House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Grievance Debate

Gippsland Electorate: Health Workforce

6:15 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, you, like me and the member for Cowper, representing regional electorates, are very familiar with the challenges in attracting a regional health workforce. The difficulty in securing doctors or specialists in regional areas is something that is well understood by all members who represent regional electorates. Gippsland is no different in that regard.

The issues that I want to raise tonight relate to the pathway for young people in Gippsland to study medicine in our community and to pursue a career within our community. My concern, which I have raised previously in the chamber, is about the way Monash University is conducting business in Gippsland. It is my fear that Monash University is actually dudding Gippsland students who want to study medicine. I will refer to some correspondence that I received from a staff member from Federation University, which exists in the Gippsland region. I will quote from the staff member's letter. It reads:

We once had a perfectly adequate system in Gippsland. When the campus of Federation University was part of Monash University we had students who completed their Bachelor of Science, specialising in biomedical sciences, who gained entry into the Monash post-graduate medical degree. When Monash University withdrew from tertiary education in Gippsland, they retained the medical school, and Monash University has since changed the eligibility criteria for entry into the medical degree, stipulating that students must do an undergraduate degree at a Melbourne campus of Monash University.

That means that any student from Gippsland who has a desire to study medicine and has the capacity to achieve a good score in their VCE can't study medicine in our community. They need to first move away for three years to attend the Clayton campus of Monash University and then potentially return at some later date to go to the Churchill campus. I think Monash is doing an enormous disservice to the people of Gippsland. There is a biomedical degree at the Federation University Churchill campus which students are studying right now, but those students cannot, at the end of that degree, transfer to the Monash medical degree.

Last week I had the chance to have a cup of coffee with two of those students, and to say they are furious would be an understatement. These are young country kids with the capacity to study medicine who want to return to our regional areas, where we know there's a workforce shortage for the health professions. They wrote to me earlier this year, and I will quote from their letter as well. They wrote:

We are writing to you as a group of Federation University students to express our concern and disappointment at the current lack of a pathway to access the Monash University graduate entry medical degree.

They go on to say:

The Monash degree is largely a Gippsland based degree. The entire first year is run by Monash on the Federation University campus. Following the first year of pre-clinical studies, much of the clinical placement in subsequent years is hosted by Gippsland health providers.

So get this: Gippsland health providers are providing the clinical placements and the Gippsland students can't study at the Federation University campus and transfer across to the Monash degree without, of course, spending three years in Clayton.

This is a problem on many fronts. Firstly, we are creating another barrier to country kids. Keep in mind, Gippsland has the second-worst university participation rate in Victoria. So there is a barrier to the students. Secondly, we are creating a cost barrier for their parents. The cost of sending your child away to attend university is in the order of an extra $20,000 for living-away-from-home costs. If students had the capacity to stay in the Latrobe Valley and maybe stay in their own family home rather than relocate to Clayton, there would be a direct injection of more resources into our local economy. Thirdly, we are also breaking the students' association with their regional communities. Once they move to Melbourne, for whatever reason—they may end up finding they enjoy city life or maybe they are in relationships with people who come from the city—and they've broken that association with those regional towns in the first place, they are then less likely to return to their regional communities.

The students go on in the letter:

We consider it grossly unfair that students choosing to do their undergraduate degree at a regional university are excluded from their local medical school.

This is what's particularly offensive to the students. This is a school that was created for the very purpose of getting more regional students to study medicine and then return to those regional communities. It was the former coalition government that funded this school at the Churchill campus in, I think, 2006.

The students go on to say:

We have demonstrated commitment to this region by choosing to stay in our region or to move to this region to gain a tertiary education. It is people like us who are most likely to commit to medical practice in regional and rural Australia. The current requirement for people from Gippsland and other regional areas of Victoria to spend three years in Melbourne to attend university in the hope of gaining entry into a medical degree is likely to decrease the likelihood of these people practising medicine in rural areas after graduation. We acknowledge that our entry would be dependent on high academic achievement at Federation University and are not seeking a guaranteed entry. All we seek is fair and reasonable access to a regionally focused medical degree—our regional medical degree.

It's signed by 20 or so students.

I'll go back to where I started. We have a shortage of health professionals in regional areas. We know that students who come from regional backgrounds, or who do their clinical placement in regional areas, are more likely to return to those regional areas in the future. Here we have Monash University, a big city university, treating Gippslanders like their poor cousins. They're splitting students and denying them a pathway into the school that was created by the federal government for the very purpose of attracting regional students into medicine. I say to Monash University: either commit to Gippsland or get out of the way and let another university that's prepared to invest in regional students take it on. If we are the orphans of this big city university, and they don't really want this regional campus, then tell us, get out and let another university take over—perhaps even Federation University. Let it take over the school and get on with the job of educating regional students to practise in our regional areas, if that's their desire.

Mr Deputy Speaker McVeigh, you can probably sense that I'm frustrated by the behaviour of Monash University. I've had correspondence with Monash in the past. I won't go through every aspect of the letters they've sent to me but it's fair to say that some aspects of the correspondence they've sent to me would be—I will be kind—factually incorrect.

Then there is a separate but related matter in relation to the Monash University Bairnsdale medical school teaching program. It's related in the sense that we are trying to attract health professionals to regional areas by giving them the opportunity to do their learning in Bairnsdale, and in the sense that we know that the students who undertake those placements in a place like Bairnsdale are more likely to return there in the future. I've had concerns presented to me from local health professionals in the East Gippsland community, from the hospital itself, about how Monash is approaching that program as well. Monash has apparently advised the Minister for Rural Health that the proposed changes have been well received by students and staff alike, with the university committed to an ongoing presence in the Bairnsdale community. As much as I would suggest that some of the letters I've received from Monash are factually incorrect, I think Monash is misleading the minister as well. The doctors, students and hospital board members I've spoken to are not happy with Monash's approach to the Bairnsdale community. One doctor wrote to me:

Your letter states—

This is the Monash letter—

that there will be no change to the current funding model or reduction of commitment to the Bairnsdale community with respect to medical training or any change in funding to support the existing local staff.

This is actually untrue. The number of year 4 students involved in the Bairnsdale program for 2019 has already been reduced from 10 to six. The students will be spending only one semester in the region rather than the whole year, and they will have less involvement in local hospitals because of the change in the model of the curriculum delivery. Staff members who have lost their jobs have contacted me and said they've lost their jobs, so someone's not telling the truth. I've got to say: my local community is becoming increasingly angered and frustrated by the behaviour of Monash University not just in Churchill and Latrobe Valley but also right throughout East Gippsland.

My challenge here this evening is to Monash University itself: either make a long-term commitment to the training of medical students in the Gippsland region or leave the region altogether. This gradual withdrawal from the region is harming student pathways and threatening some successful community partnerships which have been built up for the best part of 20 years. I've been approached, as I've said, by local doctors and community members who've expressed a strong concern about the reduction in local training opportunities for students from the Monash Gippsland medical school. Students are simply begging us to have the opportunity to stay in their own homes, to study, to fulfil their ambitions, to become a doctor and to practice in regional areas like Gippsland. My request is pretty simple: Monash University, get serious, or get out.