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The unique challenges facing Tasmania’s sole university

The University of Tasmania was founded to serve an entire state and its people, and we remain the only university specifically for our society.

Against that backdrop, place takes on particular importance. It was the theme of being ‘place-based and globally connected’ that emerged as central to our staff conversations, which informed our new Strategic Plan, released just last month.

In a regional setting as distinctive as Tasmania, place shapes a university’s mission and its delivery. But being place-based can be part of our approach to education, rather than something we do for Tasmania alone. We can apply it wherever we operate. Critically, it means attending to the needs of the communities and people that we are working with, and asking how the place we are working in shapes what we do.

Today, education, knowledge and creative endeavour are critical to future social and economic wellbeing, and even more so in a regional island setting with a small population. In a world where globalisation favours large, globally connected metropolitan areas, regional economies will always have to work harder to find the distinctive sources of advantage that are needed to generate the wealth, services and infrastructure required to support a decent quality of life.

Regional areas such as Tasmania have to deal with the challenges of complex social disadvantage left by the disruptive impact of the global economy, which has seen work and opportunity leave the state to locations with lower labour or input costs, and greater economies of scale.

While for some in Tasmania these are relatively buoyant times, the university’s task is to look to these considerable long-term challenges. Our population is ageing. In many parts of our community we have poor social and health indicators. We have challenges with our underlying measures of economic competitiveness, such as productivity.

Central to our place-based mission is the ability to work in partnership with the community, industry and government to solve the complex problems underlying these issues and to create a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future for Tasmania, providing a global model for communities with similar challenges elsewhere.

Teaching, researching and partnering in a place-based way
We have enormous capacity across a generation through our teaching, our research, the creative output we produce and the partnerships we form.

The university educates a great proportion of the state’s population, from teachers and nurses to engineers and artists. How well we equip our students for Tasmania’s future will in turn shape how well educated our children are, how healthy our community is, how well we run our farms, and so on. We don’t just prepare students for careers, but increasingly we support their reskilling, upskilling and preparedness to engage successfully in a global society throughout their lives.

The more we understand how and what we teach contributes to Tasmania – and, as a result, similar communities elsewhere – the greater the impact we will have.

In Tasmania, tailoring education in distinctive ways for our place and its people is key. We need to be accessible to more people in more places by operating a regionally networked model; to build an endowment fund to ensure that cost is not a barrier to higher education for any Tasmanian; to broaden our offering by continuing to develop a suite of pathways tailored to people’s needs, such as short-courses and associate degrees; and to deliver those more flexibly to accommodate the fact that, already, more than half our students are not school-leavers.

Our research can shape the state, with the ability to offer insights and creative productions that change our understanding of the nature of Tasmania itself. Virtually every part of the university can contribute to those new and evolving understandings, from our historians, sociologists and lawyers to our economists, climatologists, ecologists and epidemiologists.

Our place-based focus insists that we remember that many of Tasmania’s social difficulties are grounded in economic disadvantage. We must, therefore, work both to support the creation of quality jobs and to provide the education to make them accessible.

As we think about these social challenges, we have the capacity for our research to discover innovative solutions to deliver public and community services and, critically, to build capability in communities to lead the solutions themselves.

We will forge place-based partnerships to tackle complex social and economic challenges in an integrated way, providing the education students need to participate in and help create those parts of the economy that provide good incomes and secure employment. We need to create regional competitive advantage for key sectors and new businesses through the industry problems we solve, and by fostering a start-up community to develop a pipeline of new, rapidly growing, globally competitive but locally based enterprises.

As Tasmania’s sole university, we have a unique ability to work in partnership with government and community to deliver public services such as health and education. These university partnerships should be characterised by both a commitment to collaborative work and the essential preservation of a truly evidence-based and independent perspective.

Being place-based and contributing from Tasmania
If part of our place-based mission is to be the university for Tasmania, we are strategically placed in the world to do vital things from Tasmania. Many of the university’s research strengths are built on our rich and complex history, our remarkable location – with its proximity to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica – and our wondrous natural environment.

In terms of global impact, the university has done very well in producing a significant body of important research over an extended period. We aim to strengthen and build on that, focusing on areas of research where we have a defensibly distinctive advantage, which largely comes from where our history of excellence and place converge. The ability to make a contribution of that scale has been built upon the relationships and resources that come from being part of larger research or government and industry ecosystems in fields such as agriculture, Antarctic science, fisheries, forestry, maritime engineering and training, medical research, and in minerals discovery and processing.

Being placed-based and sustainable
The finite qualities of islands remind us that ecologically and socially we need to be a sustainable place; we must work with ecosystems, not against them, and the definition of a community provided by our island’s watery boundaries reminds us that we must work together. Tasmania has environmental values that are of global significance and, as islanders, we have obligations of stewardship. As we think about that stewardship and the broader task of being sustainable, we are guided in our thinking by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the recognition that our job is to find our way to create a model where prosperity, inclusivity, the environment and social and technological progress advance together, not in tension.

We are fortunate in having great defining strengths as a university. However, our challenges to deliver our mission are very real, and perhaps our greatest challenge is time.

The state has a rapidly ageing population, which within 10 years will see Tasmania in negative natural population growth with shrinking regional towns, fewer young people, and a growing dependency ratio with a high burden of chronic disease. Unless Tasmania is on a very different trajectory within that time, demographics will become destiny.

Sustainability is a challenge for our university too. The population of Tasmania is too small to sustain a university of the breadth and excellence that the state needs.

In response to the need for scale, we have grown international student numbers very strongly in a few areas, but we need diversity to better meet our educational objectives in having international students and to avoid the risk of high concentrations from particular countries and in particular courses.

Being economically sustainable is no easy task. Our mission is an intrinsically high-cost one as we support a model of regional delivery, a broad quality offering and pathways to higher education for the whole population.

Central to being sustainable is to have the right size and shape of student profile and to have an economically sustainable way of operating. It also is about fundamentally changing the way we operate, using the principles of Lean to free up our people to do the work that supports our mission, and eliminating the frustrating process and procedure that distracts them from it.

While there are great challenges, they are inspiring a boldness in us. We look around the world at other small societies like Scandinavia, Switzerland and Iceland, and we see places were the measures that really matter – from wellbeing to inclusivity – lead the world. We aspire to be an integral part of creating the next model for that sort of society. So, it is our mission to see Tasmania as a place that is a model for the world of a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive society where people live well. 

Professor Rufus Black is vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania.

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