Question: Deakin campus in Warrnambool

Mr PURCELL (Western Victoria) — My question is addressed to the Minister for Training and Skills, Minister Herbert. The minister is all too aware of the predicament in Deakin University's intention to pull out of its Warrnambool campus and has been very supportive of the efforts to retain a campus in Warrnambool. We now need $15 million from the federal government to secure a commitment from Federation University Australia to take over the campus. The 2017 university courses must be set within the next month, so the urgency to secure the funding is now critical, with the likelihood the federal government will be entering caretaker mode in the next few weeks. I ask the minister: has he had any further discussion with the federal government to secure the $15 million necessary to ensure the Warrnambool campus remains open?

Mr HERBERT (Minister for Training and Skills) — I thank Mr Purcell for his question and his commitment to this cause. I just note that I have had a number of formal deputations from and discussions with Mr Purcell, and I have had a meeting with the federal member, Mr Tehan, for that area, who are both genuinely seeking a solution to the issue of Deakin investigating options for the future of the Warrnambool campus and its telegraph that it will withdraw. From the Victorian government's perspective, it is absolutely committed to continued tertiary education at the Warrnambool campus and in the south-west, and its preferred option is that Deakin stay there. It is an important campus; it is important for the area. It is a beautiful campus actually, it is a very nice campus, and it strengthens the whole education provision.

On education provision, incidentally, we have just tabled today the report of South West TAFE, which works with Deakin, and we have seen quite a substantial turnaround in its finances and a growth in its staffing numbers of a considerable number. So there is not all bad news for post-school education in Warrnambool. But on this particular matter, I did seek to have a telephone hook-up with the minister a week or so ago, and that was cancelled because of obviously other things happening in federal Parliament at the time. My chief of staff has met, at a staff-to-staff level, with staff in Senator Birmingham's area. And I have raised this issue in private discussions at the Council of Australian Governments Industry and Skills Council meeting — the meeting of training and skills ministers.

In regard to the specific point, my understanding is this: that Deakin has had losses substantially over each year, financial losses, and declining numbers of students and that a proposition is well advanced with Federation University to take over the operation of the campus and grow delivery and grow course offerings in the region. However, the issue of sustaining the losses is important to them. I understand that at Deakin there is not an issue about the property. I understand that the current load in education and health is not an issue, that Deakin has committed resources, substantial resources, to the proposition and that it awaits the federal government's response to a request for $15 million over five years basically for contingency funding should the numbers not meet that to underpin the Federation University investment.

It is very small money for a significant project like this when we compare it with what has happened in other states. When I could not talk directly with Senator Birmingham — and this is no reflection on him, I must say — I wrote to him substantially again, a week or so ago, wherein I reiterated the Victorian government's commitment. I have urged him to consider the request for co-contribution funding over the same five-year period to ensure growth in the campus can occur. The purpose of that would be transitional, to help Federation Uni should there be some transitional losses over that five-year period. I have also written in regard to Berwick on this matter. I have not received a reply, but I agree entirely with the member that time is running out and that this does need to be resolved. It is a reasonable request, given that Deakin is putting money, assets and support on the table. I know it is an issue that Mr Tehan is also concerned about, and we really do need an answer. I would urge Senator Birmingham to conclude his deliberations as soon as possible on this.

Mr PURCELL (Western Victoria) — I thank the minister for his reply. If the federal government goes into caretaker mode prior to providing funding, whatever the funding may well be, will the minister advocate on behalf of the university to get Deakin to take a 2017 intake, which will allow it to continue if it does take that 2017 intake?

Mr HERBERT (Minister for Training and Skills) — I thank Mr Purcell for his supplementary question. Can I just begin the answer by reiterating that of course the state government has a limited role in running universities, which are self-governing bodies — I guess I do appoint some people to the boards, but that is about it — and are primarily the funding responsibility of the commonwealth. That is why there is such a pressure on Senator Birmingham to resolve this issue, and we will help in every way we can.

In regard to the actual question, yes, of course I will advocate — absolutely. I would hope and expect that Deakin, which is a fine university — one of the best newer universities in the country, which is doing very well in other areas, I must say, and I would advocate for it — will take its responsibility to the people of the south-west seriously, will not just jump out if there is no solution or other provider and will continue operating there until it can be resolved. No-one wants to see this campus closed, or closed without any sort of other organisation — acceptable organisation — taking it over. So I would be happy to advocate, should that be the case. I hope it will not be.