The Vice Chancellor of my university recently wrote an article for ABC Opinion highlighting the neglect that regional Australia suffers. Of particular interest was the education gap between metropolitan and regional/remote areas whereby metropolitan citizens are much more likely to attend university than their regional counterparts (73% versus 47% when comparing Brisbane and Bundaberg school leavers). I wholeheartedly agree that regional Australian universities are getting a raw deal and I also believe that the problem is actually much worse than we currently appreciate. However, I also think that some of the blame rests with regional universities who could be better at embracing their different operating contexts.
With an attitude of resigned indifference, regional Australians appear to simply accept an inferior position on our nation’s economic, cultural and social ladder
(ABC Opinion, 2020)
Consider CQUniversity, which is based in regional Australia. CQUniversity has the largest footprint of any university in Australia with 26 locations across the nation (CQUniversity, 2019). CQUniversity is a “comprehensive” university offering a full range of vocational and higher education qualifications. Geographic distribution and the mixture of vocational and higher education qualifications makes for an astonishingly complex learning, teaching and administrative environment, which is arguably unique in the Australian higher education context. However, it is the student cohort that really distinguishes CQUniversity from all other Australian universities. Vastly higher proportions of students from high-risk equity groups make the university particularly susceptible to performance funding models that use student attrition and retention as a performance measure. To me, this seems grossly unfair and a perpetuation of the disparity between metropolitan and regional areas that the ABC article suggests.
Students from equity groups face a number of structural challenges in accessing, participating and completing higher education, including geographical location, financial constraints, emotional factors and sociocultural incongruity. (Nelson et al., 2017)
There can be little doubt that regional universities are punching well above their weight when it comes to their holistic contribution to Australian society. However, that said, I also think that regional Australian universities can, and need to do much better, even within the hegemony of the higher education sector. Given the differences in student cohorts and operating contexts between regional and metropolitan universities, it would seem reasonable to expect regional universities to think and operate differently when it comes to their learning, teaching and technology. But this does not seem to be the case, with broadly similar policies, processes, structures, infrastructure and worst of all, thinking, across the sector. Regional universities are different in a difficult environment; an environment that in many respects reinforces homogeneity that is not suited to their context.
It is essential to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationships that exist between social, cultural, financial and structural issues, demographic and equity characteristics, enrolment patterns, and the completion rates of cohorts at RUN universities to ensure that measures effectively target the lived complexity of diverse student populations (Nelson et al., 2017)
So how can Australian regional universities be better at being different? This is a vastly complex issue that has economic, cultural, political, ecological and educational linkages. It is a wicked problem in a transcontextual environment. Perhaps thinking more about the context of our operations and context of the students we have, and less about what our larger metropolitan cousins are doing with regards to their structures, technologies, processes etcetera, would be a useful place to start? A different ontology & epistemology for a different context?
CQUniversity. (2019). CQUniversity Strategic Plan 2019-2023. CQUniversity: CQUniversity Retrieved from https://www.cqu.edu.au/about-us/about-cquniversity/strategic-plan-2019-2023
Head, B., & Alford, J. (2008). Wicked problems: The implications for public management. Paper presented at the Presentation to Panel on Public Management in Practice, International Research Society for Public Management 12th Annual Conference.
Nelson, K., Picton, C., McMillan, J., Edwards, D., Devlin, M., & Martin, K. (2017). Understanding the completion patterns of equity students in regional universities. Retrieved from The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) website https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/completion-patterns-of-equity-students-in-regional-universities.