Memo Ms Gillard: neglect regions at your peril
DO we really need regional universities? Surely Australians could access all the teaching and research they need online.
True, if you think of teaching and research as a simple commodity, such as wheat or coal, a commodity to be traded in competitive markets.
This is largely how tertiary education has been treated by recent Coalition and Labor governments. Funding cuts have forced universities to behave like big businesses, where vice-chancellors are now little more than overpaid chief executives who spend virtually all their time fund-raising.
But there are never enough funds, particularly for regional universities, which are so important to local communities and which can be vital in decentralising population away from our increasingly congested metropolitan hubs.
In regional Australia, universities add much-needed diversity and opportunity, as well as being important regional employers. They change the value mix.
In the regions they provide an opportunity to integrate academic knowledge and understanding with regional skills, knowledge and understanding. This integration enriches our regional communities, which in turn enrich each state in the commonwealth.
Regional universities enable regional Australia to be more than a passive receiver of teaching and research. It is the very give and take that ought to lie at the heart of education, sharing ideas to generate the growth of new knowledge and understanding and its practical application.
Regional universities are part of the balance that ensures that regional Australia is not serviced by capital city Australia. They help to ensure that regional Australia is a full and active participant in our nation.
For many, this quite rightly means combining with TAFE to be “dual sector” universities supporting both trade and professional education needed for vibrant regional economies.
Sadly all this opportunity for regional universities to energise a dynamic regional Australia is lost when universities are treated as businesses, with faculties and departments seen as key profit centres.
This focus on marketing, re-branding, customer service, business cases, export awards and the like, so beloved by the Howard government, has to date been accepted holus bolus by the Rudd Labor government.
In spite of her intelligence, the overloaded Julia Gillard, Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister for Social Inclusion and Deputy Prime Minister, has largely failed to act.
Most critically, in regional Australia she has yet to give local universities the support that links education, employment and workplace change in order to meet the twin challenges of access and diversity that are at the core of our rapidly evolving regions.
This is critical because regional Australia is home to the farm and the quarry: the twin engines that have done most of the work to give Australia a remarkably smooth ride through the global financial crisis.
But the farm and the quarry are workplaces undergoing rapid change, a transformation which, to be effective, requires an ability to rethink and reshape. Such innovation is a capability inherent in higher education and research.
It is a vital part of the hardiness required by regional Australia whose wellbeing requires the capacity to thrive as form and substance change, sometimes exponentially.
Now gaining thicker and thicker coats of dust, the Denise Bradley Report into higher education in 2008 largely put regional universities to one side. Gillard, in spite of her record as a champion of the underprivileged, has not challenged this. Some would say, why should she when most federal seats are in the capital city heartlands where the big universities live?
It is a blind spot of a Melbourne-educated lawyer which could blight both Gillard’s prospects and the future of our regions. They need inclusion in the upcoming election debate, a debate at present dominated by arguments about who is best to manage the economy and enlivened by shouts about who is best to keep refugees out.
This is especially the case as the recent federal budget largely ignored higher education and, in so doing, missed the chance to revitalise and re-position regional universities as key engines for change.
This is a reminder to our Deputy Prime Minister that regional Australia requires her attention. And that attending to regional universities would be a good place to start.
On the other hand, Gillard could leave it to the maverick MP Bob Katter from the vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy and his fellow independents to try to make the running about funding the regions and especially our neglected regional universities. But Gillard shouldn’t leave it too late, particularly if the next federal election is as close a run thing as the Tasmanian and South Australian state elections.
Then there wouldn’t be time to woo the independents with promises to return more of the tax dollars from the farm and the quarry to regional Australia.
Now is the time to drive social inclusion and workplace change by properly funding cash-strapped regional universities so that they can support the constituencies of the farm and the quarry with much valued teaching and research.
If the farm and the quarry engines are not sustained, this year may see Labor lose power federally and a double dip recession engulf those big-city electorates and our regions as well.
But if Julia and Kevin are truly smart, then supporting regional Australia and their higher education institutions may be just the way to make effective use of what is left of their great, big, new, resource “super-profits” tax.
The Weekend Australian, June 5-6, 2010