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Co-operation beats competition for regional universities in Australia

21 November 2015 124 views No Comment

University reform is not one size fits all. We really do need to recognise the special role that regional universities play in regional and remote Australia. Failure to do so will fail the regional economies that drive the Australian economy whether it be through traditional exports from agriculture, mining and tourism or growing ones like renewable energy, niche market advanced engineering and value added food and tourism products.

Regional Australia is difficult to service because populations are relatively small and thinly spread over large areas. It contrasts with more densely-packed capital city Australia, which is further advantaged politically by returning many more MPs and senators to our Federal Parliament , the primary source of government support for higher education and research.

In regional Australia economies of scale are necessarily much more dependent on co-operation between local, state and federal government.

As many of the members of the Regional Universities Network have found, this is essential if they are to provide regional communities with dual-sector teaching and research services. Such co-operative working relationships enables a local regional city library or high school to operate as a study centre to support students studying state government-funded TAFE program or federal government-funded university programs. A key task for the Federal Minister of Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, must be to lead the bridge building across all three levels of government in order to avoid the waste of taxpayer dollars when, as is often the case, these levels of government operate in splintered silos.

In relation to further and higher education, “joined-up” government is particularly important for 21st century regional Australia.

Minister Birmingham should also be looking at how to best enable cross-working between capital city and regional universities so that regional Australians can be linked to and supported by teaching, research and commercialisation links with the capital city universities that their mineral and agricultural exports help to fund.

Does anybody really think that the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney or the Australian National University would have become world-ranked universities without the receipts flowing from our coal, iron ore, cattle, grains, and sugar exports? It clearly makes sense to invest in the skills and innovation that these export sectors require by promoting regional further and higher teaching, research and commercialisation supported by collaboration between regional and capital city universities.

Competition between universities drives efficiency in densely populated urban Australia. It was the mantra of minister Birmingham’s predecessor, Christopher Pyne, who coupled domestic competition with the need for Australian universities to compete for students not just at home but in the global marketplace. Pyne wanted to drive higher education as a major export industry for Australia and, in so doing, to reduce their reliance on government funding.

Regional university competition for international students with Australian capital city and overseas universities has a very chequered history which, at its worst, saw partnerships with private providers running capital city mini-campuses to recruit overseas students who were more interested in obtaining an Australian visa than an Australian degree. In so doing, such partnerships were a real threat to Australia’s international reputation for high quality university degrees.

In thinly populated regional Australia co-operation is a far stronger driver of efficiency than is competition. Sadly, we are seeing some regional universities still spreading themselves increasingly thin as they join the competition bandwagon by setting up local rented mini-campuses and study centres in order to compete for students on the home ground of other regional universities and of capital city universities. They are driven to do this by archaic one-size fits all government funding models.

In regional Australia the result is inefficient splintering of already small markets for further and higher education. In capital-city Australia the result, at best, is a diversion of already scarce regional resources to support already far better endowed capital cities. At worst, it is a threat to educational standards.

The reality for regional universities is that high quality further and higher education, research and commercialisation is expensive. Some efficiency savings can be made by dual-sector operation, but maintaining the standards that are required to feed the skills and innovation inputs required for successful regional economies necessarily requires taxpayer support.

The metrics for this funding need to extend to assessment of the impact each regional university makes on its regional community. Moreover, competition should focus on topping the league table for regional impact, or at least being highly placed. Any successful strategy will necessarily require close co-operation with local, state and federal government and also with local business and industry. Such co-operation ought focus education and training on meeting regional needs for skills, and for supporting regional innovation and commercialisation, as well as assisting regional communities to offer regional Australians a high quality lifestyle at work and at play.

Malcolm Turnbull began his tenure as Prime Minister by declaring that “we have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it”. Simon Birmingham has the opportunity to innovate so that our regional universities are part of the engine that enables a smart and agile regional Australia to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges of his PM’s vision for our future.

A core challenge next year for minister Birmingham is to bring together the three levels of government to work in partnership with our regional universities to deliver Turnbull’s vision in which disruption is indeed the friend of regional Australians.

Emeritus Professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, most recently the political/university satire ‘Going Out Backwards’, co-written with Ian McFadyen.

The Canberra Times, November 23 2015, Times 2, p 5.
Also The Brisbane Times, November 21 2015

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