Population pressures lead students to bush

Student pressures

By Guy Healy    

Australia’s university system is likely to become more decentralised during the next 50 years because of burgeoning population pressures, according to demographer Graeme Hugo.

Professor Hugo said that despite its regional universities, Australia still “had one of the most centralised higher education systems in the world”.

But Professor Hugo, who has been chairing one of the Labor government’s sustainable population advisory panels, said even on present trends an extra five million people would live in regional areas by 2050.

The intensity of the debate over population distribution during the federal election campaign refocused attention on the need to repopulate regional areas, he said.

“Whatever party gets in, there’ll be a hard look taken at where growth will be targeted in Australia,” he said.

“If we are going to see regional development in Australia on a more substantial scale, it’s necessary for universities to be an important part of that.”

The University of Adelaide geography professor and Australian Research Council Australian professorial fellow made the comments at a recent forum on regional futures held at Southern Cross University.

This followed independent Rob Oakeshott’s championing of regional development centred on tertiary education (HES, September 1).

Professor Hugo said “youth out-migration” was a characteristic of all non-metropolitan areas, especially affecting the social and economic viability of towns in the wheat and sheep belts.

While a certain level of youth migration was healthy, since it showed local regions “were doing something right to get kids to compete on a larger stage”, a lack of higher education opportunities was a key driver in talented young people leaving regional areas.

Universities had to offer more courses such as arts and science through satellite campus and distance education to help stem the flow of people out of regions, he said.

Southern Cross University vice-chancellor Peter Lee said the university lost significant numbers of talented young people to the cities every year because they didn’t have the funding to offer key degrees in medicine, engineering, dentistry or pharmacy.

Consequently, Southern Cross had struck an articulation deal with the University of Sydney to guarantee a place in medicine, dentistry or pharmacy for some successful SCU rural and indigenous allied health students.

Similarly, CQUniversity vice-chancellor Scott Bowman said regional universities “shouldn’t be a second-rank choice”.

“We have to really compete with the universities in metropolitan areas on quality,” Professor Bowman said. CQU was doing its best to offer extra courses in areas such as health and law so locals had the option to stay if they chose.

But Professor Bowman said their were signs that Professor Hugo’s mooted demographic shift might already be under way. “We are starting to see a growing number of city-based young people coming to the regions to study,” he said.

Professor Hugo said it was crucial that universities’ expertise in economic planning and environmental science was tapped to help pinpoint where future regional settlement occurred.

Article from The Australia, September 8, 2010.

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