Second Reading debate – Melbourne College of Divinity Amendment Bill 2016

It pleases me to speak on the Melbourne College of Divinity Amendment Bill 2016. The main purpose of this bill is to amend the Melbourne College of Divinity Act 1910 to change the title from the Melbourne College of Divinity Act 1910 to the University of Divinity Act 1910 — so it is basically a name change — to make other changes to reflect the University of Divinity’s title, operation and status as a university and to make various transitional and consequential amendments.

The Melbourne College of Divinity, as a self-accredited higher education provider since 1910 — as I said with regard to when the act came into being — was created at the request of a group of Victoria’s churches to provide for the award of degrees, diplomas and certificates in divinity and associated disciplines. The college was significantly enlarged in 1972 with the inclusion of the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of Christ and the adoption of the collegiate structure of the delivery of its awards. The Melbourne College of Divinity is a private university, and it accredits other colleges to deliver its degrees — eight denominations in all. This has not been done before in Australia, but it has certainly been seen overseas.

The bill also removes the position of registrar and fellows of the college, as these positions no longer exist, and extends the appointment and terms of the chancellor and deputy chancellor from one year to a period of up to three years.

I have a strong allegiance to the study of theology. My grandfather studied theology and planned to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church but left just prior to being ordained, so my family has a very strong history of being involved in the study of theology. It is a very interesting area of study, and you can gain a lot of history and knowledge from it. However, I find it intriguing that we are here today to basically talk about a name change, and whilst I think that it is really important that the study of theology continues and the name change progresses the opportunities for this university, it is baffling to see that the highest priority of this government is to put such legislation forward.

Education, as the member for Narre Warren South spoke about, is an incredibly important part of every person’s growth. Every child, as was quoted, needs to have, no matter where they are, access to good education from primary through to secondary and right through to university level. As many members would know, we have some great universities. In my region of South-West Coast we have a university that began 25 years ago as the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education and progressed over time to become part of the Deakin group. Deakin University has a proud history in the South-West Coast region and delivers some fantastic courses.

As a nurse I know that we have been producing quality nurses in Warrnambool for many years. The university has been doing that since 1984. I think that was when the first university nurse was trained at Deakin University in the South-West Coast region. I cannot work out right now whether it was Warrnambool then; I think it might have been the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education at that point in time.

The Warrnambool Base Hospital still takes on quality nurses year in year out. This is the case for accountants as well; companies like Sinclair Wilson from Warrnambool take graduates year in and year out as well. We have a quality marine science course; we recently had our first student from Finland commence study in that course. So as the member for Narre Warren South said, it is very valuable to have equitable access to education for all children, no matter where they live. Right out to the South Australian border we need to make sure we have access.

Right now we have a real issue in South-West Coast. Deakin University is not keen to stay, but we are very keen to make sure the community is getting behind them, and it is doing exactly that. I met with a group of community members just last week to talk about how we can support Deakin to do what they do best, which is delivering quality education to all students. If you are living in Portland, 4½ hours or more from Melbourne, it is quite difficult for you to access education.

In our part of the world the quality of life is very high from the point of view of livability. You can be at the beach surfing just minutes before you have to attend class. You can be fishing, and you can be in class without any of the challenges of getting to and from the course due to traffic issues. We have incredible facilities, probably the best of all of Deakin’s campuses, with the ability to be working in what they call ‘the cloud’, so you are able to access and interact with lecturers from all over the state. I experienced this myself last week listening to a lecture and interacting, where the speaker would come to you, as in the microphone would be turned on if you spoke and the camera would flick to the person who was speaking, so the technology available is fantastic.

But it does not detract from the need to have that education facility in our region so students can actually benefit from living in their own area. Some students do not have the capacity to go to the big city of Melbourne; others do not have the ability financially to do that, so it is incredibly important. I am very pleased that the member for Narre Warren South pointed out that this government has a commitment to education, and I ask it to remember that when it comes to making sure that we support Deakin University to be able to stay and grow its numbers and allow the community the opportunity to work with it.

The community have asked me to call on Steve Herbert, the Minister for Training and Skills in the other place, to organise a meeting with John Stanhope, the chancellor of Deakin University, so that they can get a face-to-face meeting and experience and share what they can offer as a community. There are so many committed people who want to see this work.

It was interesting to hear the member for Essendon speak about the history of Cambridge and how it was important back in the 1500s that the chancellor or vice-chancellor be in residence or in the area. That is another thing that we have been speaking about in Warrnambool — how to make this work better, and that is to make sure the team who are managing the site really get a feel for South-West Coast and the opportunities there. It is very difficult to manage a campus from the city. The flexibility needed to understand the differences between people who are seeking an education in the country versus those seeking an education in the city makes it more difficult for the campus to be managed as a site, we think. So just being able to discuss the ability to manage that campus with somebody in residence in the area rather than them having to travel in and out is what our community is asking for. If we could get a meeting organised, that would be wonderful and we respectfully ask for that opportunity from the Minister for Training and Skills in the other place.

This is a great opportunity for us to think about the importance of university. The University of Divinity gives us an opportunity to remember that there is diversity and that theology is something that we should not forget about; it is important. That is why I recommend that we do not oppose this bill. However, it surprises me that this is the highest priority on the agenda of this government when we have such challenges in the regions to make sure that we make a university education available to all kids living right out in the country.