The importance of higher education as a driver of economic, social and cultural development is well recognised. Higher education provides significant benefits to individuals and to society.
For the individual, higher education graduates earn considerably more than non-graduates and have better employment opportunities. For society, higher education outcomes are linked to increased labour participation rates, decreased rates of unemployment, productivity improvements and economic growth. Non-economic benefits of higher education in western cultures include social cohesion, lower rates of crime, improved health and political stability.
Australia's proportion of 25 to 34 year olds with a bachelor degree qualification has remained static for many years and is falling behind other similar countries within the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Australia's ranking is now 9th out of a total of 30, down from a ranking of 7th in 2000. In some regions in Australia, the situation is much worse. On the New South Wales Mid North Coast, bachelor qualification rates are approximately one third the state and national rates. The region has a population that exceeds 200,000 people yet is grossly under-serviced in terms of face-to-face university courses.
Further, critical skill shortages exist particularly in the professions. Jobs in allied health, engineering, construction, accounting and management are extremely difficult to fill and none of these skills are offered locally at the bachelor level.
Thankfully, recent policy developments combined with innovative regional leadership are beginning to change the situation. The Government's response to the Bradley Review of Australia's higher education system resulted in a policy target of 40% bachelor attainment rates of 25 to 34 year olds by the year 2025. The review identified that the supply of people with undergraduate qualifications is not able to keep up with demand. Particular attention was given to members of groups that are traditionally under-represented in the system such as Indigenous people, those with a low socio-economic status and those from regional and remote areas.
Nationally, the higher education system is undergoing radical reform, moving to a student demand driven system next year for the first time in history. From a policy perspective, a number of programs and initiatives have been established to support the reforms such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) and the Structural Adjustment Funding (SAF). The HEPPP program has a particular emphasis on assisting students from a low socio-economic background whilst the SAF program aims to assist universities disadvantaged by the reforms. Both these programs have particular relevance for universities operating in regional Australia.
Further to this, negotiations with Federal Independent members to form Government in 2010 resulted in a $500 million infrastructure windfall for regional Australia over the next few years under the Education Investment Fund (EIF) Regional Priorities Round.
Regionally, on the New South Wales Mid North Coast, new initiatives are being applied to long-term challenges and collaborations between regional stakeholders are making positive changes. Regional Education and Skills Forums in the four Local Government Areas of Port Macquarie-Hastings, Greater Taree, Great Lakes and Kempsey-Macleay have been established. The forums are represented by leaders from schools, tertiary education providers, all levels of government, businesses and industry groups and have resulted in concerted efforts to bring about positive change.
The forums actively search for opportunities to leverage existing assets and make attempts to fill identified gaps. Education providers with a regional interest are taking responsibility for the situation and are working together to create awareness, build aspirations and improve access to tertiary education.
One such initiative to fill the information gap is the Mid Coast Uni Portal. The portal acts as a 'gateway' to higher education and is a collaborative project involving Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, North Coast TAFE, University of Newcastle, University of New England, Charles Sturt University, University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. The portal promotes the benefits of higher education and provides information specific to the needs of people living in the region.
The Mid Coast Work Placement Strategy is another example of a regional innovation in higher education. Through the endorsement of the forums based in the region, businesses and industry are working with universities and the Brolga Project to provide work placements as part of 'work ready' programs such as Work Integrated Learning. Businesses on the New South Wales Mid North Coast are increasingly opening their doors to university students that have a mandatory work placement requirement as part of their degree programs. The student benefits from a regional experience in their disciplinary area and the businesses benefit from a fresh perspective not to mention a potential recruitment solution.