Home | Opinion | Keeping it local: Regional universities are critical to the health of regional communities

Keeping it local: Regional universities are critical to the health of regional communities

The mission of the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), like universities the world over, is to lead in economic and social development through higher education and research excellence. But unlike metropolitan universities, USQ’s community-centred values are grounded in our regional heritage.

As a regional university, we are a major employer in our region. We develop human capital and skills through our graduates, contribute to the development of industry through research and innovation, and facilitate the social, cultural and community development of our region.

I am firmly of the view that regional universities have never been more important than now.

Universities, particularly in regional communities, exist to serve the needs of our community. Whether to educate school leavers, provide degree programs to those already in the workforce or wanting to return to formal education, or the creation of basic or applied research and innovation, universities offer an essential resource to the community.

Regional Australia is the heartland of this country. It is home to one-third of our population, and produces two-thirds of our exports. Those of us who live or work in our regions know that regional universities are central to their communities, providing a basis for economic and social development through meaningful, wide-ranging engagement in education and research. Regional universities underpin the economic and social development and growth of their regions.

USQ, like many Australian regional universities, has multiple campuses spread over a large geographic area. USQ’s home campus is in Toowoomba, 130km west of Brisbane, and commenced operations initially as QIT (Darling Downs) in 1967, with founding disciplines of engineering, business and the sciences. Education was added in 1971 when it became the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education. Other disciplines followed, including the arts, for which the institution is well known, and the University of Southern Queensland was created in 1992.

The institution came about as a direct result of campaigning by Toowoomba community leaders over many years, and those close links, as well as a sense of ownership and pride in the university, remain strong across Toowoomba and the Darling Downs.

Toowoomba’s economy is booming. Key industries for the region include agriculture, health, education, manufacturing and retail. A number of major projects are underway, including Australia’s largest-ever inland road project, the $1.6 billion Toowoomba Second Range Crossing Project, and the Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail, commencing in the near future, with government funding commitments already in place. Together with the Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport (Australia’s first privately funded major airport), these projects generate unique opportunities for industry to prosper, with the creation of the region as a leading transport hub.

According to the 2016 census, Toowoomba’s population was just over 160,000, with 24 per cent of the population having tertiary qualifications of diploma or above, a strong comparison with the Queensland average of 27 per cent. Toowoomba is also home to a range of outstanding secondary schools, many of which take students as boarders, servicing western Queensland in particular. It is no surprise, therefore, that USQ has a proud heritage in Toowoomba and beyond.

USQ has two other campuses in Ipswich, a regional city just outside of Brisbane; one in Ipswich city itself, and the other in the planned community of Springfield, a rapidly growing area of 36,000 residents so far. Both campuses are located within a zone of significant population growth to the west of Brisbane, along the Warrego and Cunningham highways, referred to as the Western Corridor.

The Western Corridor represents an area of high current and forecast population growth over the coming years. Ipswich is one of Australia’s fastest growing cities, with government data showing a sustained economic growth at 3.5 per cent per annum over the last decade.

Springfield is a vibrant, rapidly growing community, geographically situated in the city of Ipswich, but bordering on the cities of Brisbane and Logan. Located near major highways and served by a rail link to central Brisbane, it is also within easy access of the Gold Coast, and will be a major growth campus for the university into the future. With a total projected investment in Springfield of $85 million, $15 million of which has been invested so far, the population of Greater Springfield alone is planned to increase to 138,000 by 2030, in addition to the surrounding areas consisting of numerous large estates.

Given this growth, there is no doubt that Springfield and surrounding communities will have a strong need for teachers, engineers and business professionals serviced by our Springfield campus, and the health professions taught at Ipswich. Other disciplines such as aviation and film, television and radio studies have also proven to be very successful at USQ Springfield, particularly given the close proximity to Brisbane, Logan and the Gold Coast.

Ipswich has a diverse economic base, with new defence industries recently announced, and a large range of other industries, including manufacturing, education, health, transport and construction. It is clear that there will be a significantly increased need for higher education in this region over the coming years, as is the case with many regional communities.

The mature age factor

In common with most regional universities, many of USQ’s students are the first in their family to attend university, and most do not come to university straight from school – in fact, around three-quarters of our almost 27,000 students are mature age. Most of our mature age students study part or full-time, with 69 per cent of our current students balancing the demands of work and family commitments with their study in these modes. Sixty-seven per cent of our student body choose to study online.

A perennial problem in regional areas is the issue of attracting and retaining professionals to the regional workforce. We know that those choosing higher education opportunities outside their region are less likely to return there to work, compared with those educated within their regional communities. For students outside metropolitan areas who cannot easily access a university campus, being able to study online enables them to stay in the region while they study and, importantly for them and their community, after graduation. In fact, data from the Regional

Universities Network (RUN) show that seven out of 10 of those who study and train regionally stay and work in the regions, compared to a national average of two out of 10 graduates working in regional Australia.

The bulk of new jobs growth in USQ’s regions over the past two decades has been in service industries. USQ produces graduates in essential professions such as nursing, teaching, engineering, law and accounting, keeping regional students in the region, and attracting students into the region who may stay there after graduation. In 2017, for example, 141 of our newly graduated nurses, 165 of our newly graduated teachers and 108 of our newly graduated engineers took up professional positions in the Toowoomba region.

Visit any hospital in Toowoomba or the Western Corridor and you will likely be cared for by a USQ graduate nurse, or if you are unlucky enough to have arrived by ambulance, you may have been accompanied by a USQ student paramedic.

If you live in Toowoomba, or one of the many small surrounding townships such as Cabarlah or Cambooya or Crows Nest, your children will probably be taught by a USQ teaching graduate, the accounts for your business might be done by a USQ accounting graduate, or your estate planning done by a USQ law graduate.

You may have planted your crops based on the meteorological research data produced by USQ, using GPS-guided farm machinery developed by USQ researchers. You may sit in your home near Clifton in rural Queensland and watch international news about NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite launch, knowing that observations by USQ’s ground-based telescopes on a farm in nearby Mount Kent will be essential to the mission’s success.

If you have just built a house in the new Ripley Valley estate west of Ipswich, your roads may have been designed by a USQ engineering graduate, and your council rates notices sent to you via a system managed by a USQ IT graduate. The plane heading to Asia from Wellcamp Airport at Toowoomba may be loaded with produce from a local farm, which uses driverless tractor technology developed by USQ researchers.

If you live in the Toowoomba or the Western Corridor regions, you are likely to be a USQ graduate or student, or the parent, partner, friend or colleague of one. You might be one of USQ’s almost 2000 staff members, working to support the university’s international education program, which is the fifth largest generator of international exports in the Toowoomba region. You might be an academic providing education services, which, according to the Toowoomba Regional Council, generated $628 million in the region’s economy in 2015–16. No matter who you are, in a regional area you are connected to your local university, and it is connected to you.

While these connections are well understood by those of us who live and work in regional Australia, it may not be as clear to others. First-hand experience shows us the crucial need for regional communities to maintain a forward momentum for development, and moreover, the central role regional universities have in the achievement and sustainability of this momentum.

Role in regional development

RUN has developed a framework for a National Regional Higher Education Strategy (www.run.edu.au/cb_pages/policy.php), which it believes will put regional university campuses at the centre of integrated policy and programs across education, research, innovation, employment and regional development. As RUN also points out, if implemented, the strategy will better enable regional universities to play a strong role in regional economic and social development.

Increasing the representation of regional students in higher education is a particularly important goal for regional universities, however student retention is one of the key issues we face. Our mature age students are often balancing family commitments and part or full-time work with study, and these competing demands impact on their retention and progression in degree programs.

USQ, like other regional universities, is dedicated to the education of the growing cohort of students who do not come to university directly from school, but notes that for such students, progression is often slower and retention issues less likely to be solely, if at all, due to academic issues.

The complicated life factors affecting the progress of these students towards graduation need to be acknowledged, and strategic funding continued, to ensure structures are in place to support them.

Many of USQ’s highest achieving students do not study full-time and do not progress according to what might be considered a standard enrolment pattern or pace. At graduation ceremonies, our graduates are surrounded by their partners, children and even grandchildren. They fit university study into their lives, rather than fitting their lives around university study. Performance measures based solely on retention and completion are counterintuitive to the continued development of our regions.

A fairer playing field

RUN has recently released a report commissioned from the Nous Group, entitled A Performance Framework for Regional Universities. The report, which has been well received across the sector, proposes a framework that evaluates performance against Higher Education Support Act (HESA) objectives and contextualises retention measures according to student profile. It recommends the evaluation of university performance via a governmental submission process. Such a framework would create a fairer playing field, where the higher education performance of all universities would be assessed in an equitable way, regardless of their location, and cognisant of their unique profiles.

As well as education, the research undertaken by regional universities is of vital importance to the sustainability and growth of regional Australia. USQ’s key research areas include managing climate risk, crop protection and biosecurity, agricultural technologies, soil, irrigation, materials engineering, astrophysics and resilient regions.

USQ’s Institute for Resilient Regions is a flagship example of the relevance of research undertaken by regional universities. The institute’s focus is on developing cultural enterprises that support identity, wellbeing and economic opportunity. Researchers work on projects which improve the quality of life for people living in our regions, including working to improve rates of cancer survival in the regions.

Another example of research focusing on the needs of the regions is the USQ project which resulted in the creation of Irrimate, an irrigation management system, to close the sizeable variations in whole-of-farm water use efficiency across a wide range of agricultural sectors, including cotton. Over the last seven years, Irrimate has saved Australia’s $1.3 billion cotton industry more than 400 gigalitres of water, which is equivalent to 80 per cent of the volume of Sydney Harbour. There are many examples like this at USQ and other regional universities, which bring researchers into regional communities to solve real world problems.

The final report of Professor John Halsey’s Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, released in April, and the report of the Senate Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, Regions at the Ready: Investing in Australia’s Future, released in June, both reinforce many of the key underpinnings of the proposed National Regional Higher Education Strategy, including establishing a national focus for regional, rural and remote education as a priority area.

The Halsey report notes that “vibrant and productive rural communities are integral to Australia’s sustainability and prosperity – socially, economically and environmentally”, and further that government and departmental/sector policy settings are crucial in achieving change. Regional universities, in partnership with schools and other educational providers, enable capacity building for educators at all levels in their regions, through professional development programs, higher degrees, special interest forums and mentoring activities. In this way, regional universities impact positively on the continued development of all aspects of education in their communities.

Regions at the Ready specifically mentions the role of universities in regional communities, recommending that the federal government strengthen and better support regional universities as pivotal institutions for social and economic development in regional areas.

The report also recommends the development of a national higher education strategy, which, in concert with the Performance Framework for Regional Universities mentioned above, would serve to define and address the issues and challenges faced by regional universities. It would also support regional universities, where student cohorts significantly exceed the national average for all equity groups, to innovate and explore education models which are more likely to enable such students to be successful.

For everything regional universities provide for their communities, each university in return receives great value from its investment in its community. The very real benefits that USQ derives from its community through resource sharing and mutual interest, and through the ability to focus teaching and research around local needs and attributes, are fully appreciated and valued by our staff and our students.

At USQ, our staff are passionate about our students and bringing them to their full potential. Keeping students in their region is a shared goal of the university, local business, industry and the community.

Healthcare and social assistance are essential to well-established communities such as Toowoomba, and the Ipswich and Springfield areas, where there is an influx of young families. USQ currently has 2277 domestic students studying our nursing and midwifery programs, 740 in human services and 305 in paramedicine, the majority of whom, according to employment patterns to date, will continue to live and work in their regions after graduation.

Regional universities serve the communities in which they are located and with which they are so closely tied, and to do this they must be able to continue to build capacity, ensuring that resourcing and infrastructure for both teaching and research will allow them to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of their often rapidly growing footprint. This is not something that regional universities would like to be able to do, it is what they must do, to ensure the development of regional solutions and regional expertise, while focusing on national and global connectivity.

There is no doubt that regional universities will continue to do what we do so well, with or without a national strategy for regional higher education. However, for the benefit of our communities, we need appropriate policies and resources to support this undertaking. Australia’s regional communities deserve nothing less.

Professor Geraldine Mackenzie is vice-chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland.

The assistance of Julie Shinners, director, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, USQ, in preparing this article is gratefully acknowledged.

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