Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Following claims of delays and threats to end the UNE Tamworth Campus project at the Tamworth State of the City event, multiple moves have been made to assert the project is still on track, while controversy and fears about the project linger.

Both Tamworth Regional Council Mayor Russell Webb and General Manager Paul Bennett expressed their frustrations with the UNE Tamworth Campus project at the State of the City Event last week, with Mr Bennett warning they won’t hesitate to take their business elsewhere if they don’t see progress.

“I think all of the councillors agree, if we don’t see action, then we will reconsider our position around which universities we want to deal with moving forward,” he said.

Mr Bennett named the University of Newcastle in his comments, asserting council has a “strong relationship” with them. However, the University of Newcastle has repeatedly asserted they have no plans for a campus in Tamworth. Vice Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, Professor Alex Zelinksi, says the University of Newcastle has had a long association with the Tamworth community and they are are proud to educate and work within the region.

“The University provides high quality clinical training for more than a hundred students a year through the Tamworth Education Centre.”

“Work is currently underway for a 30-bed expansion of student accommodation on the Tamworth Education site.”

“The University is also actively collaborating with industry stakeholders in the region and is keen to support research and workforce development,” Professor Zelinski said.

Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson and the so-called Tamworth University Reference Group met with UNE Director of Regional Development David Miron after the State of the City event for reassurance that the “University for Tamworth” development was on track, with construction to begin in 2024.

The property developer who has been pushing the concept of the university campus in Tamworth since the early days, Mitch Hanlon, leads the self-appointed reference group. It is understood there are only two other regular members: accountant Stephen Maher, and real estate agent Richard Thornton. Hanlon and Maher have both run unsuccessfully for Tamworth Regional Council.

“We cannot progress as a region until we get this important piece of social infrastructure up and running,” Mr Hanlon said.

“We have friends with students in year 9 whose parents are asking can my child attend UNE Tamworth and the answer is yes they will.”

We want it. Because we want it.

The proposal for a UNE Campus in Tamworth did not come from the university. According to a statement from UNE, the University was approached by the NSW Government, who had been lobbied by the Mr Hanlon and other Tamworth figures.

“In 2018 UNE and a number of other universities were invited by State government (Department of Premier and Cabinet) to make an application for funding for a University presence in Tamworth.

“The business and wider community in Tamworth via the Tamworth University Reference Group were key drivers in lobbying Government to make funds available for a university presence in Tamworth.

“Tamworth is an important growth area for the New England North West, and UNE welcomed the opportunity to work with stakeholders to make the application to the NSW Government’s Growing Local Economies Fund, which was successfully granted in March 2022,” the statement said.

The university leadership at the time initially resisted the call for a Tamworth campus, saying that students in the region were well supported through the study centre in Peel Street. The vast majority of UNE courses are taught online and, unsurprisingly for a university that has always specialised in distance education, only approximately 1800 of the university’s 25,000 students were studying on campus in Armidale before the pandemic. (There was a slight drop in both internal and external student numbers in Covid-19 lockdown years.) For this reason the proposal has always struck many in the UNE community as odd, driven by some motivation other than teaching and supporting students.

Certainly, the claims of 3000 students studying at the Tamworth campus seem disconnected from reality, and raised fears of losing the entire university, Armidale’s most significant asset, to the rival city.

It is not clear what event or evidence resulted in the about-face from UNE’s leadership in 2018. The matter was not noted in the minutes of any of the open UNE Council meetings in that year, although one source claims it was discussed many times at the highest levels. In their statement, UNE said Council discussions on the proposal were “commercial in confidence”.

From Tamworth, the motivation is that they want a university, because they want a university. After the council vote to enter a memorandum of understanding with UNE for the Tamworth campus, then Tamworth Mayor – and now member of UNE Council – Col Murray stated the simplicity of that motivation clearly.

“We have been wanting to see a university in Tamworth for as long as I can remember.”

Mr Hanlon similarly spelled out the simple motivation himself in a LinkedIn post in 2018. He made it clear that he wanted the project to be the corner stone of a redevelopment of Peel Street, a boost to Tamworth business, and a blatant ploy to try and keep Tamworth kids in Tamworth.

“Why should we suffer to prop up Armidale?” he wrote.

At what cost?

The bitter rivalry between Armidale and Tamworth is not a surprise to any local. But the extent to which Mr Hanlon, Mr Murray, and others are willing to go to in order to get a university campus is rightly causing alarm in some quarters.

As one UNE insider put it: “We have already seen what happens when UNE gets dragged through ICAC… and we’ve never recovered from what the last developer [former Chancellor John Cassidy] did to us.”

“These guys don’t care, they just want to be able to say they have a university in Tamworth.”

ICAC said they are unable to confirm or deny if they have received any complaints or made any inquiries about the UNE Tamworth Campus, but there is no current formal investigation into the project. The New England Times has seen correspondence between one former staff member and ICAC about the legitimacy of the project, with ICAC responding that the complainant would need to produce some evidence of corruption for them to investigate.

Separate correspondence from 2019 with the then Vice Chancellor of UNE, Annabelle Duncan, has also been sighted, in which she denied there was anything untoward in the university’s consideration of the proposal.

Tamworth has also paid dearly in the pursuit of a university campus. The council ‘donated’ the old velodrome site at the end of Peel Street, worth $3m. To do so, they dumped a $50m development of the site that was to contribute $17m to the Northern Inland Sporting Centre of Excellence. And, despite Mitch Hanlon’s repeated insistence that the campus must be on Peel Street, former UNE Vice Chancellor Brigid Heywood said in August 2021 that the old velodrome site was unlikely to be used for teaching, but might be used for student accomodation or some other purpose.

The level of support in Tamworth is debatable. Despite 5 years of campaigning, less than 1000 people follow the ‘Tamworth Campus’ Facebook page run by Mr Hanlon. Tamworth locals commented early on that the push for a Tamworth campus a waste of time or ‘lost cause’ as “Armidale is just up the road“. Many have not been appreciative of Mr Hanlon’s hyperbole, regularly denigrating Tamworth for not having a university, using terms like “embarrassing“. And the city missed out on federal funding for a regional university centre focused on distance learning because of the insistence that Tamworth must have a full campus.

The New England Times has also been informed that staff at UNE have felt bullied by proponents of the proposal, and in a separate claim, that there may have been an inappropriate donation to the university to ensure the Tamworth Campus proposal was supported. UNE was asked if there were any bullying complaints and about the alleged donation but did not answer those questions in their provided statement. Tamworth Regional Council was also asked if they had any bullying complaints in relation to the campus proposal but did not respond by deadline.

UNE’s track record with secondary campuses

The University of New England has a very poor track record when it comes to developing campuses away from Armidale.

While it maintains a network of study centres – including a significant one in Tamworth that has been there for decades – all attempts to develop a full secondary campus or a network of campuses have been fraught.

The most spectacular failure was the ‘network’ restructure in 1989, which saw the addition of the Northern Rivers campus in Lismore, and the Coffs Harbour Centre, which became the campuses of Southern Cross University in 1993 when the network idea was abandoned. The Orange Agricultural College was at one point also part of the failed network. Added to UNE in 1990, it switched to Sydney University in 1994, and is now part of Charles Sturt University.

When the University of New England was reformed as a single campus institution in 1994 the finances were in a perilous state. Then Chancellor Pat O’Shane and Vice Chancellor Bruce Thom led deep cost-cutting measures across the university. The financial situation was not improved by another failed campus attempt in 1995, this time an attempt to establish a joint educational venture in Turkey. Thom’s tenure was short, replaced by the fondly-remembered Ingrid Moses, who righted the books and established a stable and transparent administration. Moses also established the regional study centres throughout the region, including the centre in Tamworth.

The more recent moves to establish a presence in Sydney have also been largely unsuccessful. The name of the campus in Parramatta, established in 2013, has changed from the UNE Future Campus to UNE Sydney to UNE Metro, but insiders say renaming is not enough to address the deep structural issues of the ‘campus’ being too small, with few classes being offered on site.

Similar concerns have been flagged for the Tamworth campus which, according to the glossy brochures, will take until 2031 to graduate 450 students, and the majority of students will be embedded in industry centres. While some of the individual industry centres, such as the proposed music business centre, may be highly successful, there will never be enough students or academics at the proposed Tamworth site to create the campus culture essential for the proposed campus to thrive.

What’s next for the Tamworth Campus?

While the ‘first sod’ was turned on the project nearly a year ago as a political stunt, an architect has not yet been chosen for the multi-million dollar project to be constructed on the old velodrome site. The last project update, dated 16 August 2022, said the project was “entering the design phase”.

Recent comments from UNE Director of Regional Development David Miron says progress was being made with the next steps being that the architect was about to be signed up with the plans due for release later this year.

“Community and user groups will be consulted on the design of the building and then the tender process will begin for the builder later this year,” Mr Miron said.

“Construction will begin in May 2024 and will take 16 months to build.

“In the meantime, the Peel House UNE study centre in Fitzroy Street Tamworth will continue to operate.

“The University is currently in consultation about the various courses that will be run,” he said.

The progress of the proposed campus is also likely to be hampered by the transition to a new vice chancellor at UNE. However slowly the project progresses, its very existence will continue to be controversial in both cities.

Top image: Tamworth Mayor Russell Webb (left), Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson, and former Vice Chancellor of UNE Brigid Heywood, “turning the first sod” on the Tamworth campus project in March 2022.

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