Education freeze should ring alarm bells

Regional and rural participation and attainment in higher education is significantly lower than in metropolitan centres. This matters because we need a highly-skilled workforce to meet the demands and opportunities of the new knowledge economy in regional Victoria just as much as we do in our major cities.

So when the ABC uncovers via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that the Federal Government’s own Department estimates the funding freeze imposed on universities will substantially and disproportionately impact universities such as La Trobe - which are committed to delivering higher education in the regions - alarm bells should start ringing.

The size of the cuts – the department estimates $175 million over four years at La Trobe alone – translates to regional and rural Victorians, young and mature age, missing out on the opportunities and benefits a university education can provide for themselves, their families and their wider communities.

La Trobe lobbied for and welcomed the recent Independent Inquiry into Regional, Rural and Remote (RRR) Education led by Emeritus Professor John Halsey, which provides an important blueprint for addressing regional under-performance in higher education participation and attainment.

We fully support Professor Halsey’s proposals to develop a national regional education strategy and to establish a national taskforce for this purpose; and we strongly support specific recommendations to “expand dual VET/University” options and to “support RRR students to make successful transitions from school to university, training, employment and combinations of them”.

We were also pleased to note that among other key findings, the report acknowledged La Trobe’s commitment to building regional social and economic capital, our leading regional research and our successful innovation in dual sector pathway options.

The 2018-19 Commonwealth Budget offered a timely opportunity to act on the Halsey Report to commence the nation-building task of investing in regional higher education.

However, the Budget is probably best described as a missed opportunity. The commitment to new Commonwealth Supported Places is less than one per cent of current regional places and the total Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) investment of $42.2 million for additional regional places is just 0.6% of the planned $7.4 billion investment for 2021-22.

This level of investment is simply too small to have any meaningful impact on achieving higher education parity between regional and metropolitan Australians. If we were to  provide a report card on the Budget, a generous comment might be along the lines of “must try harder”.

The ABC report simply confirms what La Trobe and other regional-based universities have been saying since the freeze was announced in December last year.

One example of the impact of this funding freeze is that La Trobe has had to withdraw from the successful dual enrolment model we pioneered in partnership with TAFE institutions across regional Victoria. This is the very same program that Professor Halsey hailed as “sector-leading, and “one of the successes which shed light on ways of expanding post-school opportunities for RRR students”. The funding freeze halts this promising initiative in its tracks.

It is increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Government is not taking the educational needs of regional and rural Australians seriously.  If the Government remains intent on dismantling the demand-driven system, the minimum they should do to mitigate unintended consequences is to exempt regional campuses. To do otherwise will simply amplify the gap between regional and metropolitan participation.

The Halsey Review is an important step in the right direction for Australian regional higher education. Government has remained silent on two of the fundamental recommendations: the development of a regional higher education strategy and setting up a national taskforce to deliver the strategy.

We should not miss this chance to bring about a step change for regional Australia.