This week kicked off with two days of hearings for the inquiry into the future development of the New South Wales tertiary education sector. The inquiry is examining the existing state of tertiary education in NSW and the key factors that should drive future development of the sector.

On the first day of hearings on Monday 7 September, the committee heard evidence from senior leaders from eight universities in NSW with campuses across Greater Sydney as well as in rural and regional NSW. Tuesday’s witnesses included an academic speaking on the experiences of international students, and representatives of a private college, unions, organisations supporting rural and regional education, and the NSW Department of Education.

Both hearings were held in a hybrid format, with social distancing in Parliament House and videoconferencing. Some committee members and witnesses participated virtually. Witnesses dialled in from South Australia, Queensland, and regional NSW. Public health measures also meant that Sydney-based witnesses dialled in if they were experiencing even mild cold or flu symptoms.

A key theme from the hearings was the purposes of a university. Witnesses presented different interpretations of what universities’ priorities should be: research, teaching, promoting an export service, and/or community and regional development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the tertiary education sector so the committee wanted to understand how universities and other tertiary education providers have responded. The committee heard evidence on living conditions for international students. Members also raised questions about job insecurity in light of the apparent increase in casual and short-term contracts for university staff and academics.

The unique challenges and opportunities for tertiary education in rural and regional NSW were addressed by many of the inquiry’s witnesses, particularly Charles Sturt University, the University of New England, the Country Universities Centre (CUC) and the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA). Before this week’s hearings, the committee visited the CUC in Goulburn to tour its facilities, and on 17 August members received a presentation and virtual tour from the CUC Far West team in Broken Hill.

On behalf of the committee, we thank everyone who made a submission to the inquiry. The committee will now consider the evidence gathered and report on its findings by 30 November 2020.