Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia
Development of northern Australia

MADDOCKS, Professor Simon, Vice-Chancellor, Charles Darwin University


CHAIR: Welcome. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today is recorded by Hansard and as such attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a short opening statement and we will then ask you some questions.

Prof. Maddocks : Thank you very much. I should begin by indicating that I have only been vice-chancellor of Charles Darwin University for about six weeks. But, in fact, one of the reasons I wanted to take on this role is that I come from a background of having grown up in the tropics, with 15 years in Papua New Guinea. I undertook the university component of my education in South Australia in agriculture and primary industries, with a focus on the livestock sector. I went on to a career in university and then in the public sector with the South Australian government in leading primary industries research and development, with a broad career covering biomedical and agricultural research, leadership, education and a passion for developing young people. It was an exciting opportunity for me to take up leadership at Charles Darwin University at the same time that the government was renewing a focus on a commitment to the development of northern Australia. I am equally passionate about the enormous potential I see here and our capacity to use that to better engage in Australia with its northern neighbours, which is as an important part of the equation.

Charles Darwin University is a unique organisation. As you would be aware, it is the only formal university in the Northern Territory. It is unusual amongst most universities in Australia as it is dual sector, so it supports vocational training as well as bachelor degrees and postgraduate training. It has areas of significant research capacity that are recognised nationally and internationally as being pre-eminent. You have just heard from the previous witness about one of the particular centres under the Charles Darwin University umbrella that reflects that excellence. Charles Darwin University, in that context, with both its support for the development of people in the Northern Territory and its engagement with a substantial amount of online delivery to students across Australia is in a unique position to engage a broad network of Australians in terms of a focus on the development of Northern Australia. Again, the university has significant formal partnership linkages with universities and institutions in places like East Timor, Indonesia, China and throughout Asia in that context that are equally important to some of the agendas we will be talking about that are relevant to the development of the north.

Our role in education and training is fundamental to the development of any society, let alone a sector of the country. The fact that we are located in this part of Australia, along with the very significant commitment and relationship we have with Indigenous communities and our development and engagement of Indigenous communities in a number of the activities we have seen take place across northern Australia, is an important part of the contribution we bring to this discussion.

The other attraction for me—which you will hear me reinforce a number of times, and some of your panel have already been berated by me around this issue—is the fact that, notwithstanding the breadth that we cover when we talk about northern Australia, every time Australia has to engage with some significant activity to our north Australia engages through Darwin. When tsunamis hit Indonesia, when the Bali bombings went on, when there are other disasters that we have to engage with, Australia marshals its response to that activity through Darwin. So part of the framework I bring to this discussion and to your considerations is—rather than the historical perspective of, 'Poor old Darwin. It's small. It's unsupported. It's isolated. It needs to be propped up'—language like, 'This is a strategic commitment to capacity and capability building in terms of the way Australia as a nation positions for its better engagement not only in development of the north but in the way we relate to what are very significant geopolitical relationships to our immediate north.'

Darwin is closer to most parts of Asia than it is to the rest of Australia. I know parts of Queensland could make similar claims. Again, this just emphasises the importance of the nature of the discussions that we are engaged in and that your committee is deliberating on.

Mrs GRIGGS: I am really pleased you made that point. When we met that was certainly one of the big takeaways from our meeting. I was going to ask you to restate that. You already done it.

CHAIR: I do not disagree with you except to say that, as you said, there are others in the region, depending on what part of Asia you are going to. Regarding the deployment of those sorts of assets, there has been a strong argument right across what we are doing that they are going to serve a lot more value here than if they are based in Sydney or Brisbane. They will serve a lot better value if they are closer to the areas where there is likely to be a need. There has been an argument that the reason they do not base some of these assets up here is that it is in a cyclone zone. But, really, at the end of the day there are things that can mitigate any risk there. The reality is that there is no reason it could not happen. You are reinforcing that. I agree with you.

Mrs GRIGGS: One of the things we did not get to look at as a committee is the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, which is something that has been established here and does amazing things. It has been used in incident after incident. Maybe when you come back on the next trip you can have a look at that, Chair. That is quite spectacular to look at.

CHAIR: Depending on the number of witnesses we have next time, we might do that. Although we do have something else we are looking at, too. We will see how we go for time.

Prof. Maddocks : I would encourage you to think about holding your next round of hearings out at the Charles Darwin campus, because that would also put you in close proximity to visit the sort of facility we are talking about at the Royal Darwin Hospital campus, as well as some of the other things we are talking about.

CHAIR: If you forward that to the secretariat, I think that will be a real probability. There is absolutely no reason we cannot.

Mr SNOWDON: We have been travelling around. In Broome we heard that the University of Notre Dame is effectively closing its campus. The issue that arises there is that there is now no longer a tertiary provider providing in situ lectures for, principally, health and education students in the Kimberley. I know you have a campus in Alice Springs. I am wondering whether there is pressure on you in terms of having to draw back on your on-site services in Alice Springs. Do you suffer the same sorts of economies that are seen to be hitting Notre Dame? If so, how do we make sure that Charles Darwin's reach is maintained and indeed built on?

And looking at the introduction in your submission, you make the very good point about the need for sectoral dialogue and jurisdictional collaboration, and you recommend that there be a series of workshops to work through these issues. They are, in part, at the top of our minds, because you would have heard the previous discussion. On the one hand, we have the issues to do with smaller towns and their capacity to maintain a presence for a university and then we have the whole issue of northern Australia, and how we can make sure that universities in northern Australia are providing services to northern Australia as well as out of northern Australia. I wonder if you would like to comment on that?

Prof. Maddocks : Happily. They are issues that occupy me daily, particularly with the current proposed reforms to the higher education sector, where we are being increasingly challenged to understand how some of these might impact on what we do. Our key to environments like Alice Springs has been to absolutely commit to our capacity to maintain engagement in those environments. There have been forays and attractions and forays, but the key to our commitment in the current environment is the opportunity to do it in partnership with other organisations so that no one body is carrying the challenge of how you service something that probably is not optimally of critical mass but you have a commitment to build over time.

Chair, on your comments to the previous witness about the importance of partnerships and how we broaden this. I come from a background in South Australia of having led the development of an environment you may be aware of, the Waite institute, which is the largest co-location of agricultural expertise in the Southern Hemisphere. That involved the development of a university campus and the co-location of CSIRO, state primary industries, industry groups such as the wine industry and private sector interests in to the one environment. The beauty of that is you create not only a critical mass and you share the costs and opportunities from expensive infrastructure—and that usually means you can go for the better version of the infrastructure rather than the cheap version. When you put students in that environment with young, absorbing minds, you create an incredibly exciting place where they want to engage, network and see new opportunities.

Partnerships are something you will find me very strong on. I think they are critical to Charles Darwin University's future and I think they are critical to the way we engage with remote and less than ideal locations across northern Australia. CDU does not attract sufficient students out of the Northern Territory to make it a viable university. You may or may not be aware that some years ago, when other universities in Australia were targeting international students, CDU put its energies into developing a significant online delivery mode. It has become very well-known for that. In addition to physical campuses in both Melbourne and Sydney, we have substantial numbers of students from Adelaide and Perth already co-engaging in courses through CDU. This year, for the first time, I had to run a graduation ceremony in Adelaide because there were so many students completing courses out of Adelaide. That may upset some of our sister institutions in the south, but that is life.

In terms of the way Notre Dame may have had challenges in maintaining a presence in Broome, our response would be the capacity to service components of teaching with online access where that is appropriate or to make visitation. CDU already services some 160 regional delivery sites around the Northern Territory. We have been rather instrumental in developing things like mobile classrooms on the backs of trucks. I think you can move resources around and make sure people get physical access as well as virtual access. There are going to be challenges. The new framework being proposed for the higher education sector where students pick up a greater share of the cost may challenge people in regional locations as to whether they are going to have the capacity to earn the return. These issues will be worked through, as we work through with the government what they mean. I do not detract from the fact that that should not stop us coming up with a framework. I think an important opportunity could be provided by the deliberations of your committee and what may come through in a white paper. We saw, some 20 years ago, when I first got involved with the collaborative research centre program, that it had the ability to break the traditional siloing where universities did their bit and industry did their bit and nobody talked to each other. CRCs provided the framework that crashed through that and actually got true partnerships forming and co-commitment, appropriately resourced, to break the mould and change the way we did things.

Yes, we have good relationships with JCU, but there is still healthy competition and, yes, we can talk to these people. But if, out of this, we can derive a framework which articulates the incentive for people to do more than just talk about coming together but to actually do so—one plus one equals three, and value-adding a co-engagement to deliver—then we will be able to make sure that students in Broome do get access to the required development, just as they do on the east coast closer to Townsville or somewhere like that, as we do right across the Top End.

Mr SNOWDON: I want to make two points. Firstly, when I was the minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and rural health, I had representations from your university because online students in the health area, in nursing, were unable to get practicums in the hospitals in which they were working because of dirty deals done with local universities. Have you been able to overcome that sort of problem, or is it still an issue where you have got students online or doing remote learning not being able to do their practicums in the location in which they live because of these deals which have been done with other universities?

Prof. Maddocks : It is a constant challenge. We continue to work at it. We have had to put on people that are fully focused, out of places like Adelaide and Melbourne, who just spend their time making sure that we get placement opportunities.

The other challenge we have in some of these professional areas is that we also have students who would like to engage offshore but, because of the professional accreditation protocols, if we have a nurse training and wanting to engage in hospitals in Indonesia somewhere, which is entirely relevant to this area, they cannot get professional recognition for that training sometimes because it is not appropriately monitored. That is something we continue to try to work through. Those sorts of things will provide challenges as we step up the opportunity, but it is just another a point on which we engage and find a solution.

Mr SNOWDON: My question is on your relationship with ANU. I was formerly on the board of NARU. What is the current status of your relationship with ANU, and how is that relationship working?

Prof. Maddocks : We have a very good relationship with ANU, but ANU have been retracting some of their engagement in these areas. They have a formal facility here in Darwin that they are pulling back from. I think it is not that there is an issue with the relationship; it is that they are in a very competitive environment where they focus on their core interests. Perhaps it is again an indication that, with the coming of age of Charles Darwin University and the other partnerships we bring, they are not so critical to where we go forward. It is not that we do not have good relationships. All organisations continue to review where their core focus needs to be, and Charles Darwin will do the same.

Mr SNOWDON: Is it still the case, though, that there are courses which are being mutually—

Prof. Maddocks : Yes, there is some sharing of units and mutual recognition for students who want to go on into graduate programs there so that they can get appropriate recognition for what they have done with us, and vice versa.

Mr SNOWDON: So there are pathways out of the place to other institutions through these collaborations?

Prof. Maddocks : Absolutely. And I would argue that, in the current environment, increasingly that is how it will be. We as a university cannot service all the interests that students out of the Northern Territory, for example, might have. We have to make sure that we put our resources into what we are really good at. But we can, through our partnership arrangements, make sure that all those students get access, and, if they have to engage with an alternative institution, that there is appropriate credit transfer and positive reinforcement of those relationships going forward.

Mrs GRIGGS: Can I ask you to put on record the three opportunities for Charles Darwin University that it has available to it as part of developing northern Australia.

Prof. Maddocks : We have a very significant commitment to the oil and gas industry. We have worked at that in partnership with private industry representatives. So we have significant investment and support from those companies into both physical facilities on campus to support training and engagement but also into course development and advice, so that we make sure that our students are meeting the needs of industry in application, and that is both at the vocational level and moving into the degree stream. Charles Darwin has a very extensive environmental science program and research program. There is supporting advice about sustainable development opportunities so that in fact we do understand the impact on the water systems and the river systems in the north as we choose to make better use of the water, but we understand that sustainable flow is a significant part of what keeps that environment as productive as it should be.

We also have our health engagement not only through Menzies but also in our relationship with, for example, the Flinders University and the Northern Territory Medical Program and our ability to get anybody that is interested in working in the north, particularly the ability to bring on Indigenous engagement in that space, with appropriate health workers being supported and trained for regional community delivery. So you get the capacity to support preventative health engagement rather than reactive treatment programs, which, of course, is critical to positive, sustainable development in this environment. So there are three that I would name right off the top. There are other opportunities, obviously, but that is our punchline.

Mr SNOWDON: With Flinders University, John Wakerman—who is now up here, of course—and I were working on a program to try and get medical students to be able to do their full degree in Alice Springs. We were after eight places. It seems to me they have got the capacity to study at the hospital and through the university from years 2 and 3, but they cannot get there in year 1. This is all about the politics of how we input university students. How does that actually work?

Prof. Maddocks : That is an interesting question, and I think the space has just been made a little bit more difficult for us in understanding how the new policies are going to lay on and impact that. But it is about the way funded places get allocated to environments and the way programs are supported. For some of these things the earlier years are effectively a science type degree structure, and you only get the clinical value-add in the second tier of what could be a six-year program. It is almost a three plus three. So part of it—

Mr SNOWDON: This was the Flinders graduate degree.

Prof. Maddocks : The graduate program then is to get them into placement. It is how the funding flows for what is effectively seen as a clinical placement value-add and the way they get allocated.

Mr SNOWDON: Is that a decision of the university or a decision of government?

Prof. Maddocks : Both is my understanding. It is how the load is projected and where the perceived need is seen to want to be appropriately supported.

Mr SNOWDON: I am not asking you to be the judge of this, but if we pursue the argument that if we can train people locally they are more likely to stay—which I think there is enough empirical evidence to say that that generally is not a bad outcome—do you think it is appropriate that we should try and drive training into locations like Alice Springs? I know that, for example, Sydney University has got a partnership in their medical degree with Broken Hill where they have a campus. Now, clearly, Alice Springs is a small place, but it has got a very dynamic health sector, and it is a place where people want to go to work. If we could attract people into there to do their training, the issues to do with doctors—and, of course, not only doctors but also allied health professionals and nurses—might well be a different issue in terms of workforce.

Prof. Maddocks : I am not so convinced that we have to be too fixated on getting local people trained who want to stay there. I say that not as someone who has not had an acceptable immersion in that environment. But part of me wants to say we need to recognise the challenges that that environment provides, particularly for health care workers. For example, we are seeing in our nursing program a number of women, primarily, who have a real passion and an interest in servicing communities like Alice Springs. They come and do nursing through CDU because they expect that it will give them some clinical placement opportunities in Alice Springs that nursing programs in other universities might not do. I think there is a potential workforce out there who are interested in those issues and needs. But equally our capacity to service the workforce when we get them needs consideration. It is very easy for health professionals in those environments to burn out because of the nature of the load and the case throughput, as you would appreciate, that happens in environments like Alice Springs.

So there is a capacity to have people who have a desire and a capacity to work there. But we need to balance their engagement in that environment with their capacity to have time out. We do this with healthcare workers across the health system, so it is not unique to Alice Springs. I think there are models where, by better facilitating, we can get people who really do want to engage in that but who do not drown in the process. That is why I think we have opportunity through the training programs to better support students that get to have time in, say, Darwin or Adelaide and then get time in Alice Springs and then come back. That is potentially more effective because you might get more students exposed to what it really means to be able to work in a place like Alice.

Mr SNOWDON: And potentially Katherine and Nhulunbuy.

Prof. Maddocks : Absolutely. So I think there are different strategies that could be potentially more effective.

Mr SNOWDON: But we still want them in Alice Springs.

Senator PERIS: Natasha Griggs just asked what your three most important programs are. One of the programs you mentioned was the Northern Territory Medical Program. It is good that we are talking about this, because I know that this budget has cut $400,000 from that program. But it is also an opportunity. You spoke about how important this program is to educating our local Territorians into the medical field. I wanted to also put on record that you have a batch of students that are going to graduate this year—is that correct?

Prof. Maddocks : Yes.

Senator PERIS: How many will graduate this year from that program?

Prof. Maddocks : I am not sure. I indicated before you came back in that I have only been in this job six weeks—so do not push me too hard!

Mr SNOWDON: It is the first cohort.

Prof. Maddocks : Yes, it is the first cohort through. I thought it was about a dozen.

Senator PERIS: So that program will continue?

Prof. Maddocks : That would be the expectation, subject to understanding what the impact of the new changes is going to be. But I think nobody has questioned that it is an important program. No-one is saying that it does not add value. I assume that in the rearrangement of funding structures there will be a mechanism to make sure that in the oversight of how funds are appropriately distributed there is recognition that it makes a valuable contribution, so that it is picked up in that process.

Mr SNOWDON: I do not want to get too political, but I want to try and get in my mind an understanding of where you think this new funding set-up will put regional universities like yours.

Prof. Maddocks : That is still a very challenging question, because we have not seen the detail. On the one hand I can see that the policy of opening up FEE-HELP to students in vocational training might have quite a positive impact on encouraging students to engage in post-secondary education. The challenge will be with the message to students that they will be contributing the 20 per cent of their course fee that the government will no longer fund. But it will be more than that, because universities are required under the new policy to allocate 20 per cent of what they charge students into a special scholarship fund. That will not come from anywhere other than off the back of students, again. So in fact you are going to be talking about charging students a 30-plus per cent additional fee. Then, when they hit $46,000, roughly, they will start to repay their HECS loan. If they do not hit that point, the HECS loan over time starts to accumulate interest costs at the 10-year bond rate, which has averaged five to six per cent. So the challenge for regional students is that, on the one hand, we want to encourage them to get post-secondary training. But if they do not see their way through to appropriate employment relative to the area they have trained in, and a capacity to pay their HECS debt back quickly, that may actually put them off wanting to engage in any training at all.

Mr SNOWDON: So it is a bit perverse. If you graduate as a medical practitioner or as someone in a high-income bracket where you might get paid a hundred grand to start off with, as opposed to someone who gets paid 50 grand to start off with, there is a real issue.

Prof. Maddocks : There is the potential for an issue, subject to not having any more detail about how that might be grounded. But at this point in time on the information we have there is a potential issue in that students in regional locations may be discouraged from engaging, which would not be what Australia wants to see happen. So we have to work through what that means.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed, Professor. It has been very useful. If we have any other questions, we will put them in writing and get them back through the secretariat.

Prof. Maddocks : I would be pleased to hear from you in respect of anything like that. I will certainly revisit our offer to meet you in future out at Casuarina.

CHAIR: That would be nice. We would appreciate that. Give some thought to that overall northern Australia centre of excellence.

Prof. Maddocks : I would be happy to do that.