Aus­tralia’s ru­ral uni­ver­si­ties ‘add value’ of A$1.7bn

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - john.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Aus­tralia’s re­gional uni­ver­si­ties have crunched the num­bers on their own eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion as they crank up a cam­paign to make the gov­ern­ment think more strate­gi­cally about non-met­ro­pol­i­tan ed­u­ca­tion ahead of the fed­eral bud­get.

Mod­el­ling com­mis­sioned by the Re­gional Uni­ver­si­ties Net­work has con­cluded that its six mem­ber in­sti­tu­tions add A$1.7 bil­lion (£920 mil­lion) to the value of the goods and ser­vices pro­duced in their re­gions. They are also big spenders, in­ject­ing A$1.6 bil­lion into their com­mu­ni­ties while their stu­dents shell out an ad­di­tional A$480 mil­lion.

The fig­ures were com­piled by con­sul­tants Nous Group and the Cen­tre of Pol­icy Stud­ies at Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity in Mel­bourne. The researchers also found that about seven out of 10 em­ployed RUN grad­u­ates worked in re­gional Aus­tralia, com­pared with 23 per cent of stu­dents from the coun­try’s other uni­ver­si­ties.

Greg Hill, RUN chair­man, said that the find­ings un­der­lined the role of re­gional uni­ver­si­ties in over­com­ing lo­cal skill short­ages and nur­tur­ing pop­u­la­tion growth. “Pro­vid­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties and cour­ses for stu­dents in the re­gions will grow re­gional economies,” said Pro­fes­sor Hill, who leads the Uni­ver­sity of the Sun­shine Coast.

The mod­el­ling has emerged as re­gional uni­ver­si­ties con­front an in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain future. They say that they have been dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt by a freeze on uni­ver­sity teach­ing grants, im­posed just be­fore Christ­mas, be­cause they are more re­liant than met­ro­pol­i­tan uni­ver­si­ties on gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

The freeze in ef­fect ended Aus­tralia’s de­mand-driven higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem well be­fore de­mand had been soaked up in the re­gions. “We still have only half the uni­ver­sity at­tain­ment rate com­pared with ma­jor cities,” said Caro­line Perkins, RUN ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

While the gov­ern­ment has stressed that it will not re­voke the freeze, RUN wants to help shape the per­for­mance met­rics ex­pected to guide the al­lo­ca­tion of teach­ing grants when fund­ing growth re­sumes in 2020.

Dr Perkins (pic­tured above) said that the met­rics were ex­pected to in­clude fac­tors such as com­ple­tion rates and em­ploy­ment out­comes. “We would like the mea­sures to take into ac­count the broader contributions to the re­gion,” she said, adding that tra­di­tional in­di­ca­tors such as at­tri­tion rates could fur­ther dis­ad­van­tage re­gional uni­ver­si­ties where non-com­ple­tion was rel­a­tively high. “We’re deal­ing with a lot of first-in-fam­ily stu­dents with fi­nan­cial is­sues.”

RUN also sup­ports calls for a strat­egy for re­gional higher ed­u­ca­tion – an idea re­cently backed by for­mer ed­u­ca­tion bu­reau­crat John Halsey, who was com­mis­sioned by

the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to re­view re­gional and re­mote ed­u­ca­tion.

While the gov­ern­ment has not for­mally re­sponded to Dr Halsey’s 11 rec­om­men­da­tions, there is spec­u­la­tion that it may do so in the fed­eral bud­get on 8 May. In­de­pen­dent MP Cathy McGowan has also pro­posed a re­gional higher ed­u­ca­tion strat­egy in a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill.

Aus­tralia’s re­cently ap­pointed deputy prime min­is­ter, Michael McCor­mack, also fo­cused at­ten­tion on re­gional ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion in an April ad­dress to the Na­tional Press Club in Can­berra.

“Re­search shows that if you train some­one lo­cally, chances are their skills – as a teacher, an accountant, a cabi­net-maker, you name it – will stay lo­cal,” he said.

Mr McCor­mack’s re­marks gave heart to Charles Sturt and La Trobe uni­ver­si­ties, which jointly pro­pose a ru­rally based med­i­cal school to ease a short­age of doc­tors in the bush.

Crit­ics say that the idea is ex­pen­sive and un­nec­es­sary. Ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Med­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion, trainee doc­tors are up to five times more likely to end up work­ing in ru­ral areas if they have lengthy clin­i­cal place­ments in the re­gions.

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