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Tuesday, 25 June 1996
Page: 2165

Senator REYNOLDS(7.20 p.m.) —In speaking on the adjournment this evening, I want to detail some representations that have been made to me by students at James Cook University. Senators will be aware that for some weeks now there has been a great deal of concern about the various options that the government may be considering on higher education in this country. While those concerns extend nationally and cover many issues of importance to all students, I have a particular feel for the issues as they affect students at regional campuses.

In my home city of Townsville there is one of the northern-most university campuses—I must not forget the Northern Territory, which has a more recent university. James Cook University has a very lengthy history as a regional university. It is very important to its regional population. It is not the only regional university in Queensland, of course. The whole concept of the future of some of these regional campuses is of great concern to all of us.

The students came to see me last week and put some of their concerns in writing. They are particularly concerned that cuts in higher education could lead to: reduced numbers of subjects within courses; reduced numbers of courses; closure of certain departments and certain campuses—for example, some senators may not be aware that it is possible to study certain subjects in Cairns and Mackay even though the university itself in based in Townsville, and this is so for other campuses of regional universities elsewhere in Queensland; cuts to academic and general staff; reduction in library and computer services; and increased lecture sizes.

As a former lecturer myself, I well know the impact of larger size classes on both students and, indeed, on staff—it is not possible to have the same rapport with students and some students do learn better in a smaller class size. So these general statements are of great concern to the students. This submission has been presented by Terri MacDonald, the James Cook University union president. In her final comment she says:

Education is too important a sector of society to be hacked off at random to fill a deficit. If the quality of our education is poor, then so is our ability to practice in the post-academic world. It is imperative that the values of the education sector are preserved as an incentive to the improvement of Australia's workforce market.

I emphasise that these proposed budget cuts are only hypothetical at this stage but it has been enough to send a significant message of disquiet through tertiary education around the country, and nowhere more than in the regional campuses. Terri MacDonald also says:

These budget cuts do not effect only the students currently at university, but students wishing to attend university and the community at large as well. Students will not stand for this kind of treatment; we cannot afford to.

In the submission, the student union president does remind us of what the coalition's higher education policy is—or was. It states:

Universities in regional areas are important participants in the economic development of their regions.

There may not be many things in coalition policies that I agree with, but I certainly agree with that statement. It continues:

The coalition recognises that for historic reasons regional universities are poorly resourced, particularly in the area of research infrastructure.

Again, I would agree that it is always harder, notwithstanding the efforts of government to decentralise and reach out into regional areas of Australia. For historic reasons it is true that it is more difficult to get services of all kinds into regional areas. You have different needs and different size communities. It is more of a challenge for governments and their relevant bureaucracies to provide the appropriate services in regional areas. The coalition higher education policy statement continues:

The Coalition also recognises that rural and regionally based students have been historically disadvantaged in Australia's higher education sector. The role of the regional universities in improving access for such students is vitally important.

The Coalition will seek to build and strengthen regional universities in recognition of the fact that they are important in providing rural students greater access to higher education.

That entire policy statement of the coalition is commendable. You will not often hear Margaret Reynolds commending the coalition's policies, but certainly there is nothing in that policy statement that I could disagree with. That is why students and many people in regional communities are very disturbed about the prospect, and what the future holds for regional universities.

Therefore, the students at James Cook demand the coalition fulfils its promises and honours its commitment to small and regional universities. If the coalition is serious about its commitment to universities like James Cook, the upcoming federal cuts should not apply to James Cook or any other small and regional university.

I know of some of the comments that have been made by certain vice-chancellors—I know it is only natural for vice-chancellors to protect their own; that is a fact of life—but I would certainly make a plea to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) and members of the expenditure review committee that whatever decisions are being made in relation to higher education, there is a very strong case to exempt regional universities from any of the more draconian elements of funding cutbacks because those small campuses simply have not got the capacity to absorb cutbacks. I would not like to see cutbacks in any university; but I do think a special case has to be made for regional universities.