New architecture for regional higher-ed

Higher education has significant potential to contribute to effective regional development policy,but current policy settings in Australia not only prevent Higher Education from realising that potential, but are actively harming regional communities – mainly by sucking young talent from the regions and moving them to the cities from which they are unlikely to return.

In order to reverse this, regional Higher Education needs a much stronger policy focus than it has at present, not just for itself, but for the bigger benefits that it can bring to regional communities – especially in helping regional economies to manage the transitions currently under way in the nature of employment.

La Trobe and the regions

It is worth noting that La Trobe is not just a university for the northern suburbs of Melbourne – we are also a major provider of Higher Education in regional Victoria. About 7,000 students, a quarter of our student population, are taught at one of our regional campuses. This means that one in four students from regional Victoria is a La Trobe student, making us the largest provider of higher education to Victorian students based at a regional campus.

Some of our high status programs, such as Dentistry and Pharmacy, are delivered only at our regional campuses. Our share of regional Victorian students has grown steadily over the last five years. So, regional higher education policy settings matter a lot to us. And our experience tells us what is likely to work.

Higher Education's potential to contribute to regional development

Higher Education has a huge potential contribution to make to regional economic development.

The primary reason for this is that there is a strong correlation between social and economic indicators and levels of education attainment.

We know that higher education attainment (ie, bachelors level and above) is much lower outside the cities. In some cases, it is as low as half. This is associated with poorer performance in regional areas on a range of social and economic indicators. While association does not always entail causation, we do know that higher education attainment has direct and tangible benefits for individuals, such as improved earning potential – and that these benefits are greater outside the cities. Improved earnings bring with them improvements to other indicators.

In short, Higher Education ensures that people are healthier, wealthier, families are safer, children learn better, and life expectancies are longer if one has a degree.

Attainment can also assist regional communities to take advantage of new economic and employment opportunities. Looking at the areas of likely growth in regional employment, many of these require higher levels of qualifications and skills than are currently present in a regional workforce. Higher education will be essential if regional workforces are to be equipped to make this transition.

However, current policy settings do not appear to be enabling the sector to reach its full potential to contribute in these ways.

The demand driven system, which has been the primary policy setting for the sector for the last five years, has achieved many great things, but it has not improved participation rates for regional students. More regional students are going to university, but that growth is in line with population growth – it does not mark an increase in the proportion attaining a qualification. The gap between cities and the regions has not closed at all, and in fact is getting wider.

More importantly, not all those regional students going to university are attending a regional campus. It looks as though a growing proportion is choosing to study in the city. So, we have a stable participation rate, but a growing proportion of participating students choosing to study away from their region.

Since 2009, demand for places at regional campuses has either fallen, or grown more slowly than demand at city or outer metro campuses. Demand for places at regional campuses in Victoria through VTAC has fallen by 20 per cent over the last five years, significantly against the overall trend. This is correlated with a decline in the 20-39 age group in regional areas.

Why does this matter? Because students who move to a city to study are less likely to return to live and work in the regions than students who study regionally In short, there is a risk that current Higher Education policy settings are stripping young talent out of regions and transporting them to the city, from which they may never return.

Higher education provided in the regions can help to retain human capital locally  – there is much evidence to suggest that students who study regionally are far more likely to stay to live and work in the regions than students who move to the cities.

As a case study of how higher education policy interacts with regional skills development and economic growth let us consider what happens with health training and workforce policy. There are continued workforce shortages for health professionals across regional Australia. Medical schools are based in major cities – with the view that a regional clinical training rotation will encourage some trainee doctors to work in the regions. Yet, only one in five medical graduates want to work in a regional and rural setting.

Contrast this with La Trobe's Rural Health School where three out of four of our health graduates studying at a regional site go on to work in a regional location. Also, 88 per cent of our dentistry graduates - trained in Bendigo and across a regional clinical training network ‐ went on to work in a regional location.

So, we know that regionally delivered qualifications significantly improve the ability of regional communities to retain their best and brightest. We also know that current regional policy settings have encouraged an exodus of young talent from regional communities.

These are all unintended consequences of our existing policy settings. But now that we have strong evidence of what those consequences are, and since sector reform is once again up for discussion, I think it is timely to ask whether we should develop a policy framework that specifically addresses the needs of regional Higher Education which will help realise its full potential.

A new in-situ approach to regional skills

The problem with existing policy settings is that they don't sufficiently focus on promotion of regionally-delivered courses. This matters for all the reasons I have outlined, but it is not currently a strongly stated objective of current policy and funding. For example, we have no specific goals for regional Higher Education or for sector-wide performance indicators. Instead, we have settings that undermine the capacity of our regional campuses to support regional development.

So, what should we do? In general terms, we need to start by giving regional delivery of Higher Education a sharper policy focus. There are a number of important supporting initiatives – foremost amongst which is a better integration of Vocational Education Training and Higher Education, which has particular significance in regional areas. Yet this is one of the messiest interfaces in the post‐secondary education sphere.

Other important initiatives include increasing the status of regional institutions, for example by supporting regionally-based research activities, and programs offered – eg, medicine. There is also better planning of regional delivery in terms of regional development needs, and specific measures to address identified skills shortages, such agriculture and agribusiness, or medicine.

In short, there is much that Higher Education providers can do to support the regional development agenda, but it requires a much more coherent and targeted approach than it has enjoyed hitherto. The challenges we face are unique and deserve a specific response of the sort I have suggested.

The above is based on Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar's speech delivered to the Committee for Economic Development in September 2015.

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