Regions need strong local campuses

Education Minister Simon Birmingham is spruiking swingeing budget cuts in higher education, and the one in three Australians living in our regional and rural communities will be hardest hit.

These are the people who face significant barriers to accessing university and are crying out for an approach that removes the speed bumps, not adds more.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact research being used to justify the sector-wide cuts contained in the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment also shows that regional higher education is more expensive to deliver: 17 per cent more than metropolitan delivery.

The policy and funding environment for regionally delivered higher education has never been more hostile. It is getting increasingly difficult to make regional campuses viable, so it is no surprise that other universities — certainly in Victoria — have reconsidered their commitment to regional delivery.

Deakin recently raised issues with delivery of higher education in Warrnambool, and Monash’s campuses in Gippsland and Berwick have been taken up by Federation University.

Birmingham’s reforms are pushing universities such as La Trobe into a corner. We continue to come out fighting for the regions, but for how long can we be expected to pay escalating costs with reduced government support without affecting the quality and scope of our regional presence?

The social and economic development of regional Australia depends on nurturing the skills, reliance and capability of the people who live there. In regional cities and towns across Australia, there are thousands of locals whose lives have been immeasurably improved by access to a local university education. They have used their new skills to build local businesses, strengthen economies, create jobs, innovate, lead local organisations, teach our children and provide health services to our communities.

Consider our campus in Mildura, located on the Murray River in the northwestern corner of Victoria. Since 2006, we have edu­cated about 100 nurses, 220 teachers, 120 business or accounting graduates and 60 social workers. About 95 per cent of our graduates get jobs and 85 per cent stay in the Mallee region. If you visit any state primary state school in Mildura, at least half and as many as 80 per cent of classroom teachers are La Trobe graduates.

And it wouldn’t have happened without a local campus. Regional participation in higher education is abysmally low. In Mildura, it is less than half the rate of metropolitan Melbourne, and even lower for males.

Our task in persuading school-leavers or mature-age residents to consider further education has gone from uphill to up-mountain. The government wants to increase student contributions, thereby increasing overall student debt and lowering the threshold at which our new graduates start repaying it.

This will affect regional Australians disproportionately, particularly our mature students who traditionally are reluctant to forgo salary and take on debt simultaneously.

Universities will also cop significant funding cuts, essentially meaning that students will pay more to get less. The funding cuts mainly hit budgets allocated for teaching, meaning this will have a harsher impact on teaching-intensive regional campuses such as ours.

There’s no policy consistency from Birmingham. He made a successful case for needs-based funding in our school system to the benefit of regional, low-socioeconomic status schools but bizarrely, in higher education, he is proposing the opposite — a needs-based defunding for regional Australia.

Regional education outcomes continue seriously to lag those in metropolitan Australia yet, beyond a commitment to safeguard equity funding, there is nothing in the current package to help universities operate regional campuses. Instead of proposing a coherent education policy to address the attainment gap, the government has launched a “look over there” attack on universities, nitpicking over marketing budgets and claiming that universities are swimming in rivers of gold.

But it would be different so easily; sensible changes to the present legislation could strengthen, not stymie, the ability of regional and rural Australians to benefit from a local university education. Coherent regional education policy would address the challenges at every stage of the education journey and deliver a better deal for families, business and services in regional Australia.

Without viable regional university campuses, the structural gap in the Australian economy between regional and metropolitan centres will continue only to widen. In five to 10 years we will desperately be playing catch-up if we don’t act now and invest in the next generation of leaders in our regional and rural towns and centres. The government ignores this at its peril.

Be assured, La Trobe is strongly committed to our communities. We will continue to work with partner schools, TAFEs and employers in our communities, and will argue passionately on the benefits of a local tertiary education. Can someone in the corridors of power please do the same – and stand up for simple measures to help deliver a strong, smart and successful regional Australia?

This article appeared in The Australian.