There are risks attached to a national regional university
The report says it wants to explore the idea of a “National Regional University” to support “high-quality regional education [and] deliver excellence in regional research”.
The basic idea is regional universities could opt in to become part of the new national university.
Not a new idea
Australia’s last major review of higher education proposed a national regional university in 2008. The Bradley review recommended “a study to examine the feasibility of a new national university for regional areas”. But as the interim report notes, this never happened.
The Bradley review suggested a new national university to redress a lack of participation of regional students. This is an issue that rightly still concerns the accord panel today.
But this time, the accord panel’s main rationale for a new national regional university is to facilitate and encourage change and evolution in the type, diversity, size and number of tertiary education institutions.
So far, the new national university has not attracted much support.
The Regional Universities Network includes seven (though not all) of Australia’s regional universities. The network was “encouraged” by several key ideas in the accord panel’s interim report.
But any mention of the national regional university idea was conspicuously missing from its media statement in response to the report.
Other university models
The accord report says there are comparable international models for a national regional university, and points to the University of California system. This includes 10 campuses in the US state, each with its own local identity and leadership.
But this example is not helpful. The University of California has a significantly different political, educational and social environment. It also has much more funding than Australian institutions.
A closer example of a national multi-state university is the Australian Catholic University. This has campuses in Ballarat, Blacktown, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, North Sydney and Strathfield.
But it is doubtful whether this would be a good model for a national regional university.
When the Australian Catholic University was formed in 1991, its constituent colleges would not have qualified separately for research status and funding. In contrast, all the obvious candidates for membership of a national regional university are already fully fledged self-contained universities.
Even if a regional university were to consider amalgamation, it would be more likely with a near neighbour, not another more distant regional university.
Meanwhile, the name “national regional university” invokes the name of the existing Australian National University. It was not an easy process to set up the ANU. It took decades to achieve a coherent internal structure.
The accord panel envisages a national regional university would provide opportunities to “find academic synergies and operational efficiencies across existing institutions”.
This is likely to worry university staff and students as ‘synergies’ and ‘efficiencies’ can often lead to cost cutting and job losses.
There is also substantial evidence the strongest synergies in teaching, research and service happen when people and organisations are within commuting distance of each other.
There is a risk that a new national regional university will lead to remote, unsuitable, inflexible and unresponsive systems.
As James Cook University has noted, place-based differences define the roles of regional universities. For example, James Cook positions itself as a ‘university of the tropics’.
And a ‘regional’ university in north Queensland is substantially different from a ‘regional’ university in western New South Wales.
TAFEs provide more opportunities
If we want to improve opportunities for regional students, the accord should consider a bigger role for TAFEs [technical and further education institutions] in a national regional university and more generally.
They are widely dispersed in regional and outer metropolitan areas.
The federal government has already announced more regional and outer suburban study hubs. These could be boosted if they are turned into joint TAFE-university ventures.
Several regional universities have told the accord review vocational and higher education should be more strongly aligned and connected. For example, the University of the Sunshine Coast argues, along with changes to regulation and funding, there should be more opportunities for physical co-location of education and training facilities.
Indeed, Australia already has six highly distinctive ‘dual sector’ universities, which provide both university and vocational qualifications.
These include RMIT, Charles Darwin University and CQ University but have been largely overlooked by people advocating for more diversity for Australian universities.
The interim reports contain more than 70 “areas for further consideration” by the accord panel.
Many of these – including the idea for a national regional university – will not necessarily make it into the final report in December.
If Australia is to have a new university there needs to be more careful thought about where it should be and what its ultimate structure and purpose should be.
Gavin Moodie is Adjunct Professor, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, OISE, University of Toronto. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.