The future of our students

| October 13, 2014

The Federal Government continues to debate higher education reforms. Charles Sturt University Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Vann wonders how competing globally will help students complete their studies, ensure graduates find work and provide communities with qualified professionals to sustain them.

In the coming weeks, thousands of senior high school students around the country will take their final exams. Then many of them, along with thousands of other Australians, will decide whether to continue their studies.

Meanwhile, our Federal Parliament continues to debate higher education reforms which should centre on the future of these very students.

We’re told the reforms will ensure Australian universities aren’t left behind – look at the Chinese, adding five institutions to the top 200 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong index in the past five years while Australia added just one.

We’re told we either compete globally or watch the sector decline into mediocrity, and that competing globally means increasing the number of Australian universities at the top of the world rankings.

What we don’t hear is how this would help students complete their studies, or help those new graduates find work and contribute to their communities, or provide those communities with enough qualified professionals to sustain them.

These questions are especially pressing for rural and regional communities since students and families from these areas, where average household incomes are lower, will be most sensitive to any price rises. And in a very real way, a threat to regional universities is a threat to rural and regional Australia.

CSU, for example, adds more than 5 000 additional jobs and more than $1 billion in economic output to regional economies each year. More importantly, CSU, like all regional universities, is connected to its students and communities through an evolving web of relationships that can never be adequately measured in a ‘top 20’ list.

For most students tertiary study is a step on the way to a career. For this they will need skills, experience and professional networks. The relationship of a regional university with its students includes a commitment to developing the skills and experience that will lead students into productive and rewarding careers, but also extends to the way in which the institution works with and for the communities these students so often return to.

The relationships regional universities have built with their communities allow those institutions to not only embed their students in a profession to build skills as they study, but also to embed those students into the community itself for the benefit of everyone involved.

These relationships help explain why CSU’s 2013 graduate employment rates in the key areas our communities rely on exceeded the national averages reported in the latest Graduate Destinations Survey – nursing by 12%, accounting by almost 20%, agriculture by 13%, social work by 11% and so on.

They allow us to collaborate with government and industry on research such as the EverGraze project, which was recently recognised as a finalist in the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes for increasing farm profits and improving the environment.

And they mean we understand the need for, and continue to campaign for, a truly regional medical school which will give rural and regional students the specific skills they need to care for those communities.

Examples like these are only made possible through the community links and accumulated experience and knowledge a regional university develops over time. They speak not just to the commitment and expertise of our staff, but to what can be achieved when a regional university works with and for the people around it.

Our students get jobs, our communities thrive, and the university develops as a resource to be drawn on by the people and industries connected to it.

Regional universities know, often much better than their metropolitan equivalents, who they are as institutions and have a very clear sense of purpose that stems from and reinforces that knowledge. We are not focussed on the international research esteem game; we are focussed on delivering graduates who use their intelligence for the benefit of their professions and their communities.

Deregulation would be a dramatic change and the long-term effects are difficult to predict. But, times always change and new opportunities arise. There may be many ways to ensure higher education reform doesn’t unfairly disadvantage rural and regional areas – but this needs to be a priority consideration in the current debate.

Because if rural and regional students cannot afford to study at regional universities and those universities can no longer sustain the research, services and flow on economic effects they bring to their communities, we all lose.