Regional higher ed faces 'triple whammy'

Regional higher education in Australia is at risk just when our regional communities need it most.

Rather than fixing the problem of significantly lower rates of higher education participation in regional Australia, the Government’s higher education reform package could well make it worse.

Universities like La Trobe, who are committed to delivering higher education on regional campuses, face a triple whammy: declining demand, a regional brain drain to the cities and higher costs of delivery.

Whammy #1 – regional students pay more for less.

Government funding is being cut, while students are being asked to pay more. The budget proposal to increase student contributions, and to lower the threshold at which their debt becomes repayable, is very likely to depress regional students’ demand for higher education.

We know that many of our regional students are the first members in their families to come to university and are very averse to incurring debt. The budget measures are likely to deter regional students even further at a time when the need for a highly educated regional workforce has never been stronger – regional economic development and job growth depends on the skills provided by a post-secondary education.

Whammy #2 – no plan to combat the regional brain drain

We know that one effect of the demand driven system, in place since 2012, has been to denude our regions of young people with the talent and skills we need to transition our regional economies to the new knowledge economy. Regional communities are being stripped of their best and brightest.

La Trobe research shows that between 2011 and 2014, the number of regional students moving to study in a city increased by more than 15,500 (or 44 per cent), whereas the number of regional students studying in the regions increased by around 13,400 (or 11 per cent). This gap represents a growing brain drain of students from the regions to the cities, and they tend not to return.

We argue that a wider range of course options, delivered from regional campuses, would help to maintain and attract talent. This is just one of the reasons we have been advocating for the Murray Darling Medical School – our regions deserve high prestige courses so we can build great university cities like Bendigo to drive skill development, innovation and economic development in our regional centres.

Whammy #3 greater regional education costs

The Deloitte Access Economics Cost of delivery of higher education report, released to provide selective support for the Budget proposals, clearly demonstrates that it costs more to teach regional students than city students. However, there is no effective measure proposed to address higher costs for universities committed to regional delivery.

Investment in regional study hubs simply ignores universities with regional campuses. The Government offers nothing to those universities, like La Trobe, who are committed to regionally delivered higher education in keeping with the evidence that shows on-campus learning delivers higher success rates than long-distance learning.

Rather than recognising and rewarding universities for maintaining a strategic regional presence, we will now be subject to defined funding cuts (through an efficiency dividend) and the uncertainty of undefined performance-contingent funding, which may or may not acknowledge the challenges of addressing regional participation rates.

While we strongly support the Government’s commitment to regional Australia, most recently through its release of the Regions 2030: Unlocking Opportunity statement, we are dismayed at the direction of the higher education reforms.

It is difficult to draw any other conclusion than these measures are a short-sighted attack on Australia’s third most successful export industry; a sector that is critical to developing the skills needed for the emerging knowledge economy of the future.

The key to unlocking regional Australia’s potential is to reverse the triple whammy. Only by investing in regionally delivered higher education can we provide the skills our regions and the nation needs.

John Dewar
Vice-Chancellor and President, La Trobe University

This opinion first appeared in The Australian.