Federation the name for regional success

Australia’s newest regional university, Federation University Australia, the result of a merger of Monash University’s Gippsland campus and the University of Ballarat, comes into existence on the first day of the new year. By David Battersby.
“The rationale for developing this expanded, regionally focused university related primarily to raising higher education participation rates and providing more tertiary education opportunities in regional communities.”
I have spent the largest part of my working life in regional universities. During that time I have seen how regional centres, large and small, have greatly benefited from the presence of a regional university or campus. 
The educational, social, commercial and cultural benefits of a university campus in regional Australia are immense. In just one example, the University of Ballarat is responsible for 12 per cent of the economic activity in the Ballarat region. Other regional universities in Australia cite similar figures.
As a member of the Regional Universities Network, I have had the pleasure over the past two years of working with many regional vice-chancellors and their universities. All of them are imbued with optimism about their institution’s future. I believe that optimism is justified.
Yet for all of our success it is natural that some communities doubt or question the need for change. This is particularly so when universities contemplate a change of name and organisational structure.
Since the Federal government reforms of the 1980s, campus and university mergers and name changes have not been common in Australia. The Bradley review excited some interest five years ago but much of it waned.  
Elsewhere, such changes have been more frequent, which is probably not surprising given there are about 11,000 universities world-wide. In Wales there has been a drawn out and tumultuous process with new higher education institutions emerging from the break-up and reconfiguring of the University of Wales. In Russia, significant university restructuring and mergers have been underway as national research universities are created.
And for more than a decade, a number of universities in England have merged and consolidated campus arrangements with varying levels of success. The Manchester merger, which brought together Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 2004, is hailed as one of the more successful initiatives. Public funding assistance of £65 million did provide an incentive for success.
University name changes are more commonplace than mergers although just as fraught. So frequent are institutional name changes in the USA, that there is now a Wikipedia page keeping track of them.
Inevitably, university name changes evoke discontent.  The recent campaign in the UK to change the name of Leeds Metropolitan University to Leeds Beckett University led to a “Save Leeds Met Uni – Don’t change the name” campaign with more than 4000 supporters. 
Other universities have been more subtle in their repositioning on a name change. In Canada, the University of Western Ontario rebranded as Western even though it retained its legal name. This has occurred in Australia with some universities dropping the word “technology” from their nomenclature and others, such as CQUniversity, making stylistic changes to their trading names.
This year in Ballarat, our university has been going through both a merger and name change process not dissimilar to that which occurred a decade ago with the merger of Alice Springs Centralian College with the Northern Territory University to form Charles Darwin University. 
On January 1, the Monash University Gippsland campus and the University of Ballarat will amalgamate to become Federation University Australia, which is likely to be known colloquially as FedUni. 
The name and new logo of Federation University Australia acknowledge the bequests of those educational institutions that have come together in common purpose, partnership and collaboration.   
The rationale for developing this expanded, regionally focused university in Victoria related primarily to raising higher education participation rates and providing more tertiary education opportunities in the state’s regional communities. 
The enabler for this was the concept of a regional university with greater critical mass in its reach, course offerings, staffing, research capacity and industry relationships. 
As well as marshalling local and community support, the merger and university name change also involved detailed due diligence and approval processes. 
The two chancellors, their university councils and their senior staff were pivotal. The federal and Victorian governments were intimately involved since they had to give formal approval. 
The state Parliament had to pass a bill to effect the merger and name change. With the advent of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), there was also a detailed process of gaining consent for the many material changes required to operate the newly named university. 
Along the way it was known that not everyone embraces these types of change and in anticipation of this there was a myriad of consultative mechanisms activated. Town hall gatherings were held, written submissions were invited, and staff, students and the unions were consulted. 
Detailed work occurred with the name change for the University of Ballarat. More than 30 options were considered and well over 500 submissions and emails were attracted from staff, students and the community. There was active involvement on the part of local media.
The watershed event for the merger and the name change was the tabling in the Victorian Parliament of the bill establishing Federation University Australia. The bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council of the Parliament in September, unopposed and without amendment. 
Campus mergers and university name changes often take a long time to achieve and are always extremely challenging, especially in times of great change in university policy and funding. 
As one UK vice-chancellor recently noted: “There is a lot of nostalgia about the past and the way it was without much appreciation of the funding constraints and the new policy environments under which universities have to operate and compete in a global environment.”    
The evolution of Federation University Australia as this nation’s newest regional university shows that our universities are able to adapt, evolve and then innovate with new arrangements. Federation Online is one example of the latter.   
Led by Professor Marcia Devlin, the university’s new deputy vice-chancellor (learning and quality), Federation Online is committed to bringing tertiary education to the regions of Victoria and beyond.
Recently the federal minister for education, Christopher Pyne, spoke about how new technology, particularly digital and information technology, were crucial to the modernisation and development of world-class education and research capabilities.
Federation Online will offer access to higher education that is not otherwise available to some rural, regional and remote students, as well as to those who may live centrally but have other commitments besides study.
Professor David Battersby is the vice-chancellor of Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria.

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