Regional learning looks for a white knight in an increasingly competitive educational marketplace.
THE coastal city of Wollongong is an 80-minute drive south of the centre of Sydney. Many of the 300,000 residents who live in the traditionally industrial port city commute to Sydney daily for work.
"The rest of Australia doesn't understand what the regions mean in Western Austalia because Wollongong is classified as a regional university. Deakin in Geelong is classified as regional. I reckon they aren't regional universities they are metropolitan universities," UWA vice-chancellor Alan Robson told the WA Business News forum.
Regional classification is important to universities because it translates into increased funding from the federal government. Regional universities are seen as a public good, with local communities benefiting from the influx of students, and the courses are arguably more practical than what can be offered in the city.
On the flip side, they are expensive to run - roughly 30 per cent more than city campuses - and attracting teachers and students can be burdensome.
"People have this romantic notion of putting a university in a country town and that will then develop the region," Professor Robson said.
"We'd be a lot better off if we supported young people; if any young person who had to relocate [to the city] was supported with a living allowance for that relocation they'd have a better university experience."
The debate around regional universities and campuses is of particular importance to WA, especially at a time when the ongoing feasibility of running Curtin University's Muresk agriculture college and its Kalgoorlie-based School of Mines is open to debate.
Speaking generally about the plight of regional courses, outgoing Curtin chancellor Gordon Martin said it wasn't always feasible.
"Remote locations, where you have the smaller numbers and you are struggling to provide the quality teaching services, just doesn't work," he said.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said it was ludicrous that regional arms of Perth universities did not get the government benefits accorded to the likes of Wollongong and Deakin.
"The regional learning model is one I think we really have to pay some attention to," Mr Howard-Smith told the forum.
"It worries me about the School of Mines, for example, whether that is going to be sustainable into the future. There's a lot of emotion around the School of Mines - we have to get some real fact into it."
He feels the current system is unsatisfactory.
"Post-graduate distance learning, quite frankly, I don't know what the solution is," Mr Howard-Smith said.
The emotion linked to regional learning is partly tied to history, with the School of Mines operating since 1902, while the Muresk agriculture training school is more than 80 years old.
There are also passionate arguments for training people in the regions so that they stay there to work, rather than risk losing them to the city.
The internet, or online learning, was supposed to fix the difficulties associated with regional learning, although educators around the world are still struggling with how to best incorporate the technology.
Independent consultant Andrew Pickford said the technology needed to be tweaked.
"Technology has been seen as the answer and that has often neglected the softer side of the interaction and the learning process," said Mr Pickford, formerly of think-tank Future Directions International.
"Effort needs to be there to bring that up to speed."
One view to gain support at the WA Business News roundtable was that the technology needed to be used alongside face-to-face teaching time, where students spend periods of time - perhaps an intensive couple of weeks - in a classroom.
Conversely, students could do the bulk of their studies in the city, with practical intensives to be conducted in regional centres.
Professor Robson said the distance-learning system needed to be flexible to accommodate student needs.
"People thought that you'd be able to do everything online but most undergraduates certainly don't find online very satisfying and I think a lot of post graduates find it not terribly satisfying either, and how we get that greater flexibility into the system is important," he said.
It seems there is also a need for flexibility right across the sector in order to meet the future demands of the state.
Australia is a country of skilled workers (see table, page 12) and the most recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests this trend towards needing skilled workers - at the expense of unskilled and semi-skilled workers - will continue.
Professor Robson wants to encourage a more diverse system.
"If we are going to have 40 per cent of our aged cohort holding a degree, I don't believe you are going to be able to do that within the existing education system," he said.
"We need to develop some other types of institutions. We've created a system pushing all our institutions into the same space."
It's a view shared by the head of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy.
"I would not like to see colleges or universities being the same. I think there needs to be a significant amount of diversity; it's like a marbled cake," Mr Howard-Smith said.
"Some universities will focus on applied science and others will have a greater bias to research and development, and I think that's a very good thing."
Developing curriculum to teach students to engage with China is an obvious step in preparing for the future of the state, with Murdoch University's recent launch of a bachelor of commerce with a major in Chinese business a likely sign of things to come.
Coogee Chemical's Gordon Martin said there were many positive developments taking place at the state's educators and that a continued focus on educating students to work in the international marketplace was needed.
"I am a great optimist about the sector mainly because it's been freed up," the outgoing Curtin chancellor said. "We are building links with China and with Taiwan. There are collaborative links now we wouldn't have even contemplated five years ago."