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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12478

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:21): I am pleased to join the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011. In doing so, I want to direct my comments towards the need to encourage more students from regional areas to secure a quality education, whether it be at secondary school or at a tertiary level. I acknowledge the government's 40 per cent aspirational target for Australians to complete a degree that will train them for the future. I reflect on the member for Aston's comments that it is all very well to have these targets, but the implementation of them is going to be the real challenge for the government. I would also like to refer to the comments of the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth in his second reading speech where he claimed that:

The bill reflects the government's commitment to growing Australia's higher education sector and to expanding opportunities for Australians to obtain a high-quality higher education.

I agree with those comments of the minister. I have spoken many times in this place about the poor participation rates at tertiary level of students from regional backgrounds. In my community of Gippsland, we have one of the lowest year 12 retention rates in the state of Victoria, second only to the Wimmera-Mallee area. It has a very poor participation rate at the year 12 level, which is the foundation stone for students to go on to participate at a tertiary level. There are issues in my community relating to aspiration and to the economic barriers to students going on to participate at a higher level. I am not one of those who believe university education is everything, that it is the be-all and end-all, but I do believe that young students who have the potential to go on and achieve at a higher level should be given that opportunity and not robbed of that opportunity by way of economic barriers or aspirational barriers that we put in place in regional communities.

I am afraid to say that in some parts of my community education is not as highly valued as it is in other parts of my community, particularly by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. There is an attitude among some sections of my community that, 'A year 9 or a year 10 pass was good enough for me and it will be good enough for you,' and it is not necessarily instilled in young people at that time in their life that they can go on to achieve even more in the future. I am a very strong supporter of trades, apprenticeships and those types of training for young people, but those young people who are more academically minded should have the opportunity to go and achieve their absolute best at university level. There are issues not only with aspiration but also with economic barriers that are put in front of regional students as they pursue their academic dreams.

I have had the opportunity in this place many times in the last few years to talk about those economic barriers as we have dealt with student income support. I take the opportunity here today to highlight once again the need to overhaul the system of student income support and make sure that all students who are forced to relocate from a regional area to attend university are given that opportunity. We need to look very seriously at the implementation of a tertiary access allowance to make that happen. The government has only so far tinkered around the edges of student income support. We need to completely revisit the system and look at overhauling the system to provide more support for regional students in particular.

I note the minister has joined us in the chamber and I also note that in his speech he referred to the 2011-12 budget providing $500 million for the regional priorities round of the Education Investment Fund. I urge the government to make sure it does everything in its power to ensure that it receives value for money for taxpayers with that fund. It is in the context of value for money, and with some leeway from the chair, that I want to refer to an education program that the minister would be interested in. It is an education program that is operating in Victoria which I believe does deliver a great deal of value for money and has the potential to assist this government in its aim to increase participation in higher education. I give credit where it is due and it was a former Labor government in Victoria which implemented the program I will talk about.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Snowy River campus of the School for Student Leadership at Marlo in East Gippsland. I do not believe many members here would be aware of the program, so I will provide a little bit of background for the minister's interest. The Snowy River campus at Marlo is the second of the Victorian state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development year 9 residential leadership programs. It is based on a successful model which was developed at the Alpine School about 10 years ago. There has also been a third campus developed in western Victoria. More than $3 million was put into this program to establish it and to construct accommodation for 45 students in a state-of-the-art centre on the Marlo aerodrome site.

To understand the School for Student Leadership, it is best to visit the campus. I encourage the minister, if he has ever got the opportunity when he is in Victoria, to go and have a look at the school. It is quite extraordinary. The minister would benefit and the students would benefit from an opportunity to have him at that campus. The Marlo location itself is quite magnificent. It is on the shores of the iconic Snowy River. It is where the Snowy River meets the sea and it also has some great coastal environs around it. The campus offers students quite remarkable opportunities for outdoor learning. They may go caving at Buchan, canoeing on the river and estuary system at Marlo itself, surfing at Cape Conran, mountain bike riding or on overnight hikes, but I hasten to add it is not just a glorified school camp—it is much more than that. It is a residential campus where the year 9 students are drawn from state schools right throughout Victoria and live together on that campus for nine weeks, a whole term. To fully appreciate what is going on there you really need to visit. They have students from metropolitan and country areas thrown together. It is quite a cosmopolitan mix. There might be four or five students from each school, adding up to 45 or so kids for the whole term. The students are encouraged to really learn about the environment but also to learn a lot more about themselves. I refer to the school website, which probably sums it up quite nicely. It says:

School for Student Leadership is a Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development initiative offering a unique residential education experience for year nine students. The curriculum focuses on personal development and team learning projects sourced from students' home regions.

The team-learning projects themselves are quite fascinating. They require students to work together on a project while they are away from home which they then have to deliver back in their home community. Some of the projects the students come up with are quite extraordinary, whether they be school based projects where they try to develop new infrastructure for the school or community type projects that provide these 14- and 15-year-olds with an opportunity to make a great contribution to their home community.

I recently visited the campus—it is not the first time I have been there. I met with the students and spoke to them about their hopes and aspirations for the future. I do have an interest in the program particularly this term because my young daughter is attending the school at the moment. I noticed some changes in my own daughter in just two weeks of being away from home. The students are required to take on some extra responsibilities and they mature rapidly in this hothouse environment. They certainly learn a lot of new skills and they are encouraged to develop their leadership ability and to take more responsibility around the campus. They seem to thrive on the opportunities that are available to them. When I spoke to the students I emphasised the fact that they should make the most of this opportunity. It will be a life-changing experience for many of them and they will grow enormously as young people.

I had the opportunity during that visit to speak to the principal, Mark Reeves, who was instrumental in setting up the first campus at Dinner Plain and has been involved for the past decade. The previous speaker spoke about increasing the professionalism of our teaching community and investing in training. Mark is an example of a passionate educator. He is absolutely dedicated to his role and has been instrumental in helping so many young people throughout Victoria in his role with the outdoor learning program at the School for Student Leadership. He is a very passionate man. He is also justifiably proud of his students and what they have been able to achieve at the School for Student Leadership. He handed me a letter he had received only a matter of days ago from a young lady who had attended the Alpine School many years ago. The young lady, Teagan, said in her letter to him:

I cannot put into words, the level of development, confidence and self awareness the school gave me. What a brilliant program to provide young adults, who are stuck half way between childhood and adulthood, and give them the skills and motivation to strive into the future and aim for exceptional results.

My journey since Alpine School has built upon the skills that were fostered all those years ago. I am proud of what I have achieved but also humbled in the knowledge that my time at A. S helped me to achieve these successes.

...      ...      ...

... I just wanted to drop you a line to say thank you, and to let you know that the program run by Alpine School has insurmountable value to its students.

I acknowledge, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have strayed somewhat from the bill before the House, but there is a link back to what we are talking about.

Many of us come into this place and talk a lot about helping young people achieve their full potential, and this Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) is part of the government's effort to assist students in achieving their university dreams. But, as I am sure most members would acknowledge, the university dream does not start in year 12; it is a long education journey, right through from the primary school sector, and one of the milestone years is in year 9. It is a year when some young people find it very difficult to see how school is relevant to them anymore. It does not seem to be that important, or relevant to their own future, and many young people at that year-9 level tend to run off the rails. The private school sector has recognised this in the past and been very active in this space for a long time, organising opportunities for outdoor learning and residential learning experiences for many years. But the students in the state school system have not had the same opportunities, and that brings me back to the Victorian model I have been talking about.

I believe if we are serious about helping young people take advantage of the Commonwealth supported places referred to in the bill, projects like the School for Student Leadership in Victoria warrant further investment right throughout our nation. I congratulate, as I did at the outset, the former Labor government for its role in establishing the campuses in Victoria. I also encourage the current coalition government to continue to maintain these campuses and look for opportunities to expand them in the future. We need to expand the opportunities for more students from the state school system to participate in a program such as this. From an education perspective it is a clear winner. In terms of investing in our future leaders it is a clear winner. From a regional development and economic perspective it is also a clear winner.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak about this program, which I believe has great potential to be expanded throughout Australia in the years ahead. I will be writing formally to the minister and inviting him to come down to Marlo and experience everything the School for Student Leadership has to offer. And I encourage the minister, if he takes up that opportunity, to appreciate what a great investment this is in our greatest asset, and that is our young men and women of Australia.