Don’t dismiss regional universities

| February 24, 2013

Associate professor, Dominic O’Sullivan, unpicks contemporary higher education policy and discusses the distinctive roles regional universities play in the national system.

The Australian higher education system is on the precipice of significant and rapid change. Projected roll growth that meets the national target – that by 2025, 40 per cent of 25-40 year olds will hold at least a Bachelor’s degree – means we’ll need bigger and better degree-granting institutions. In a comprehensive policy speech in 2011, the Liberal party’s higher education spokesperson, Christopher Pyne, proposed that these institutions need not be universities, but something akin to the former Colleges of Advanced Education.

Pyne spoke of his ‘reforming zeal’ for the sector, with potentially far-reaching consequences for regional universities, in particular. His broad vision is to allow markets to direct resources into research intensive metropolitan universities, while closing others and diminishing the status of others still to teaching-only institutions. Pyne’s enthusiasm for the Howard Government’s ‘Guthrie Review’ of higher education, which considered the view that research need not be a consideration for some universities, foreshadows the most significant reforms to the sector in nearly 25 years.

However, there are, in fact, numerous political and economic considerations that stand in the way of the aspirant minister’s ‘reforming zeal’. The National party’s unwavering commitment to regional institutions retaining their dual teaching and research capacity is first.

It is also significant that in 2010 Charles Sturt University returned $4.50 to the economy for every dollar it received in Commonwealth funding, Southern Cross University’s annual contribution to its regional economy is $270 million, while Regional Universities Australia estimates that the University of New England’s $280 million contribution represents 32 per cent of the local economy.

The six Regional Universities Australia institutions have a combined roll of 40,000, and estimate that regional universities collectively account for 22,000 jobs, which creates a sizeable political obstacle to change. Regional universities are also likely to attract a disproportionate share of the additional students required to meet increased enrolment targets, which the demographers Bob Birrell and Daniel Edwards estimate will require an additional 280,000 student places. The alternative is to constrain roll growth. However, this is problematic because the point of increasing the number of graduates is to alleviate skills shortages in the labour market.

Skills shortages in regional professional labour markets are significant and regional universities play an important role in supplying skilled workers, especially as professionals who train in regional areas are known to be more likely to work in these communities. For example, Charles Sturt University data show that it trained 43 per cent of school teachers in western New South Wales and 74 per cent of locally employed accountants. Seventy per cent of the university’s on-campus health students come from rural or regional areas.

The University of New England’s defence of regional universities draws on evidence that as many as 25 per cent of its students would not commence university study at all if the University were to close. Another 25 per cent would continue their studies elsewhere, but under financial duress.

Research is also important to the case for protecting regional institutions’ university status. Research in agriculture and mining are particular strengths that regional universities enjoy – this is also politically important as National party parochial interests. Not surprisingly, students in these institutions are more likely to study agricultural disciplines than those in metropolitan institutions.

So it is unlikely that Pyne’s ‘reforming zeal’ will force the widespread closure of regional universities. However, whether it’s the ALP or the Coalition that forms the next government, Pyne provides a timely reminder of the uncertainties, difficulties and opportunities that distinguish contemporary higher education policy and the distinctive roles that regional universities might play in the national system. The prospect of closure, even if it is unlikely, focuses institutional attention on why they actually exist and how they ought to defend their contributions to national policy imperatives.

Dominic O'Sullivan is an associate professor in political science at Charles Sturt University. Dominic completed his PhD in political science at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand before joining Charles Sturt in 2008. He is widely published in political science, education and public theology, and is the author of three books: Faith, Politics and Reconciliation: Catholicism and the politics of indigeneity (Wellington: Huia Publishers and Adelaide: the Australasian Theological Forum), Beyond Biculturalism: the politics of an indigenous minority (Wellington: Huia Publishers) and with Russell Bishop and Mere Berryman, Scaling up education reform: addressing the politics of disparity (Wellington: NZCER Press).




  1. foggy


    February 25, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Regional universities and skills shortage

    I would not have been able to say it.But something ‘heavy on my mind made me feel,that some Uni s can afford it and some absolutely cannot.Those who cannot afford research intensive courses, suffer from delayed completion of their PG degree programs with attendant frustration!

    But when I read of other UNIs to be diminished to the status of teaching -only institutions,I felt confident and overjoyed that someone was bold to state that openly.This way many regional UNIs will be free to produce honed talented graduates-and their practical experience need not be compromised., with stipend for internship programs streamlined ;the regional potency for students ready to work will be comfortably multiplied,for the whole nation and beyond too,to represent across the globe!