Last week I was on the Gold Coast, in Australia, where I was speaking, as a guest of the Australian Regional Universities Network (RUN), at a conference hosted by Southern Cross University to discuss the role of universities in transforming local and regional economies.
Regional universities in Australia are higher education institutions (HEIs) located outside the main metropolitan cities. Regional universities have 115,000 students on their books, or 9% of the total student population found in Australia’s public universities.Regional universities are based predominantly within smaller towns and cities, whose economic performance has long been significantly weaker than the large metropolis of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, etc. but which nevertheless make a vital contribution towards Australia’s economic prosperity, producing 44% of national output. The economic geography of HE in Australia is unique, shaped by both a highly-urbanised but also widely-dispersed settlement pattern.
RUN is a membership group of six universities that have multiple campuses designed to deliver HE provision across a wide number of population centres. This places pressure on costs, but the civic university ethos of the regional universities shines through as they connect with individuals, business and communities in places that other institutions find it difficult to reach. Like the UK, Australia’s HE sector is treading a path between the forces that are encouraging universities to operate within an increasing global, financialised and marketised sector alongside growing demands for HEIs to be more firmly-embedded within communities and local and regional economies. And for universities to demonstrate their public value.
Unlike the UK, however, Australia did not fall into recession following the Global Financial Crisis, and thus state and local governments, although now facing budgetary pressures, have not experienced austerity like the UK, so the fiscal and financial pressures facing many public authorities are not as acute in Australia as they are in the UK. The dominant large-city narrative within the Australian political economy does present its own unique challenges to regional economies and universities. When the federal government announced a $2bn budget cut in HE spending the subsequent effects were felt more acutely in regional universities that are pivotal to widening HE participation rates and encouraging more first-in-family and indigenous generation students to enrol and study for a degree. Larger, metropolitan universities have been able to absorb the reductions more-easily than their regional counterparts.
I took two things away from the Gold Coast conference. First, different universities – either in the UK or Australia – have diverse strengths, which collectively are critical to the long-term success and cohesion of economies and societies. Second, many regional universities in Australia are champions of inclusivity, tolerance and fairness. The respect that was afforded to local indigenous communities, by representatives of RUN members and conference delegates, was deeply-impressive and something I hadn’t witnessed before during my visits to Australia. In the current choppy waters that many actors, including universities, find themselves having to navigate, HEIs anchored in local and regional economies and communities that face profound challenges, are vital to building the resilient places that are needed now more than ever.