Pastoral care gives regionals the edge
Universities outside big cities benefit from close connections to land and community, writes Sandra Harding
CONTRARY to the belief in some quarters, not all the top- flight research is being performed in Group of Eight universities, or even the capital cities. In the sticks, Australia’s regional universities, benefiting from their smaller size and country locations, are producing top- class work.
As Helene Marsh, dean of graduate research studies and researcher at James Cook University, puts it: ‘‘ It’s about place.’’
Place is a defining feature of the research endeavour of country universities.
The power of place, an intensity explained by the deeply personal connection between researchers, universities and their communities, a critical mass of community interest and support and human scale, drives this high- quality, highimpact research.
They may differ in their history, their intent and plans for the future, and in their research capacity and focus, but all regional universities have a commitment to their region.
In many cases they are the only university in the region. Their smaller size compared to the city- based comprehensives is a virtue as well as a resourcing challenge. They are universities on a human scale.
A recent Melbourne Institute report revealed that doctoral students at some of these universities are among the most satisfied with their educational experience, while students at Go8 universities were less satisfied.
That is not surprising given the smaller numbers of doctoral students in regional universities and the personal attention they receive as a result.
The power of place, coupled with human scale, delivers an acute awareness of and a drive to address key issues — environmental, social, economic, health- related, industrial — relevant to a particular location and beyond.
For regional researchers, location is not only the laboratory, it is their home. They care about the issues of their communities while still speaking to the issues exercising particular international scholarly communities.
The University of Southern Queensland is developing technologies such as image analysis systems that are being used for species identification of animals, weed identification, yield and condition monitoring of plants and crops and water monitoring. And their work on engineered fibre composites has resulted in the development of new materials used in bridge building in Australia, Russia and the US.
Researchers at Southern Cross University are using molecular biology techniques to find valuable genes in Australian wild seed crops, focusing on resilience and quality traits, including drought resistance and yield.
Other work has resulted in the discovery of the genes associated with fragrance in rice, holding in prospect new fragrant varieties of other cereal crops.
At Charles Sturt University an agricultural technology has been developed that controls weeds, reduces chemical use and provides for more efficient seeding with less tractor fuel use as well as reduced soil erosion.
Other CSU researchers working on water and salt balances for irrigation areas along the Murrumbidgee River have identified and quantified a wide range of savings through reducing losses in the water delivery system and on- farm water management.
University of the Sunshine Coast researchers are working on the identification of native hardwood hybrids suitable for sustainable wood production on marginal agricultural lands. Working with researchers from the University of Iowa, USC researchers are working on the human health implications of equine influenza.
The University of New England, in collaboration with the NSW Government, has developed an advanced genetic evaluation for beef cattle called Breedplan.
Breedplan has been commercialised and is estimated to have a net present value to the industry of several hundred millions dollars; it is already used in 14 countries.
Central Queensland University’s attention to railway engineering has resulted in the development of electronic control braking for freight trains, delivering an estimated 50 per cent saving on current technology brake fit- out.
Researchers at CQU are also involved in solving problems associated with mining waste water and developing 3D imaging capability that helps maintenance engineers identify the cause of cracked or corroded equipment, such as pipes and drive shafts.
Charles Darwin University researchers have developed techniques to use weaver ants as biological control agents for tropical tree crops.
This system has been adopted in northern Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Sri Lanka, resulting in higher profits, better fruit and the eradication of residue on the fruit or in the environment.
At JCU, along with our focus on coral reef ecology and marine biology, researchers work on a variety of problems associated with the tropical world.
Environment, water, tropical agriculture and animal husbandry, aquaculture, research related to resident mining and metalliferous industries, tourism, biosecurity and zoonoses, issues related to tropical health and medicine, such as dengue fever and filariasis, occupy researchers.
JCU’s Cyclone Testing Station, born of cyclones Althea and Tracy in the 1970s, has defined related building codes and practices in Australia. These projects and many others across the disciplines are funded externally, often through nationally competitive grants and often in partnership with local entities, and they are effective as well.
Of course, some research in regions is undertaken by city researchers. It involves field trips, fly- in, fly- out activities where specimens and/ or data are gathered, observations made, measurements taken, and then it’s back to a city- based laboratory or office, to city- based colleagues, classes and students, to city- based lives until the next foray.
There the talk is about a critical mass of researchers, better financing, greater aggregate levels of research funding, hub and spokes models and the concentration of industry in metropolitan areas.
But the intensity, the everyday connectedness and impact — the power of place — is missing from their endeavours.
It cannot be there because the interest and support from a local community is absent, the personal nature of the problem and potential solutions and the multi- dimensional institutional commitment to the community are impossible when researchers remove themselves from the community.