In the relative quiet that seems to permeate the three rural campuses of Charles Sturt University, it is difficult to imagine the turmoil that surrounded this young institution's launch into the Australian university sector just six years ago.
Charles Sturt's positioning is expansive and green, its views enhanced by the low-lying hills that characterise the inner western regions of New South Wales. But this peaceful academic sanctuary was not always so serene. It is only in recent times that senior administrators have been able to smile in the face of conservative critics, who claimed a regional and vocationally oriented university in a post-Dawkins era of higher education would never work.
Not only has the fledgling institution almost doubled its student enrolments (from 12,000 at its inception in 1989 to 20,000 in 1995), but it has ploughed more than Aus$35 million (Pounds 17.5 million) into capital development and significantly expanded its research base from just seven higher degree research students in 1989 to 171 in 1995.
Much of the success can be attributed to the 100 years of vocational and agricultural education provided by its predecessor institutions: the Mitchell College of Advanced Education at Australia's oldest inland city of Bathurst in central western NSW, and the Riverina-Murray Institute of Higher Education located in the cities of Albury-Wodonga and Wagga Wagga in the south-west.
The two colleges combined following the implementation of former Labor education minister John Dawkins's White Paper in 1988, which saw the end of colleges and institutes and the emergence of a group of amalgamated universities.
While the reforms continue to receive their share of criticism, particularly from the sector's older and more conservative institutions, Charles Sturt vice chancellor Cliff Blake claims that smaller institutions could never have survived. "The small institutions that Mitchell and Riverina would have been would simply not have been able to compete, so the amalgamation was essential for the preservation of higher education in these rural cities," Professor Blake says.
The two institutions are separated not only by almost 400 miles but by vastly different cultures - Mitchell had been a teaching college while Riverina had its beginnings in agricultural studies.
Unlike most other post-Dawkins institutions, the university decided on a centralised amalgamation involving electronic, administrative and academic integration. The decision brought with it considerable agony for staff, who were forced to switch personal goals, career plans, and responsibilities.
Today, Professor Blake maintains that it was the best option: "The university is established in regions of NSW that have declining populations, unlike the growth potential of the metropolitan environment, so we had to find ways of meeting the new expectations of a university from essentially the same resources," he said.
Charles Sturt does not model itself on Australia's older, more traditional institutions. "We want to be different, we don't want to be a clone of Sydney University," he said. "The kind of institution CSU becomes grows out of the region it serves. It is important that we are different so we can increase the choices for our students."
The university's regional location is reflected not only in the range of courses but also through a carefully developing research base - with five well-supported research centres - and growing community links.
Kath Bowmer, newly appointed deputy vice chancellor (research and academic), said the university was in a unique position to tap into the local research, industry and vocational requirements of each of the regions it served.
"As an environmental scientist coming out of agriculture, the whole issue of agricultural development is critical because we have to maintain exports while at the same time preserving the inland parts of Australia," she said.
Internationally, the university is also developing a strong profile, with exports of its winemaking courses now entering France and Portugal, new courses in paramedical studies being exported to the Northumbria Ambulance Service (one of England's leading services), links with Hong Kong in medical imaging, and a new health contract with Canada. At home, the university hosts more than 800 international on-campus students who mostly study commerce.
As one of the country's largest providers of distance education (in 1995, more than 13,000 of its 20,000 students were studying by distance education), the university has also developed expertise in the use of video-conferencing technology and distance course materials, and has established a number of smaller "satellite" campuses for remote area students. These are based at Dubbo and Broken Hill in the central and far western regions of NSW, and in Sydney.
"Our aim is to develop 'virtual' campuses for students, which would essentially be networked multimedia centres. Because we are so strong in the provision of distance education, we are quickly gaining access to a passport to the world," Professor Bowmer said.
Following expansion under Labor, Charles Sturt's next challenge is less appealing: how to absorb the Howard government's proposed extensive cuts to the higher education sector.