Regional universities can hold their own, deputy v-c insists

Think twice before pushing bush campuses into national institution or shotgun marriages with research elite, says Chris Hutchison

September 27, 2023
Australian Football League balance on each other to illustrate Regional universities can hold their own, deputy v-c insists
Source: Alamy

Canberra should think twice before embarking on a major reorganisation of Australia’s regional universities, according to a sector leader, as a review mulls the future of research in the bush.

One of the options being considered by the Universities Accord panel is the bringing together of existing campuses into a new national higher education institution focused on regional Australia, suggesting that this could enable a “planned approach” to rural provision while offering “academic synergies and operational efficiencies”.

However, Chris Hutchison, deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at Federation University Australia, which operates from seven campuses across Victoria, cautioned that such an institution “probably needs its own funding model” because each campus on its own “is not financially viable”.

“You’re dealing with students that traditionally haven’t come from an educated background. They don’t have the support at home that other students might have, and quite often they’re online and they’re studying from remote areas; and they need greater out-of-education support in order to continue their education and to succeed,” Professor Hutchison said.

“So the [national regional university] model is expensive. I’m not saying it couldn’t work; what I’m saying is that the government would have to realise the expense of that model. You’ve got to model the expense of supporting all of those campuses under a single umbrella in order to understand whether it is financially viable.”

Even if regional universities are not nudged into a merger, one idea that could find favour with the accord panel is the creation of a differentiated research system. This would see a handful of large metropolitan institutions become federal research universities, which could then dole out funding to other institutions based on their specialisms, in a “hub and spokes” model.

The Regional Universities Network, which Federation is part of, has insisted that its members must remain “comprehensive research-active universities”, and warned against any move towards “teaching-only” institutions.

But Professor Hutchison said: “Do you need to be comprehensive in research to be a university in regional Australia? I think the answer is ‘no’.”

He highlighted that Federation’s research strategy was based around the concept that “you can be very focused in research but more comprehensive in teaching” when operating in the bush, with its scholarship focused on supporting the development of the local economy and skills base.

Professor Hutchison said Federation worked closely with other universities, including Group of Eight members, when there were gaps in its own research expertise, but he doubted whether a formal reorganisation of the sector was warranted.

“I don’t think it needs government intervention and legislation to do that; it’s a natural outcome of limited resource,” he said.

Despite Federation’s decision to focus its research more narrowly than its teaching, Professor Hutchison was confident that the institution would retain its university status under new regulations requiring providers to conduct research at “world standard” in at least half of the broad fields of education they teach.

Professor Hutchison said bibliometric and rankings data indicated that Federation was comfortably over the benchmark, but he acknowledged that for the exercise as a whole it was “problematic” that the country’s main research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), had been mothballed.

Professor Hutchison said ERA had “done its job” of raising the standard of research and suggested that a simpler, more data-driven exercise was likely to replace it. But he added that Australia would benefit from an assessment of research impact – like that pioneered in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework – to help make the case for increasing research funding.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles