Professor Peter Rathjen is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania.

16 May 2017

Peter Rathjen headshot.jpgThe pathways to socioeconomic improvement in a post-industrial age are difficult to predict. We can be confident, though, that solutions to economic advancement, social mobility and wealth distribution will be founded on two key assets: innovation new knowledge and new ways of using knowledgeand human capital people able to use knowledge in creative ways.

In our societies, it is uniquely universities that bring these together in meaningful fashion, through a mission that integrates research and education. As such, universities are presented with an opportunity for deeper participation in the affairs of the community and increased relevance predicated on partnership.

The University of Tasmania is the only university in a state that is confounded by high levels of underemployment and regionality, poor social mobility and an economic environment that supports an average wage some 20 per cent below the mainland average. Underlying this is an historically poor level of engagement and attainment across the education system: only 14 per cent of males in regional Tasmania are reported to complete school.

What, in such circumstances, might be the University's role be to help the state address these challenges?

In August, the University of Tasmania will host a symposium in August to interrogate this opportunity. ‘Reimagining and Revitalising Communities Through Higher Education – Engaging, Informing and Learning’. It will discuss how universities must understand their changing role globally while being responsive to their regional and local contexts; how university leaders understand and respond to the community (global and regional) in which they are operating; how partnerships support the leadership to achieve the outcomes envisaged; and how the vision and its long-term impact can be sustained.

Emeritus Professor Tom Ross, a previous President of the University of North Carolina (UNC) is one of the speakers at the conference. UNC is a $9 billion-a-year enterprise and one of a number of state-based university systems that enable an integrated state-wide approach to harnessing higher education in the interests of expanded participation, economic advancement, broad geographical delivery, research, innovation and service delivery.

University systems, as formed in the United States, address and stress two imperatives which are not often part of the Australian discussion: affordability – finding ways to reduce the cost of education to both the student and the taxpayer – and regionality – finding ways to expand a presence critical to the socioeconomic future of regional centres.

Innovation in higher education, beyond the bachelor degree, is key to the North American approach. Associate Degrees, two-year programs which match curriculum and skill development to regional workforce need and provide a pathway to jobs and employment are delivered locally at commuter-based community colleges. Importantly, students who develop an appetite for further study (around 40% in many states) can take with them credit towards bachelors programs at the most prestigious universities in the country.

Costs are reduced for the student, who can attend university from home for the first two years, and for the taxpayer who funds an intensive first stage education without the impost of research intensivity.

Completion rates for students following this pathway are impressive. Local industries benefit from a productivity dividend associated with increased education and an increasingly skilled workforce, while the student body itself stimulates regional economic activity. Concentration of the research enterprise in the universities brings the benefit of focus and intensity.

There is obvious attraction in considering a state-wide, system-wide approach as a potential avenue to growing Tasmanian prosperity, matching university strategy with the needs of the state. A program, guided by affordability and regional support, that seeks improvement in historically low levels of educational participation, enhanced regional amenity and economic performance can lift productivity and wages towards national levels.

This approach has been formalised as part of an historic Memorandum of Understanding with the State Government, signed two years ago during our 125th anniversary, in which we articulated shared socioeconomic targets for the next decade. The agreement specifies areas of joint priority and provides a framework for investment.

An early outcome has been the launch of new programs, starting with Associate Degrees which have been designed to drive access and enhance employability at lower cost. These programs, delivered in the regional Tasmanian centres, will produce graduates to meet local industry needs, and carry up to 100 per cent credit towards bachelors entry. The first participants have been from cohorts not traditionally associated with university study, and not attracted to bachelor programs.

Visibility and profile of the university also matter, critical to reversing a culture that does not see or understand the benefits of post-secondary education. Prospective students need to see and interact with university life, to understand that their school mates and relations - people like them - can participate with success. To this end the University is building new inner-city campuses in Launceston and Burnie, and new infrastructure in the Hobart city centre. Colocation with central transport hubs will make it easier for Tasmanians to engage with study.

Introduction into the CBDs of thousands of students, at once a consumer base and a workforce, energises the social context, drives economic advance and attracts private investment. The research headquarters of the University in Hobart can be linked to strengthened regional campuses that are capable of supporting locally relevant research programs, enabling statewide innovation through the reinvigorated regional campuses in Launceston and Burnie.

Defining a position for the university at the heart of the community that is Tasmania is a statement of the importance we attach to knowledge, education and innovation as the foundations of tomorrow, and recognition that it is from that community that we draw authenticity and meaning.