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Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Page: 1752

Dr STONE (Murray) (16:20): Education is a very serious business for any nation, and we have been appalled to see the declining standards of Australia's primary and secondary education when it is compared internationally. A lot of that decline in standards has of course occurred on Labor's watch. I am particularly concerned about the decline in rural and regional educational access and standards. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014 focuses on tertiary education quality. It is all about making sure that the universities and tertiary institutions that offer courses in Australia can do so in a way where the standard of new course offerings can be quickly and efficiently assessed and compared with what currently exists.

This bill also aims to cut red tape for institutions and agencies. As you know, we have had an incredible burden of regulation upon our tertiary institutions for a very long time and, of course, in other sectors of the economy as well. We aim to make sure that we do not have institutions spending literally hundreds of hours filling in forms when they could be getting on with the job of developing good curriculum and then having it efficiently and effectively assessed.

The bill aims to make the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency, commonly called TEQSA, more efficient so that it can provide a new tertiary course provider registration quickly and, as I said, with minimum red tape. The bill does not take away the agency's role in helping to ensure that there are quality tertiary course offerings in different places. Rather, the changes encompassed in this bill will mean that TEQSA will no longer conduct thematic, sector-wide reviews of issues that are to do with quality across a number of tertiary education providers or courses of study.

These might be interesting to undertake—those sorts of thematic, cross-sector reviews. But they are typically something of a distraction if you have a number of individual institutions with courses of great value to different parts of the country or sectors of the economy queued up in your agency; those courses cannot be offered because they are literally waiting for months to have their individual assessments take place or if the institution's suitability as a higher education provider is waiting for assessment.

The review of higher education regulation was undertaken by professors Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite. Both of them have a very long and proud history of work in the tertiary education sector. They recommended that the government should reduce the functions of TEQSA to focus on provider registration and course accreditation. That is exactly what this bill delivers.

We hope that in making sure the commissioners and secretariat are more efficient and effective, and in taking away this broad, thematic, sector-wide approach, that the international reputation of Australia's courses will be enhanced. Unfortunately—and largely I put this down to the fault of the states in their failing to properly regulate tertiary education sector quality—we did see for a time Australia's tertiary education offerings come under a cloud as international students failed to find even a stove or power points, for example, in institutions offering high-level courses in catering or cooking.

Of course, and as I said before, we have a significant disparity between the tertiary educational offerings in rural and regional areas compared to metropolitan Australia. You can understand why that might be the case when you look at the different densities of population and the much greater costs that are often involved in offering a range of tertiary education courses in a small community or even a small regional city. I want to draw to the attention of the House, though, the fact that those differences are not diminishing with time. The difference in access to tertiary education and the different quality of experience of rural and regional students are becoming poorer by the year when you compare their experiences with metropolitan students.

I often think of the statistics in my own part of the world. The electorate of Murray is only two, three or four hours from the capital city of Melbourne and yet comparing the life experience and educational access of my young people is like chalk and cheese. We sometimes feel like we are at the back of Uluru, rather than just two or three hours away from a capital city. A lot of that difference comes as a result of the very different socioeconomic status of the people who live in the Murray electorate, given that many of them depend on agribusiness for their living and that agribusiness in Australia is a very difficult occupation to sustain or to make money in. That has been the case for the last decade or two.

The financial pressures on families are the major factors that are cited by our year 12 school leavers when they talk about whether or not they will take up offers of a place in a tertiary institution. We have 35.5 per cent of people in the Goulburn-Murray area compared to 21 per cent in Victoria who defer when they have been offered a place. That is a substantially higher number of students deferring in rural areas compared to Victoria as a whole.

And why have they deferred, given that after deferral many of these students do not in fact return to their studies or return to any studies? The answer is that 88.8 per cent of them say that they have to earn their own money in order to qualify for government support in the form of a youth training allowance before they could go on and afford to study at a university. Typically, the university is located some distance away from their home, costing their family substantially—more than $20,000 or $30,000 a year—and their families simply did not have those sorts of funds.

Another reason, given by 24 per cent of students who deferred their courses, was that the course was not offered locally; and 48.6 per cent have said that they would not go on after year 12 because they needed instead to start a career. Twelve per cent cited public transport costs as unaffordable for them to get to a place of further study. That compares with just 9.6 per cent in the rest of Victoria.

People in this set of statistics also gave another reason for deferring entry to a university or TAFE. I think it is very sad when you hear that more than half the students said that financial pressure on the family meant that they could not start their tertiary courses immediately, given that we know the best way for an individual in Australia to be able to earn a higher income during their lifetime is to be able to gain a university education. But because their families could not afford to put them through that university or to pay for them to live away from home these students were having to defer their training and, in many cases, were not able to take up their offer at any time.

What do these students do when they defer their studies? The most common occupation amongst females and males who deferred study was sales assistant. This is not something that pays very well and not something that typically gives a great deal of insight into a career that they would expect to follow if they had their tertiary degree behind them. The second most common occupation amongst young men who deferred was store person, with 11 per cent of deferrers who were employed citing that. Amongst young women 'waitress was the second most common occupation amongst the just 14 per cent of those who deferred who were able to get any job at all.

This is a serious problem. Of course, it has been exacerbated by penalty rates that were required by the previous government to be paid in the areas of hospitality and catering. That often means that a young person looking for employment in their deferred year is too expensive for the restaurant, caterer or coffee shop because those mostly want to be open on weekends or public holidays.

The disadvantage of rural and regional students in Australia compared to metropolitan students is a serious problem when they compare what is available locally and where they will have to go if they wish to have a whole range of tertiary education course options. In the electorate of Murray, we only have one university with a campus literally on the ground, an actual campus. We have a number of virtual opportunities but La Trobe University is the only university with a multicourse campus. That is in Shepparton. It only offers business studies and some teaching and nursing studies. If you want to do engineering, architecture, law, science or agricultural science—no, you cannot study those. You cannot take a course in our local area. Yet of course, the employment prospects in our area are all to do with agricultural science, science itself, food technology and engineering. Those courses are not offered locally.

More and more of our students are finding that, when they do enrol in the first year of one of those courses locally, in the second and third years they are told, 'Well that course will now be transferred to a metropolitan campus. You will either have to go there to study or we will have it online for you.' Online education is always a second-best option, particularly for students who do not have English as their first language or who have perhaps entered their tertiary education as a mature age student. These students often need more support from lecturers or tutors who are in place and who they can talk to, not simply to be sat in front of a screen to interact via virtual communication. I have a real worry that, instead of educational opportunities coming together for metropolitan and regional students in Australia, the two sectors are pulling apart.

La Trobe University has just announced that they are withdrawing a very substantial number of jobs from their university campuses. We have been told that a number of those places are going to be removed from Bendigo. Already students from Shepparton are contacting me saying that they had deferred for a year. They planned to take up a course this year on the Bendigo La Trobe campus and have just been told those courses have been cancelled as staff have lost their positions. This is totally devastating for those students. They do not have the funds to shift to an even more expensive capital city campus. They do not have places offered to them in a capital city campus. They worked for a year to try to become eligible for the independent rate of youth allowance, but now their course has disappeared.

When you look at our results compared to those of some of our nearest neighbours, I say that these problems are all part of the dumbing down of Australian students. I am concerned that we have a very good system of evaluating course offerings in our TAFE sector, our regional training organisations and in our universities. We cannot imagine that university courses will always be of a standard that would make us all proud. Therefore, we do need very good agencies like TEQSA. We need an agency that is not hamstrung by having to undertake broad thematic approaches across the whole sector, which are pretty meaningless at the end of the day. We have to make sure that our university offerings are world's-best. We have to make sure that the universities in Australia who rank in the top universities of the world are not the vast minority. Rather, we have to make sure that we have more universities in Australia that step up and can be seen as elite, offering excellence in education across the board.

We have got to make sure that students from country areas like mine, particularly my Aboriginal students and my refugee students, do not continue to miss out in the ways that they do now. I certainly am most concerned when I look at the school retention and completion rates. For example, in my Shepparton area we have amongst the lowest of school retention and completion rates across all of Victoria. Our average school absence rates are higher in Shepparton than they are in Victoria, particularly in years 8 and 9. We have all these indicators of stress and underperformance in our educational system in my region.

In January 2010 we had teenage unemployment rates in Greater Shepparton five times higher than the working age population in Shepparton. This rate is much higher than in Victoria. In Greater Shepparton, 32.5 per cent of our teenagers are unemployed, whereas 30 per cent are unemployed across Victoria. Even that rate is still far too high. If we have 32.5 per cent unemployed in Greater Shepparton with no real access to excellence of education in the tertiary sector, including no access to a whole range of courses that they can afford to undertake, then that is a real problem for our country.

A lot of the families in Shepparton have cultural backgrounds that mean they do not wish to see their sons, and particularly their daughters, leave home until they are married. There is great concern that their families remain together until the sons and daughters are much older than 18 and 19. We really do need better local education access. We do not have that and it is not good enough. I hope that this bill is going to improve access to quality, efficient educational evaluation. That must be a very good thing and I strongly commend this bill.