The role of the regional university
23 Sep 2010
Professor Hal Swerissen
Published in The Australian on 22 September, 2010
The wind has shifted and we are all regional now. The new minority Gillard government depends on regional interests for its survival and the agreement between the Australian Labor Party and the independent members of the House of Representatives, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott establishes commitments that need to be met if the new government is to last. We have Simon Crean as the new Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government to oversee these arrangements and make them happen. They include a stronger focus on regional policy development, enhanced regional infrastructure, particularly through the National Broadband Network, improved services in health and education, greater recognition of local government and more support for regional industry, particularly agriculture.
To date the main focus of the debate about regional universities and higher education post the Bradley Report, has been on what to do about the significantly lower participation of regional populations in higher education. This is a real issue. Participation rates are generally a third lower. Rightly, targets to improve participation have been set and universities need to ensure 20% of their students are from traditionally under represented populations like regional Australia. But increasing participation is only part of the story. Regional policy by definition is about place and community. Regional cities and communities develop their social and economic identity around place. They fight for local industry development, infrastructure and services. They promote and support local sporting, social and cultural organisations, events and activities. They expect the universities they support locally to do the same. In addition to high quality educational opportunities and increased participation, they expect universities to contribute to local economic, social and cultural development. Successful regional universities need to develop educational, industry and cultural/social partnerships with the communities they serve.
Community educational partnerships bring together the schools, TAFE and local university campus within the local educational catchment to increase educational opportunities for both school leavers and mature aged students. Early engagement programs work with parents and students in late primary and early secondary school to lift aspirations, reduce educational barriers and provide additional support and resources to promote successful educational progression. Alternate selection processes and entry pathways into university programs recruit capable regional and disadvantaged students who might otherwise be lost to university education. This is important across the range of degree programs offered, including those like dentistry, law and fashion design, which experience very high demand. Student support programs provide support with accommodation, part time employment, financial assistance and social support.
Regional government and industry partnerships bring together the university with local government and industry to improve local productivity through workforce development, research and innovation and joint infrastructure projects. Partnerships identify opportunities for new higher education program to meet workforce and professional development needs. Applied research and innovation programs work with government and industry to develop and improve products and service delivery. This includes service sectors such as health, tourism, transport as well as agriculture and manufacturing. They may also address specific social and environment issues like depopulation, water management and ageing. Knowledge translation and exchange programs provide opportunities to systematically engage local government and industry with current knowledge and debates on relevant issues.
Regional social and cultural partnerships bring together the university with a range of social and cultural stakeholders to enhance local social and cultural capital. These partnerships focus on engagement around creative ideas, art, culture, sport and recreation. The university partners with local community organisations in the arts, sport and culture to facilitate the development and discussion of ideas, events and activities that matter to local communities. The university fosters cultural and social engagement by encouraging the involvement of its academic staff, providing venues and facilities and facilitating visiting speakers, artists and writers.
Regional universities will be strongly supported by their local communities if they clearly contribute to local educational, industry and social/cultural outcomes. Successful engagement with regional communities requires universities to invest in leadership, financial resources, specialised staffing and engagement structures and processes to successfully plan, implement and monitor local partnerships. This introduces a unique set of challenges. The costs of higher education and research are greater in smaller more distributed communities. Each local campus requires high quality staff and infrastructure and information and communications technology to connect campuses together. Engagement and partnerships have to be resourced.
To date the debate on the purpose and costs has been patchy and fragmented and focused mainly on increasing participation. The loading for regional student funding is currently under consideration and there are specific programs for infrastructure and regional research. What is missing is support for the broader role universities have in supporting broader educational, industry, social and cultural engagement with regional communities. In the UK ‘third stream’ funding has been provided to support university partnerships and engagement with industry. In Australia, consideration should be provided for a similar program to support partnerships and engagement between universities and regional communities.