Private Members' Business - Higher Education

MS BIRD (CUNNINGHAM) (19:03): I thank the member for Indi for bringing this matter before the parliament. She very accurately reflects the fact that, for regional areas, the presence and activities of our universities are very significant to us. In my own area, the University of Wollongong is a world-class provider of education and research, and that is critically important. But, just as importantly to us as a region, it's also a major employer—in fact, it's one of the top five employers in our region now. It's a place of a significant number of small businesses, in terms of the sorts of facilities that are provided there. It's a partner with many other industries and businesses in developing emerging opportunities in our region to make sure that innovation and new opportunities are grasped across the region.

That's reflected in the fact the university produced a report called Leading locally, competing globally: measuring the University of Wollongong's contribution to economic and social prosperity. This was a review of the 2015 year and a look at how the university contributed to the local and, indeed, national economic effort. Interestingly, that report showed that the total direct, indirect and induced economic contribution to GDP in 2015 by the university was $1.2 billion. The direct contribution to the Illawarra, in value-added terms, was $573 million. That was an increase of 7.7 per cent since it was last looked at in 2011. So the member for Indi is absolutely accurate when she talks about the fact that our regional universities are major drivers of economic activity in our regions. That's why we're so passionate about seeing them continue to prosper and grow.

I will just give a few examples from that report about the sorts of activities the university contributes to which are transforming our region and driving a significant economic transformation in the Illawarra. In particular, the $600 million Innovation Campus is an award-winning research, innovation and commercial precinct. It has a number of research entities there. These institutions work across things like intelligent, innovative materials, regenerating damaged human nerves, the development of superconductors to make energy transmission more efficient, new techniques for sustainable building design and areas of maritime law and security. Several multinational and national companies are resident at that campus, strongly engaged with the university, such as NEC Australia and TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. About 1,500 people work just at that campus, and the employment is expected to pass 5,000 in the next five to 10 years.

The university also works through the iAccelerate Centre to set up new businesses. It's an incubator program, the first of its kind in Australia, putting together mentoring and education programs. Already it has supported 65 start-up companies, creating 143 jobs. Nine companies have had new product launches, and six companies have expanded their international presence. Really importantly to me, 47 per cent of the start-up companies have female co-founders. In the innovation and start-up sector, that is a pretty amazing outcome which the university have specifically worked to achieve.

They're also working with our existing industry sectors to help them become more innovative and to have a future. The innovative manufacturers in the regions have joined with the university researchers to form the Southern Manufacturing Innovation Group, which is 13 Illawarra based manufacturers. It's using innovation by collaborating between the businesses and the university researchers. It is a great initiative.

I'm pleased to report that steel is also still going strong. Of course, the original BHP, now BlueScope, was a very significant founder of the university. There are still research hubs operating between the university and BlueScope in order to develop pathways to get new products to market. The member for Indi is absolutely right: the government needs to understand the significance of our regional universities and to back them.