Regional universities being ‘left behind’

The yawning gap between higher education participation rates in regional and metropolitan areas was highlighted with recent census data, which shows just a 2.4 per cent increase in university or tertiary attendance in Bendigo over the past five years. 

Conversely across Victoria the uptake in post secondary or university courses from 2011-2016 was 31.8 per cent, while Australia-wide figures were 24.5 per cent.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics data, provided to the Bendigo Advertiser by the City of Greater Bendigo, details a significant local decline in technical or further education of 15.8 per cent over the same period, in keeping with Victorian (-12.1 per cent) and Australian (-10.3 per cent) statistics.

City of Greater Bendigo manager strategy Trevor Budge described the figures as “pretty stark”, suggesting there was an inequity in participation rates for higher education in regional areas. 

“It (census data) demonstrates what we all knew in that people in regional areas are not getting as good a deal out of the higher education system as they deserve,” he said.

“The gap which we know is there is actually getting wider.”

The struggle to attract potential students to come to places like Bendigo did not have a simple explanation, according to Mr Budge, who suggested the perceived prestige of metropolitan-based universities and the lack of course variety locally may have contributed to the figures.

“One of the problems has been getting programs that are relevant to the local community,” said Mr Budge, adding many local students headed to Melbourne for education, which created additional accommodation costs.

A number of universities in Australia  – like James Cook in Townsville and Cairns – and internationally –Dunedin, New Zealand and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK – are examples of successful regional models which should be explored further, Mr Budge said. 

“We don't seem to have an education strategy in Australia, we just build more city campuses,” he said.

La Trobe University regional pro vice-chancellor Professor Richard Speed said the figures weren’t surprising and we a bi-product of government policy over the past five years, which has been “to suck students from regional Victoria into the city”. 

Professor Speed said the political stance on education was in danger of leaving regional Victoria behind and it was something La Trobe was trying to fix, which included a $50 million investment at the Bendigo campus.

The issue was not unique to Bendigo, with Ballarat experiencing similar growth rates, while Warrnambool had actually gone backwards, Professor Speed said.

Of the 5000 students studying locally, 40 per cent had Bendigo postcodes, and the next largest cohort of students came from Echuca, and further north, he said.

“We’ve graduated over 10,000 students from the Bendigo campus in the last decade and we know that over 75 per cent of those people start their careers in regional Victoria,” said Professor Speed, adding the university was looking at expanding its course offerings. 

“Without our regional campuses La Trobe loses its DNA,” he said.

Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal Dale Pearce said students had to aspire towards university education, which wasn’t always the case locally.

“There are pockets of students in Bendigo that have been brought up in families that don’t have a level of higher education so it’s not seen as necessary,” he said.

Some local students would gravitate towards Melbourne due to the broader range of courses and choice of universities, according to Mr Pearce, who said some local families could not afford to send their children to university.

Bendigo Kangan TAFE was unavailable for comment.