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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
03/05/2018
Australian government's role in the development of cities

SNYDER, Dr Scott, Chief Operating Officer, University of the Sunshine Coast

[10:01]

CHAIR: I now welcome the representative of the University of the Sunshine Coast to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Dr Snyder : Before I say that I've given you a map, I'm not sure, if you're not a Queenslander, you have all the proportions.

CHAIR: I wish we were!

Dr Snyder : I have a statement. You're probably running a little bit late, so I'll condense it a little bit.

CHAIR: No, take your time.

Dr Snyder : Thank you for allowing us to speak. In terms of your inquiry, we have a few unique aspects of the university which might be useful. The university is the last greenfield university established in Australia—a little over 20 years ago. It was established to look after the needs of the Sunshine Coast. A few years ago we asked an external firm to estimate the economic impact the university has had on the region. The estimate was a little over $9 billion for, at that stage, 19 years of operation. We've become a core component of any of the planning that goes into the Sunshine Coast. So, in that regard, in terms of your first subinquiry I think that we could provide some information or thoughts that might be useful.

The problem with the Sunshine Coast is size. The framework within which Australian universities operate and the general behaviour of the population means that about 500,000 to 600,000 people in a catchment is what is required for a teaching and research university. The Sunshine Coast has about 60 per cent of that, so several years ago it was obvious that the good times would end at some stage and that growth would begin to falter. Our approach to dealing with that was to spread our catchment and, in particular, go south, towards Brisbane.

Around three years ago we were successful in a tender to build a new campus in Moreton Bay. Moreton Bay is just north of Brisbane. It has very poor educational statistics. Just for reference, 53 per cent of young adults in Brisbane have a degree. Twenty-four per cent in the best part of Moreton Bay have a degree. So if you drive 15 kays you have a 30 percentage-point drop in the number of people with a degree. That's, in part, due to the difficulties of transport but certainly something that the Moreton Bay council actively aim to address.

Moreton Bay council purchased a paper mill, a 200-hectare site, and went to market to find an education partner. We were selected. The interesting thing for us is that this was the start of a journey. The comments, then, relate to your subinquiry too, something new. The aim of the campus is to reach 10,000 students in 10 years. Moreton Bay's local government area is about 420,000 or 450,000 people. So if you put Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast together you have a catchment that is large enough to sustain an institution like us.

The development doesn't neatly fit into any single portfolio. It's in Dickson so the local member is Mr Dutton. It is right on the border of Longman and Petrie, so those members were also active. We needed to find a way to fund this particular development. The development sits somewhere between federal Treasury, the department of infrastructure, the department of education and the local member's remit. It also requires input from Queensland Treasury, Queensland Treasury Corporation and Moreton Bay Regional Council. We have spent three years now getting to the point where we'll start construction in July.

The interesting thing is that right from the beginning all parties were in favour of doing this. The educational statistics are very obvious. The local government area really can't develop, make the move, from a very blue-collar to a more middle-class white-collar area without a university. It's what the ratepayers want. But the mechanism to be able to have some funding and have some students is not clear: who owns it? In the end, after bouncing around for about a year and a half, the department of infrastructure—I guess under Minister Fletcher's push—embraced our project and, even though we don't neatly fit into a department of infrastructure package, helped us work through the administration.

We have a concessional loan to build the infrastructure, so we would be the first university in Australia to ever have been given a loan from the Commonwealth for that. It required a regulation change to make it happen. We were also the first university after the MYEFO funding changes to receive student load for that development. That's from Minister Birmingham. It's unique in those aspects, besides the due diligence process that involved all of those departments and all of their individual consultants and, in fact, even a few consultants of our own. We helped with the student load model and consultants.

We have a Moody's credit rating. We're the only regional university in Australia where that's a requirement of our funding agreement with the Commonwealth now. We got there. Everybody was supportive. Everybody tried hard. The loan is relatively modest, from an infrastructure perspective. It's not a parking lot on the Bruce Highway but it's not much more than that. It's much smaller than road or rail normally deals with. The difficulty was there is no mechanism, no pot of money, so although your case is somewhat overwhelming—yes, it's difficult to find.

If you look at the map, which is the reason I gave it to you, the catchment that we've defined for ourselves, that we believe we can grow into over the next 20 or 30 years, extends from Brisbane to Hervey Bay. The interesting thing about that particular catchment is it contains the two areas of lowest degree attainment in the country. Caboolture, which is 55 kilometres outside of Brisbane, has only 13 per cent of young adults with a degree. You have a better chance of finding someone with a degree in outback Northern Territory than you do in Caboolture. It's 55 kilometres away from Brisbane. The second-lowest area of degree attainment is in Harvey Bay—well, Wide Bay, which picks up that region—at 14 per cent. Again, you have a better chance of finding someone in outback NT with a degree.

When you look at developing communities and this intersection between social, economic and education policies, where the infrastructure has naturally gone—the development of campuses and issuing of bachelors degrees—clearly hasn't worked for regional areas. At the moment, each of the councils that work with each of these areas want to develop the CBD in some way—Sunshine Coast, Moreton Bay, Fraser Coast. The university is always at the core. Putting aside the difficulties in funding, the models of a traditional university campus and bachelor degree don't work with a group of young people who are more interested in individual activities, portfolios of skill sets and transferable skills that move in and out of particular disciplines within a larger group, be it health or design or what have you. We push ourselves forward to work with the local politicians, to say, 'If you had a community consortium of perhaps health and social welfare, something to do with teenagers, some shared library resources, a university, some way of engaging schoolkids and so on, that development might work for Caboolture.' Whereas in Moreton Bay it's the same community-focused development but with a different set of partners and a different set of outcomes.

What have we learned over the last three years? We've learned a lot. The stories are always compelling when you tell them, and the solutions, when they're looked through, check out. When you're discussing this intersection of socioeconomic and education policies, there are no existing programs or clear pathways to be able to fund and finance the infrastructure and then work with the programs that are placed within them. It's taken three years for the university, in partnership with the council and with the support of Minister Dutton, the education minister and staff at the department of infrastructure, to finally achieve a modest concession. While there are now student places for that region, it's actually arguable that the student places themselves probably need a little bit of work to fit with the modern mindset of young people and their educational background. The government has been fantastic—they have all helped—but it was difficult. When you look at sustainability within a region, I wonder whether there's another focus that could be brought in, which is: how do you support young people? Clearly what's happening now in South-East Queensland hasn't worked.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. It's interesting because we talked about infrastructure in our first inquiry—the need to masterplan infrastructure. Within that concept are education facilities, as much as roads and open, green space are. The starkness of those statistics is very interesting, and I'm sure you could delve down into them. There's such an obvious case in Moreton Bay, which might even be a stronger case than Harvey Bay because of the proximity to Brisbane and the likelihood of having jobs that would require a tertiary education. Those young people need to be fit for purpose or educated for purpose. In the more rural setting of Harvey Bay, I would imagine there would possibly be—if things were ideal and there was access to universities—a lower level of tertiary-educated people because of the likelihood of their work not requiring such. Would that be a fair comment to provide a weighting?

Mr Snyder : It would be lower. To give it into a reference point, nationally, 35 per cent of young people have a degree. The major cities, Sydney in particular, have 2½ times that amount. The Sunshine Coast has 23 per cent, Moreton Bay has 24 per cent, and Hervey Bay and Wide Bay have 14 per cent. There is demand. If you've got 100,000 people, for example, in Hervey Bay, you should have a reasonable throughput of people taking up degrees.

If you look at where work is going in the transferable skill sets, the skill set that involves caring for people—whether it be nursing, psychology, NDIS support or what have you—is certainly of high demand within Hervey Bay. Interestingly, when you do market research on these areas, the young people up there are interested in science and they're interested in engineering. Their parents are much less interested in them pursuing it; they would like them to become teachers. No young person wants to be a teacher; that's an adult's gig. There is demand, and, within these big transferable skill sets of care, engineering or science—and Hervey Bay, just where it sits, has some real opportunities for science and Indigenous culture—there are opportunities there. But what the council requires from us—and that particular council also has a vision for developing its CBD, and it's working with the state government to execute that—is a mix of not just educational facilities but also places for students to go and stay, so that if you're inner city you have places to study and collaborate, and have good access to digital infrastructure, design suites and tools. None of that exists. When you look at building a community hub in a place like Hervey Bay, it's not just teaching; it's actually looking at the environment and saying, 'Well, what do you need to have in a student experience that gets you interested and keeps you there?'

Each council is a little bit different. The Sunshine Coast is now looking at high-end knowledge economy stuff. A couple of weeks ago, we met with a Swiss medical implant provider—one of the largest in the world—who was interested in coming here and required the university's clinical trial area and occupational therapy area to be involved in the arrangement. We're doing our best to see what we can do. That's what this community needs. Moreton Bay just needs a university. Once it has a university it will figure out what it can use it for, but that's what it needs.

Ms BIRD: It's an interesting area. I think it's probably the first time we've heard the opposite side of a story that we've heard consistently, which is that most regional cities are based around an existing university—it's the existence of the university that drove the growth. Thinking of my own area, Wollongong and Newcastle are obvious examples. Really, what you're trying to deal with here is that the population has been coming in and you have population growth, but now you're trying to retrofit the education.

Dr Snyder : They're not sufficient. I'm sure that by the time Sunshine Coast gets to 500,000 people the sustainable size for a university will be 700,000 or 800,000 people. Universities are very low-margin, high-volume businesses.

Ms BIRD: This is why I hear your frustration: where does the infrastructure investment sit for an education facility when it's facing exactly the same challenges that we're talking about—that, if you allow population to grow and then try to retrofit transport, you're always doing a bit of suboptimal arrangement. Why aren't we thinking about education infrastructure in exactly the same way?

Dr Snyder : Particularly when sustainability will include a degree of social welfare and mental health support for young people. It is no longer a human capital collective view country with young people; it really is, 'I am responsible for myself and I am failing if I can't organise it.' If you don't provide the appropriate opportunities, not only do they not engage with employment opportunities; they struggle as individuals. We see it in less-measured ways. We see it in the presentation for mental health issues in all university campuses and so on. University is still key to the community—in fact, the local campus is more key than it's ever been, because the students mix life and study. They want a local campus within half an hour's travel that they can attend from time to time. They don't really want to learn online—that's for skills upgrade. But the interesting thing for us is that when you go through the data in some detail, it's actually a compelling case. We got there in the end with Moreton Bay; it's just that the pathway to getting there—

Ms BIRD: It took them three years!

Dr Snyder : We joked for the first year that every person we spoke to was unemployed the next time we went down. At one stage we were given the work experience girl in Treasury to work with; we've gone a bit silly here! When somebody finally grabbed it, which was Infrastructure, it all panned out. But it was an interesting journey.

Ms BIRD: Everybody was onside, and it still took three years. Heaven forbid if you've only got 50 per cent of them onside!

Dr Snyder : Having Minister Dutton as your local member can't hurt! We are the first university ever to get a loan. It is a loan; the government is not giving us a grant. That was made very clear in our first meeting. We went through the same value capture exercise that you were discussing before. But when the council's entire vision is social infrastructure—this precinct will be all the things that Moreton Bay wants for its community—where is the value captured?

CHAIR: Will you get any students from outside Australia?

Dr Snyder : We will get some, but not initially. A block of remediated mud's probably not as appealing to students as a Sydney campus, yet they'll be the same price. But they will come, absolutely. This university has a few outstanding little kernels. IDCARE, which is the national cybersecurity agency—

CHAIR: That's why Peter Dutton wanted it built!

Dr Snyder : sits here on the Sunshine Coast. There are things here that are of world significance. People will come, but it will take a little while.

CHAIR: What's the likelihood of students coming from regional areas needing to find student accommodation?

Dr Snyder : There will be some. We don't do student accommodation ourselves; outside providers do that. That will happen in this university if this is your model, because it'll be roughly the same size after 10 years. There's accommodation out the front and there's accommodation out the back. Most of it's privately held. It's in the many hundreds of places. They'll come.

CHAIR: Macquarie University has student accommodation being developed. It seems like it's part of their business plan—a profit-making area.

Dr Snyder : All of our developments from here on in are collaborative developments. We do have one on the cards with an accommodation provider where they'll build all of the infrastructure. It's a series of accommodation facilities with teaching infrastructure underneath it. That's more the style we'll go for.

CHAIR: James Cook University, in giving evidence yesterday, talked about having campuses outside of their central university. I'm thinking about the location of the Moreton Bay university and specific needs in an area like Hervey Bay. Could there be an opportunity to have a separate campus to facilitate education for that particular region?

Dr Snyder : All of these dots are our campuses. We have a campus on the Fraser Coast—all of these dots are where we exist at the moment.

CHAIR: You've got a campus there, but you've got a very low percentage of university-educated people—it's 13 or 14 per cent.

Dr Snyder : Correct. We purchased our campus two years ago, so it'll take a little while. We purchased Caboolture this year. To sound our own trumpets: we do several million dollars worth of teaching for free at the moment. The caps on university funding have stopped the growth. At the moment we're paid for about half of what we teach up in Hervey Bay—probably 60 per cent of what we're teaching. We do many millions of—

Ms BIRD: So those caps are particularly problematic if you're trying to be in a growth phase?

Dr Snyder : Correct; so if you bought a campus and you're setting up your pipeline and you got hit. But, equally, the demand-driven system is focused on bachelor degrees. Everything else has been capped. It's just bachelor degrees, and bachelor degrees don't always suit a regional audience. We teach sub-bachelor for free, which is—

Ms BIRD: Don't they have TAFE campuses doing diplomas up there?

Dr Snyder : They do, but if you look at—

Ms BIRD: I'm very conscious of the contested space around diploma funding.

Dr Snyder : If you look at the big skill set areas, a TAFE diploma is the pinnacle of your work. If you are an artisan, a hairdresser, a baker or something like that, it's appropriate to have the pinnacle provided by TAFE. If you are in health care you would do better to come in on the lower level of a university, which gives you the opportunity to rise up. So, when you look at the big seven or eight transferrable skill groupings, there are probably about four in the healthcare, digital, engineering and science type of areas, which are probably better to start at the base with a university diploma and work up. Then there are some, like the artisan things, where the diploma is better probably for a TAFE, because that's your pinnacle of skills. There will always be room for both types of diplomas, depending on where you want to go. Then, for things like the retail sector, both are fine; it depends on where you want to go with your life.

CHAIR: Is there a problem with the percentage of students finishing year 12 as the feeder to tertiary education?

Dr Snyder : There will be for one year. In Queensland, 2020 is the year when the changes to entry in reception finally hit. The same situation in Western Australia maybe two years ago will hit us. Roughly, there will be 30 per cent fewer people leaving year 12 at the end of 2019 than there is usually. But that's not the problem. Harvey Bay will always be a smaller campus and will always have a smaller set of disciplines that are focused on employment opportunities. Then there is the opportunity to transfer down here if you want the full selection of programs. But it is large enough to be sustainable provided that the back office functions are all paid for by Sippy Downs and Moreton Bay. That's the way we'll run it.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your attendance here today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretariat by Friday, 11 May. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you again.

Ms BIRD: You provided a very interesting perspective. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 10:27 to 10:42