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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6120

Mr OAKESHOTT (4:19 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thank you to other members who have come back from various places to support the MPI. I start by noting the words of the Deputy Prime Minister in question time where she also pleasingly talked about some of the data in relation to rural and remote access and participation rates. My response to her is that I hope she is right because the reason for putting this MPI on the Notice Paper is a report which has flown under the radar in the last month released by her department, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. The title of the study of participation rates in education is Regional participation: the role of socioeconomic status and access. I have not lightly used the words ‘national crisis’ in the wording of the MPI before the House. I note this is not one of the contentious issues about mining tax, an emissions trading scheme, a Henry tax review or a budget, but based on the words in this report this is an issue which is ‘a national crisis’ and worthy of a greater priority by all members in this chamber and more time and resources of this House and us as policymakers. I make this point based on one critical sentence in the introduction to this report:

Regional and remote access and participation rates, as measured by administrative data, have deteriorated over the last five years.

Anyone who knows the language that normally comes from government departments knows that language is normally ultra conservative in nature. The language used in this report is not that access and participation rates have slowed, have stalled or have slightly declined. The language used by what is normally a conservative process from a government department is ‘deteriorated’. That has significance of national crisis status. It has impacts on the mining industry, for example, arguably as great, if not greater than any tax reform debate. If we have a skills shortage in this country which is only going to get worse, if we have a quarter of the Australian population disengaging in education based on geography, then we have a national crisis on our hands. It is for that reason that I bring this MPI before the House—not so much because it has been noticed before as a matter of public importance in conversations around this chamber, but because it should be a matter of public importance by all members in this chamber. Once again, the report states:

Regional and remote access and participation rates, as measured by administrative data—

the government’s own data—

have deteriorated over the last five years.

There may be a political response from government that there is a lag in administrative data. So the question is: is this the period from 2005 to 2010 or is it an earlier period? I do not know. I would be interested in the feedback from government. What this report is highlighting is that we have a serious problem on our hands when regional and rural students and the regional and rural population are, for some reason, disengaging with the education pathway.

I say that in the broader context of recognising the work that is being done by government. I am in the camp of ‘vive le revolution’ in regard to education. I genuinely want to see reform and improvements in this area. I recognise the trade training centres and the role that they play and potentially will play in the future. I would ask that, in that context, the coalition reconsider their views on the important role that trade training centres play. The computers in schools program is being rolled out. It is a valuable contribution for engagement for regional and rural students. I would hope that regional and rural members of the opposition would certainly lobby the decision makers to reconsider their position.

I can fully get national curriculum and national teacher accreditation. What we are all watching now are reviews of funding and possible announcements soon around how funding is going to be distributed into the future. I get all that and think they are all very worthy contributions to the challenge before us, particularly for my electorate where we do not have a bricks and mortar campus for a university. I particularly get the work that is happening in the post Bradley environment and all those key words about ‘collaboration, not duplication’, ‘pathways’ and ‘pipelines’. I get the partnership that hopefully is now forming between some of my communities and the federal government to try and make it a seamless pathway through the certificate IIIs and IVs and into the diploma and bachelor and postgraduate degrees. I get all that and I support all that.

In that environment, for this report to have been dropped in the last couple of weeks and for this one particular sentence to jump out, it rings alarm bells. It rings huge alarm bells and should ring alarm bells, particularly for anyone who is representing a regional or rural electorate. The fact that we have seen a deterioration of engagement in this five-year period, as measured by the government’s own administrative data, is a huge concern. It does need some responses from government as to the time frame exactly. Is this 2005 to 2010 or is it some other time? Why have we seen that deterioration? What are the reasons, from a government perspective, that has happened?

The rhetoric from both the previous government and the current government is that they acknowledge and support regional Australia and regional students. The rhetoric is that they get the challenges. We saw a lot of that rhetoric shaped around the youth allowance debate. Yet, now we have administrative data saying something else, that the rhetoric is not matching the truth. The rhetoric is not matching the facts of what is happening in Australia today.

Yes, we are seeing greater engagement in low-SES areas. Yes, we are seeing greater engagement in Indigenous communities. But we can still shape a boundary based on geography. The regional and rural students, which are 27.9 per cent of the Australian population, are disengaging. Their engagement with higher education has deteriorated. We are a country at present that is firing on three cylinders. That is a quarter of the potential population who could engage in education, and then the country, hopefully, would get all the benefits of innovation, productivity and all the entrepreneurship and the inclusion that goes with that engagement in the education pathway. But for some reason the most recent DEEWR report says that it is not happening. We are a three-cylinder country at the moment and it is shaped around that issue of geography. I would hope by bringing this MPI before the House that we can get some answers over the time period in question. We need to get the exact reasons from government as to why in this five-year period—either 2005 to 2010 or sometime very recently—there has been this deterioration, this collapse, in engagement from regional and rural students.

We like to say we are the clever country. I do not think it is very clever at all to leave people behind. I do not think it is very clever at all to leave 27.9 per cent of potential opportunity for the country behind. I do not think it is very clever to be a two-tiered education system based on geography. I do not think it is very clever to increase urbanisation because of this issue of education. This brain drain continues to happen from regional and rural areas. The kids who do want to chase an education, hope or dream have no other option but to move to urban centres. I do not think it is the clever country to have a lack of engagement on education, which then leads to all sorts of issues. The Minister for Population is sitting at the table and there is the issue of 457 visas and skills shortages.

We are creating secondary issues for ourselves by not engaging a quarter of our education opportunity, which is students from regional and rural areas. So I certainly hope the government responds to these words and also responds in detail to this report. It is important that we see this issue become the matter of public importance it should be. It overrides in many ways the debate around mining taxes. We will not have the mining industry we want if we do not have people of good calibre with good skills to work in the mines. We can have all the debates on ETS and renewable energy that we want, but we must have people who understand what sustainability is, have skills as to sustainability and provide entrepreneurship as to sustainability for the future.

At a local level we have some huge challenges on the mid-North Coast. We want to engage with the federal government on many of their tertiary education targets. They are noble targets. Forty per cent having a bachelor degree or higher by 2025 is noble and a 20 per cent low-SES target in the same period is noble, so much so that one of the councils in my local area has set those same targets as its targets. We are coming off a much lower base with regard to a bachelor degree or higher. According to our current data, around 11 or 12 per cent of the Port Macquarie-Hastings population has a bachelor degree or higher, so for us to get to 40 per cent in the time frame in question is incredibly ambitious. We are going to give it a go as we think there is such a growing aspiration in the regions, including ours. We also think that some of the work that the federal government is doing in this space is assisting in achieving that. It is still not seamless as there are plenty of blockers in the system. The youth allowance mongrel hybrid, which was the end product of using some dot-connect system and drawing lines according to whatever the dirty deal was between the government and the opposition, is for regional areas, not so much for rural areas, a mess. It has people on different sides of the street having different sets of rules applying as to accessing youth allowance. We can do better. In the same time period some Senate inquiries identified a range of issues and they remain unaddressed. If we are serious about relocation issues and if we are serious about issues of proximity so that we can start to see an expansion of teaching and, ideally, bricks and mortar in regional locations so we see more university towns within Australia—and I know it is a dirty concept because no-one likes spending capital on bricks—we must acknowledge that proximity matters. Proximity is a driver in its own sense and it does encourage people to attend.

Mr Windsor —Hear, hear!

Mr OAKESHOTT —And so the member for New England interjects. You only need to look at the figures coming out of Armidale to see comparatively what a university presence in a community does in engaging regional and rural students. The comparative figures tell the story. So we have to get over this issue that spending money on bricks is no good in regional and rural areas. Well, it actually drives some answers to many of the questions being raised in reports. So I hope these words are listened to, I hope this report is generally responded to and I hope we can see the revolution in education start to get into the regions, where obviously we have a problem that still remains unaddressed.