Education is widely recognised as a key driver for economic growth, but what about our regional communities? Do regional universities play a vital part in our regional communities and are they a driver for social change?
The stats suggest yes. A 2018 study commissioned by the Regional Universities Network (RUN) highlighted the importance of providing regional higher education showing the important role they play in maintaining a young, educated population outside the capital cities. The figures are stark with 77 per cent of students moving from regional to metropolitan areas for university staying put.
In contrast, a remarkable 69 per cent of employed undergraduate students graduating from a regional university end up finding work in regional or rural areas.
With COVID-19 making a regional lifestyle, a tree or seachange if you will, increasingly attractive for those living in large metropolitan areas this is great news, but as any advocate of higher education will tell you universities are not just about employment prospects.
Speak to the staff of regional universities and they will often report that for them, the choice to work there comes down to community and lifestyle.
Professor Brigid Heywood who took on the role of vice chancellor at the University of New England in Armidale just over a year ago said one of the things that attracted her to the role was the importance of the university to the town's community. Staff at the university play an important role within the community, as do the facilities built at the university, with local schools being one of the key beneficiaries of some of the facilities provided.
Professor Heywood emphasises the idiosyncratic role UNE plays both as an employer but also as a part of the social make-up of the region, pro-actively engaging with all facets of the community. Staff take on leadership roles at a variety of levels across Armidale with local schools in particular benefiting from proximity to the university. From something as simple as attending and giving awards at school assemblies, through to running youth leadership camps for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, UNE is engaging with the community.
On a lighter note, the younger residents of Armidale also benefit from access to the sporting facilities built for and provided to students and staff. Professor Heywood believes that the outreach programs run by UNE are vital to providing students with the social engagement to go out into the community.
Armidale has a population just shy of 25,000 people, with the university one of the key employers in the town. UNE takes pride in its role not just within Armidale but also within the wider regional area. The university is not just one of the largest employers in town but is home to over 4,000 residential students. On top of this the university has an additional 23,000 students who engage with the university through remote or distance learning.
There is no denying that COVID-19 has hit the tertiary education sector extremely hard, with international students struggling to re-enter the country for the start of the academic year and even internal border restrictions restricting student movement. Fortunately for many regional institutes they were already ahead of their metropolitan counterparts with the provision of advanced resources for students to continue their studies remotely.
UNE takes pride in the important role online learning plays across regional and remote communities throughout Australia. Opening in 1954 to meet the particular needs of students who lived in remote and regional Australia, the university has over time developed interactive digital learning materials and resources specifically for this student cohort. One of the most important elements is the access offered to all students, including residential ones, is online learning support.
UNE manages to provide support to students through its tailor made services, ensuring that its student community gets the most out of their higher education experience. Unlike metro universities, regional universities see students take advantage of being able to move between residential attendance and distance learning.
There are differences between the residential and remote student bodies, Professor Heywood points out.
"The majority of external students are mature students, with an average age of 30 plus, 70 per cent are women and 44 per cent are from remote and rural environments, whilst 29 per cent are from low SES backgrounds," Professor Heywood said.
Without access to external educational programs, these are students who wouldn't be able to continue their studies due to ongoing responsibilities towards their own families, jobs and communities.
The majority of these students are part-time students, taking 6-7 years to complete their degrees and what they need, according to Professor Heywood on that journey is support.
"They need support from the online portal, from the online tutors and they need it 24/7. UNE has invested heavily in these services."
Discussing the online learning experience, Professor Heywood emphasises that digital content needs to blend different types of digital engagement, including videos, quizzes and other rich content to engage and stimulate the students.
Looking ahead, Professor Heywood foresees ongoing growth for the sector,
"We will become more important as the anchor and pivot within regional communities.
"Australia recognises that regions need to grow and strengthen their economic resilience and universities are an important part of that."
UNE will continue to focus on being one of the anchors of the community of Armidale, and the wider region, working in partnership with businesses and community organisations at a local level.
On a final note, whilst the future continues to look bright for regional Australia with recent reports showing an upswell in job advertisements, regional education providers will continue to look to the communities they are based within to ensure the qualifications and courses they offer meet the needs of regional Australia.