Australian universities ‘must be central to regional growth’

Sector leader says the UK can offer insights into higher education’s role in regional growth strategies

July 15, 2017

Australia must seek to emulate the UK’s success in involving higher education institutions in regional growth plans, a university mission group head has said.

Speaking on a fact-finding trip to the UK, Caroline Perkins, executive director of Australia’s Regional Universities Network, said that her country could learn from local investment plans found throughout Europe in which universities play a major role.

Dr Perkins, whose group represents six universities in rural or remote areas, highlighted the £315 million Inverness city region deal signed in March 2016 and Cardiff’s £1.2 billion city deal, approved in March, as good examples of local growth plans with universities at their heart.

“Universities are so important to the towns and cities where they are located, but we could do so much more in terms of collaborating with these cities,” Dr Perkins told Times Higher Education. “In the UK and Europe, universities have been part of regional development deals for some time, but higher education institutions in Australia are not generally recognised in our city deals.”

Dr Perkins, whose universities educate about 10 per cent of Australia’s students, said that this was starting to change. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s offer of A$150 million (£89 million) towards a new University of Tasmania campus in Launceston was an example of using campus investment as a way to revitalise cities, but more deals of this kind are needed, she said.

For example, promised support in Inverness for biotech spin-outs from the University of the Highlands and Islands could be replicated in smaller Australian cities outside state capitals, said Dr Perkins.

“These type of health hubs need money for basic infrastructure, but are a good way for regional development to happen,” she said.

Dr Perkins added that city deal-style initiatives to support regional universities were vital, since academic attainment and higher education participation rates were far lower in rural areas than in cities.

Thanks to a large expansion in student numbers over the past decade, some 42 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds now hold a bachelor’s degree or above in major cities in Australia, but this falls to 21 per cent for those in smaller cities, towns or the surrounding areas, she said. That stood at 19 per cent for rural areas and 18 per cent for remote rural areas – roughly half the national average of 37 per cent for this cohort – with participation linked to lower school attainment in rural areas.

Dr Perkins also rejected claims made by Simon Birmingham, Australia’s education minister, that universities had funding amounting to “rivers of gold” in recent years, making it easy for them to absorb a 2.5 per cent efficiency cut.

“A 2.5 per cent cut in the Commonwealth Grant Scheme will hurt us hard,” said Dr Perkins, who added that it would equate to an A$5.8 million cut for a typical university with 12,000 students and a budget of A$220 million.

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