Australia’s education minister has asked universities to reserve accommodation for students from rural areas, as part of its response to an independent review of regional education.
The federal government reacted on 30 May to warnings that the skyrocketing costs and limited availability of housing were deterring rural people from degree-level study.
Its intervention comes after an inquiry headed by former education bureaucrat John Halsey found that regional people were disproportionately affected by housing costs – which could exceed A$25,000 (£14,000) a year per student – and that on-campus accommodation was being snapped up by international students.
The government said that regional people’s options were also stymied by opaque information about housing. Education minister Simon Birmingham said that he had asked university leaders to “increase the transparency” of their student accommodation options and to guarantee places for regional, rural and remote students.
“There’s clearly a gap between the city and the bush in the level of study or qualifications students achieve,” he said.
The government will also requisition funds from its key equity funding scheme, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme, to pay for an annual assessment of the support that universities provide for regional people transitioning from high school.
It said that the results would be published on its Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching website, starting next year.
The government said that it had accepted all 11 recommendations of Dr Halsey’s report. It had already committed to some of the key suggestions in this month’s budget, which allocated almost A$100 million to fund several proposals.
They included relaxing the eligibility criteria for rural students seeking income support payments, and subsidising hundreds of places at eight regionally located “study hubs”. The budget also funded about 500 pathway places for rural students.
Canberra has also backed Dr Halsey’s key recommendation that it establish a national focus for regional, rural and remote education. It said that vocational colleges as well as universities stood to benefit, with training providers likely to receive access to funding from regional grants programmes.
The Regional Universities Network said that the national focus was a “first step”, but that more resources were required. Chair Greg Hill said that the government needed to restore the demand-driven higher education funding system – and extend it to sub-bachelor qualifications – to boost opportunities for regional students and their communities.
Professor Hill said that while the government had supported the inquiry’s recommendations, it had not committed to some of the specific “actions” endorsed by Dr Halsey. They included formulating a national regional education strategy – with an associated taskforce – and funding a “renewing the regions” education and training initiative for at least five years.
“Regional higher education is a major contributor to economic, social and cultural development,” he said. “A more coordinated strategy could facilitate better outcomes.”