For Clay Mueller, choosing to study at Charles Sturt University was as much about the location as the course.
“I liked the idea of Port Macquarie — a small town, really good surf, really nice national parks around,” Mueller, who is studying Environmental Science and Management at the university’s campus in the NSW north coast town, says.
Along with the convenience of a small town — cheap rent, three minutes to the uni and five minutes to the beach — Mueller is enjoying the advantages which come from studying at a smaller campus.
“You’re definitely more of an individual at a regional uni — some of my classes have four people in them,” he says, adding that the smaller classes facilitate deeper class discussions.
“I can just reach out to any of my lecturers at any point on a first-name basis and know that they’ll be able to put some time aside for their day.”
Mueller says he also gets opportunities for volunteering and work experience that would be fiercely contested by many other students at a city university. He is an education co-ordinator at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, where he is responsible for the guiding program and educational activities, a role he gained after doing a university project at the hospital.
The opportunities for applied learning are greater at regional universities, particularly in disciplines relating to the regions, says Nick Klomp, the vice-chancellor of Central Queensland University.
“You can do ag courses in lots of different places, but, boy, is it applied here,” he says. “You’re working on farms and you’re working with producers right here on the ground in lots of different locations.”
Likewise, the engineering faculty has a strong focus on the mining sector and on rail and infrastructure, linking to two of central Queensland’s major industries.
The university works closely with local industries and the community to determine what sort of graduates will be required and what the curriculum should look like.
With more than 35,000 students (when the full cohort of international students is attending) CQU isn’t a small university. But it has more than 20 physical locations, so individual campuses can be small.
Usually about a quarter are international students, based mostly at the UCQU campuses in Sydney and Melbourne and while these aren’t regional centres, Klomp says income from foreign students allows the university to subsidise its smaller campuses in the thin markets of Gladstone, Emerald and Bundaberg.
Some 90 per cent of the university’s domestic students are from rural and regional Australia, with about 10 per cent drawn from the cities.
Some of the city students come for specific courses such as a chiropractic degree and others come for the applied learning focus in agriculture or engineering, but Klomp says many come for the lower cost, the lifestyle and employment opportunities.
“You’re more likely to land a part-time job as you’re studying because there’s less competition. And you’re more likely to know everybody,” he says. “So you join the local sporting team. You join the local chess club or something. Then in no time, you’ll know half the people in the town. So there’s that context and friendliness and welcoming that a lot of our students probably appreciate.”
Roughly 79.5 per cent of CQU graduates have full-time employment within four months of graduating, about 7.2 percentage points higher than the Australian average. “There’s fewer jobs but there’s less competition because there’s fewer people in smaller populations. That’s why you get a far higher employment rate,” Klomp says.
In 2018, about 131,000 domestic students were enrolled at Australia’s regional universities, making up about 12 per cent of the total, and a further 40,000 foreign students.
The universities are often the biggest employer in a town, and can provide an important economic boost to their region.
A 2018 study by management consultancy Nous on behalf of the Regional Universities Network found those six universities deliver an additional $1.7bn to their regions’ economies.
They contribute to the supply of labour and growth for their regions — and regional Australia in general. Secondly, student spending of $480m and university spending of $1.6bn drives significant demand for goods and services in regional areas.
Finally, regional university research drives innovation and productivity in aligned industries across Australia.
‘If you want more professionals to work in the regions, you need to train them in the regions at regional universities’
Caroline Perkins, executive director of the Regional Universities Network, says about seven out of 10 regional university graduates will go on to work in a regional area, compared with just two out of 10 who study in metropolitan Australia. Only about a quarter of regional students who attend universities in capital cities ever return to the regions to work, she says.
“If you want more professionals to work in the regions, you need to train them in the regions at regional universities,” she says.
The majority of face-to-face students at regional universities come from the local area or regional Australia, and many are the first in their family to attend university and come from low socio-economic backgrounds. As a result, the universities have a major focus on student support and on helping them to succeed.
“It’s giving them a bit more support and a much more personalised experience than being in a class with thousands of other students at a metropolitan university,” Perkins says.
Universities also play a role in making a regional city more attractive; often the university hosts the most important arts and cultural infrastructure or sporting infrastructure in the town.
“So they really add to the value of the life of the community, and the comfortableness and the assets of the community, making it a more pleasant place to live. Staff and the students also contribute in other ways to the local and civil societies,” Perkins says. “They really provide a drawcard for regional towns to attract other high-end industries and be attractive for other professionals to move to those towns.”
Like regional universities, TAFEs in regional areas play a central role in providing training to allow young people and families to remain in their region rather than having to leave to learn a trade and get a job.
“It allows those young people to stay in the region. It allows them to learn the latest in industry skills and then, hopefully, they are employed locally and then probably they become small business owners,” says Craig Robertson, chief executive of TAFE Directors Australia.
TAFEs also tailor their courses to meet the specific needs of local industries. Wodonga TAFE, for instance, does a lot of logistics training because the town on the NSW-Victoria border is a major logistics hub where Woolworths has a major warehousing facility. It also has a major contract with the Department of Defence to run courses on enrolled nursing and first-aid logistics transport for the military.
In Mildura, SuniTAFE runs courses in horticulture with a specialisation in almond-growing to support local farmers who are pulling out their grapevines and replacing them with almond groves.
“They are there primarily to service their local community and their local industry,” Robertson says. “The teaching staff are recognised more as part of the community. Often, what you’ll also find is the teaching staff, when they know they’ve got really good students coming through, they’ll refer their students on to employers in the region because they’ve come from the industry themselves.”