measure could see the number of First Nations students double in the next decade. I really, really look forward to seeing that happen. I want that to happen. So many of us do; I think all of us do.

In addition to the two recommendations this bill implements, the Universities Accord Interim Report made three recommendations for the government to implement as a matter of priority. I’m really pleased to see that the first priority action is to extend visible local access to tertiary education by creating further regional university centres. The accord panel heard that proximity and connection to a place of learning is a critical decision-making factor for students when determining future study options, but on the flipside, location is also a significant barrier for accessing higher education. Regional university centres, also called country university centres, are a clever, innovative solution to this problem. I’m very fortunate that we have one country university centre in Indi that has three satellite sites, at Wangaratta, Mansfield and Corryong, and they are doing amazing work. The three centres at the moment are supporting 118 students who are enrolled across 37 different institutions and in 19 different areas of study. Importantly, 50 per cent of these students are the first in their family to study at university. That straightaway to me is a success factor.

The centres allow someone who is enrolled in any university across the country to access a quiet study space with fast internet—and I can’t underscore how important it is, if you live in rural and regional Australia, to have access to fast internet—and printing at any time they need. But they are much more than a physical space. There’s study support there too. With half of the students enrolled in these centres being the first in their family to study, the centres, really importantly, offer learning skills advisers to help students navigate what is often very unfamiliar university language. These centres are making sure that higher education isn’t just available to students in the big cities. It’s quite remarkable.

I had the great honour of being at the Mansfield centre and cutting the ribbon at its opening last year. I was really moved to hear the story of one of the local students who was there. Her name is Alicia Follett. Alicia told me about her study journey through her psychology undergraduate degree. That is so important; we desperately need psychologists in rural, regional and remote Australia. Alicia told me about the difficulty in finding somewhere quiet just to sit her exams while juggling work, being a parent and living in a regional area.

While studying her psychology masters degree, Alicia was one of the first to enrol in the centre, in Mansfield, in February 2020. She said that the centre is convenient, has reliable internet and saves her time commuting to and from home. And the importance of a quite place, with that reliable internet, when sitting an online exam cannot be underestimated. Alicia’s experiences echo mine. I was a parent to young children and studied remotely, years ago, and had to go to the local high school to have an invigilator on my exam. It was all pretty tricky, pretty difficult. We got through it in the end.

I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of the CUC Ovens Murray chair, John Joyce, the CUC Ovens Murray centre manager, Mark van Bergen, and all the wonderful staff at the centres I’ve visited, across our region, who are helping these regional students succeed. It truly is fantastic. The government are saying they will fund 20 additional university centres in the regions. I congratulate them on that.

They should fund one in the town of Benalla in my electorate. In Benalla, fewer than 14 per cent of people have completed a bachelor’s degree or above. Benalla doesn’t have regular reliable public transport. The kids there can’t get to Wangaratta or Mansfield where these centres are. This transport problem between towns holds young people in regional Australia back if they don’t have a licence or a car, and there’s no train and very infrequent buses. They must seek out online studies in isolation or leave home, if they can.

I want to highlight that down in Benalla the community foundation Tomorrow Today is leading the Education Benalla Program to tackle some of these barriers. They fund bus trips to Melbourne, for years 10 and 12 , to show them what university is like, because that is a key factor here. Many of these kids don’t know anyone who’s been to university. They have no sense of what it could be like. But after the trips to the city, the students often ask, ‘How will I afford living out of home?’ Accommodation, while studying in the cities, is a huge barrier for obtaining higher education.

A Tomorrow Today survey of students who attended one of these university bus tours found that 45 per cent of the students said that being in the country is important to them when it comes to choosing a university. They didn’t want to leave home. Mature age students with young children want to support study, and students want to stay connected to their sports team and community, and some families simply don’t want to see their young people move away. So we really do need to support our young regional students to study closer to home, if they can.

Albury Wodonga Health, on the border in my electorate, are proposing a collaborative education and research centre, bringing together regional universities into one place so that we can create a sustainable pipeline for young rural students to enter into medicine, nursing, allied health, get the clinical training they need close to home and the university training they need close to home as well. This is a program that this Universities Accord could be speaking to, in this regard. It would help solve our workforce shortages and would address that other big gap in rural and regional education, the research piece. We’d like to see this collaborative centre, on the border, supported by this government, to bring this home in a really important way, to make Albury Wodonga Health the clinical education and research regional centre of Australia.

I have an example of that. Right now, there is a cardiac catheter lab in Albury-Wodonga, but to train a nurse to work in that lab they need to go to Adelaide to get that education. So that cardiac catheter lab that’s so desperately needed can only open a few days a week. A local training facility bringing our universities together, addressing these issues that rural, regional and remote students face in accessing high quality education, is a model that I want to see. I certainly will be contributing to the submission process for the rest of this accord.

The interim report acknowledged that regional universities provide essential infrastructure and facilities for the wider community. This is exactly why we need to support more regional universities, to make them centres of excellence. I have spoken to the education minister about that particular project in Albury-Wodonga. I’ve spoken to the infrastructure minister, the health minister and the assistant health minister, and I really want to see that delivered.

Finally, I want to touch on HECS indexation, and the Australian Universities Accord is considering recommendations to review student contributions. We know that with HECS debt facing 7.1 per cent indexation, those students who’ve been lucky enough to make it to university are facing a debt burden that is putting them off completing their studies. I congratulate the government on this bill and I commend it to the House.

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