Tertiary education sector

In Parliament - Thursday, 30 July 2015

Mr DULUK (Davenport) (15:22:11): The revelation last week that the state government was secretly planning to merge South Australia's universities and TAFE system was disturbing, to say the least. The fact that this government was considering amalgamating the third-oldest university in the country and my alma mater, the University of Adelaide, with University of South Australia was reckless and short-sighted in the extreme.

The vice-chancellors of Adelaide and UniSA do not want this to go through. The bulk of educational experts in the city do not want this to go through, and I bet most students do not want this to happen either. More disturbing, however, was the fact that the documents which were released under freedom of information have revealed that the Premier's office sought to shield the media on this issue in March.If the Premier thinks these amalgamation plans would be good for the sector, why does he want them hidden from the public? I call on the Premier to be up-front and honest with the people of South Australia on this issue. Since none of the vice-chancellors support these plans, the Premier must confirm, beyond any doubt, that these plans are well and truly dead and buried, as minister Gago has said. We do not want to be in a position in 12 months' time where we see this idea of the merging of our universities and TAFE system revived.

The reason why I oppose these plans is that Adelaide Uni has spent well over 140 years building its reputation as a centre of learning and excellence, and as a result of this hard work, is ranked in the top 1 per cent of universities in the world. It would be, as many others have pointed out, including the federal education minister, sheer lunacy to lose South Australia's only top 100 university overnight by forced amalgamation.

While university rankings are not perfect and do not measure everything, they do count for a lot in public perception. If we wish South Australia to become a hub of international students, we must do all we can to preserve, protect and promote our universities' reputations around the world. International students are unwilling to expend tens of thousands of dollars on an institution which has a poor reputation.

Higher education is one of our most important exports and the growing professionalisation of the workforce will only increase the need for our tertiary institutions to be able to cater for greater numbers at the highest educational standards. I would like to quote what Flinders University said about the merger proposal because I believe that hit the nail on the head, and I quote:

There is room in South Australia for three strong, distinctly different universities and TAFE . Flinders is confident about its position as South Australia's fastest growing university and remains focused on that competitive strategic agenda.

Flinders University, which has one of the most beautiful locations for a higher education facility in the country, which I am also lucky enough to have in my electorate, has a well-justified reputation for its teaching and research. The proposed merger of Flinders and TAFE demonstrates that this government does not understand the different purposes and functions of the two institutions.

Flinders is a higher education and research facility. Its purpose is to provide professional standard degrees to undergraduates and postgraduates so they can be leaders in their respective fields. TAFE on the other hand is a far more hands-on and practical institution, which is meant to focus on providing those skills which are needed in many vital and important day-to-day occupations. However, under this tired Labor government we have seen TAFE and the VET sector suffer. TAFE has not been keeping up with what students want and, as a result, students have been voting with their feet. In many respects, TAFE is stuck in a time warp and some of their certificates offered today are barely worth the paper they are printed on for many employers, unfortunately.

The up-front cost of attending TAFE is prohibitive for many of the people who need TAFE training the most, and the 500 jobs cut at TAFE are a direct result of poor and neglectful management by this government. We have seen massive state government funding cuts from the TAFE music program at Noarlunga without a peep of complaint from the members for Kaurna, Reynell and Fisher. TAFE could be so much better than it is today if the government had focused on this great institution and its competencies. The chopping and changing between the Skills for All program being scrapped and the new WorkReady program has resulted in much uncertainty for the sector.

As I have always said, South Australia deserves to meet or exceed Australia's best practice. South Australia needs a government which looks after our higher education sector and does not engage in secret plans to damage our universities' reputations.