Here’s a paradox. In that vast area of Australia outside major cities known – often dismissively – as “rural and regional areas”, the education sector is one of the biggest employers. And yet educational outcomes for the regions are well below those of cities.
In the major cities, nearly a third of working-age people have a university degree. In the “inner regions”, the proportion of degree-holders declines to less than a fifth of the population, and becomes lower as areas become more remote, to just 12% in very remote areas.
“Education” is not just a university degree, and it is self-evident that it is not necessary to hold a degree to be knowledgeable and successful.
However, there is also plenty of evidence that well-educated populations are more prosperous and stable than those that are poorly educated. There are simply no arguments for less education.
All education is important, but it is at university that (ideally) the prior work of primary and secondary education is brought into focus as a person gains the knowledge they need play a role in society.
Our regional universities have a special role in the nation’s education matrix.
It is essential that regional universities are not inferior to their city counterparts. If you attend a regional university, you need to know that it offers you the same global opportunities as a sandstone uni. Otherwise, we create education ghettos.
At the same time, regional universities need to be responsive to their environment.
They need to have systems that enables them to accommodate students who, while not lacking in intelligence and determination, have not followed the usual pathway to being an undergraduate. Typically, they may have attended small country schools with few resources, in rural communities that often place lower expectations on education than affluent urban communities.
Once they enroll these sort of students, universities need to be able to help them quickly gain the study and communication skills they need for higher education, and then support them through the rigors of a degree.
To their credit, our regional universities are doing all this, and steadily adding new families and new generations to those who aspire to university.
Less helpful is “one size fits all” higher education policy that is weighted towards a system of school-leaver undergraduates – the demographic of the big city sandstone unis.
In contrast, only 20% of the students at the University of New England, which services the region I live in, fit this image. The other 80% of UNE’s students are mature-aged, and study online.
Our current Federal government has made some generous gestures towards supporting rural and regional areas, but this hasn’t extended to its higher education funding model.
If we are serious about bridging the urban-rural social equality gap, we have to start with education — and a higher education policy and funding model that acknowledges that in education, as in everything else, things are different in the country.
By Robbie Sefton
This article was published in The Land newspaper on Friday 21st September 2018. Link to the article can be found here: https://www.theland.com.au/story/5652962/education-is-key-to-bridging-the-divide/?cs=4941
Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.