A model born in Geraldton is part of the solution to a growing problem in the tertiary education system.
A $67 million federal investment into tertiary education hubs across the country draws on a model devised and refined on Western Australia’s Mid West coast nearly 25 years ago.
The recent investment follows a sweeping review into Australia’s tertiary system, which highlighted a growing problem of levels of access to tertiary education.
It found that while almost half of Australians in their late 20s and early 30s had degrees in 2021, the balance of education was heavily skewed to the cities.
In the outer suburbs, 23 per cent of adults aged 25-34 held a degree. In the regions, the proportion dropped to 13 per cent.
People of lower socio-economic backgrounds made up 17 per cent of all undergraduate domestic enrolments in 2021. Indigenous enrolment was 2.1 per cent.
The numbers were pulled from the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, assembled at the government’s request by a panel chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane.
They laid bare a significant disparity in the distribution of university qualifications across the country.
The report found that by the middle of the century more than half the nation’s workforce would need a university qualification, as high as 55 per cent, up from 36 per cent today.
The statistics set the government a task of increasing Commonwealth supported university places while fostering engagement from communities traditionally underrepresented in the tertiary system.
At the National Press Club in July, Education Minister Jason Clare said the skills challenge hinged not on the demographics of people already engaged in the tertiary system but those under-represented.
“What this report argues is the only way to really [meet future workforce needs], is to significantly increase the number of university students from the outer suburbs and the regions,” he said.
“Students from poor backgrounds. Students with a disability. Indigenous students.”
On government-funded youth radio station Triple J, the minister told Hack’s Dave Marchese the report found tertiary education reform was no longer optional.
“The report says this is no longer just the right thing to do, to make sure that young people from poorer backgrounds and from regional Australia get a crack at uni,” he said.
“This is something we have to do.”
At the heart of the government’s immediate response is a concept developed in WA almost 25 years ago.
Regional University Study Hubs, previously Regional University Centres, have been identified as a critical tool expanding tertiary education’s reach into demographics lacking.
There are 34 study hubs nationwide, providing tertiary education opportunities to those living in the regions.
At a committed cost of $67 million, the government plans to establish up to 20 more, with 14 more in outer suburban areas where the rate of tertiary qualifications among the population is low.
It’s an endorsement of an educational concept for which the seeds were planted near 25 years ago, four-and-a-half hours north of Perth in the Norfolk pine-lined streets of Geraldton.
At the end of the last century, the Mid West Development Commission held a community forum to get a feel for the issues and challenges facing young people in Geraldton and its surrounds.
Then working in projects on regional, economic and community development, Felicity Mitchell was one of two younger staff members from the commission tasked with organising the day-long forum.
About 80 people turned up, with groups formed to discuss the key interests of Geraldton’s young people as they stood in 1999.
A remarkable consensus was reached.
“The single biggest standout issue identified on the day was access to university education,” Ms Mitchell told Business News.
“Geraldton’s obviously a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Perth, and that made it really difficult for local young people to access university education.”
Distinctive disadvantaged groups emerged from the forum, according to Ms Mitchell, with equally valid barriers to tertiary education access via traditional means.
“One was young people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or didn’t want to travel away for university,” she said.
“That could be because their parents didn’t have enough money to send them, or pay for accommodation while they were away, or they didn’t want to leave their support system behind and go.
“But there was also a big bunch of mature-age students, who were in Geraldton for life, for careers or families.
“They were the second group, which we found out later on were really keen on university access.
“We also considered that local Indigenous people were less likely to travel to Perth for university.”
The revelation led to the birth of the Geraldton University Access Group in 2000, made up of enthusiastic local stakeholders with funding from the Mid West Development Commission, and the intention of delivering university education to the region.
A national newspaper clipping from 2001, highlighting the Geraldton University Access Group’s campaign.
The group, including Ms Mitchell, would tour regional university campuses across the state, including The University of Western Australia in Albany and Edith Cowan University’s Bunbury campus.
Discussions ensued but, despite regional presence elsewhere, none of the state’s tertiary institutions were interested in setting up a Geraldton campus.
“They all said, ‘great idea, but there’s just not enough demand’,” Ms Mitchell said.
“We were told the population was not big enough, and the economies of scale wouldn’t be there.”
The roadblock was overcome when the access group decided to apply for 20 Commonwealth-supported university places to be allocated directly to Geraldton, rather than to a university.
It was a revolutionary idea, which had never been successfully delivered.
“In hindsight, it was much better to argue for the places directly to Geraldton,” Ms Mitchell said.
“That way, a university couldn’t just pull out and take the places back to their Perth campus.
“It focused our argument to the federal government, because at every turn we were saying ‘we want 20 places for Geraldton’.”
Shortly after, a Canberra delegation led by Ms Mitchell, Tony Booker and Lee Morton met with then-federal education minister David Kemp.
Geraldton achieved a national first when it received its first university places – 20 in year one, 35 in the second and 50 ongoing from the third.
Lengthy negotiations ensued with WA universities over the delivery of courses in the region, with ECU, UWA and Curtin University agreeing to a consortium model for delivery.
It was agreed the three would split Geraldton’s Commonwealth allocated university places equally, though Curtin ultimately assigned more of its Commonwealth allocation to the region.
UWA decided to run an arts degree, streaming lectures and running local tutorials, while Curtin ran a full face-to-face primary education course.
ECU put its places into a visual arts course previously contracted to a local TAFE.
Just two years since the problem was first identified, Geraldton Universities Centre was established at the end of 2001.
“It was important for Geraldton people to have access to education, because local people tend to stay local,” Ms Mitchell, who would go on to serve as director of the centre from 2003 and 2005, said.
“The education students all got jobs in local primary schools, which often struggled to attract teachers.
“They stayed in the region for longer periods of time than students who came from Perth, stayed for a couple of years, and went home, so we found it provided continuity in the workforce.
“It also provided economic opportunities for local people, and allowed them to stay in the region, spend their money in the region and increased participation rates in the region.”
Technological change towards the end of the 2000s meant online offerings started to play a greater role in the delivery of university offerings at Geraldton University Centre.
The centre’s current director, Natalie Nelmes, who was working in the organisation at the time in special projects, said the community was not satisfied with the online model, or the standard of delivery from the WA universities.
The Bachelor of Nursing residential school at the centre.
A review was undertaken, and a decision made to move the centre to an independent, community-based model – the predominant feature of university study hubs as they have been rolled out across the country.
Incorporation allowed Geraldton University Centre to develop new relationships beyond WA, and the institution found synergies from much further afield than down the Brand Highway.
“We started dealing with regionally based universities in Queensland, that had been working really well with online models and totally understood why we would want to add a face-to-face component to the online model,” Ms Nelmes said.
“That is the cornerstone of our model, which is still a little bit different to the way most study hubs have ended up developing throughout the rest of Australia.”
The institution takes an income-sharing approach to Commonwealth funding alongside its university partners, using the money to provide face-to-face and academic support.
“That leads to very good retention and completion rates over the journey,” Ms Nelmes said.
“We’re sort of echoing what would happen if you were an internal student, as opposed to being an online student, where results have always been a little weaker.”
A second building was constructed with support from Royalties for Regions funding in 2014 and expanded off the back of $1.8 million worth of federal funding in 2018.
The same year, almost 20 years since the origins of the Geraldton facility, Commonwealth funding for a national regional university centre program was first announced.
Geraldton had paved the way for a national initiative.
The new federal spend gave the centre capacity to offer a 24-hour student study area service, made available not only to its students but those studying externally within the region.
Ms Nelmes said regional skills shortages meant all fourth-year primary teaching students were currently on limited authority to teach while completing their degree.
While its students were in high demand, the centre was still heavily focused on talent attraction.
Submissions to both the WA University Sector Review and the University Accord highlight the importance of bridging opportunities to help jump the gap into regional tertiary growth.
“If you’re a community that’s still building aspiration for people to go to university, then you’re going to have a lot of people who may have wanted to but didn’t complete Year 12, for instance,” she said.
“Or you may have a current Year 11 or 12 [student] finding it harder to access all the courses they might, or maybe they just come to it a bit late.
“Sometimes it’s just a little bit harder in the country.”
Since inception, the centre has supported more than 280 students through bridging programs to achieve university entrance.
The bridging focus speaks to another point Ms Nelmes has been adamant in pushing in response to the accord’s regional focus – that one size does not fit all in the regions, and funding and initiatives should be individualised as a result.
She also highlighted the potential flagged in the accord for study hubs across the country to tap regionally specific opportunities, working in collaboration with industry and vocational training institutions.
A bridging class provides students with an alternative pathway to university.
“[Co-operative] skill centres could be fantastic for initiatives like hydrogen hubs,” she said, with reference to the Oakajee strategic industrial area initiative 23km north of Geraldton.
“We’re looking at what the skills might be the region is going to need – some of them may be university based, some may be TAFE based – but certainly we need industry around the table saying, ‘this is what we need’.
“If these initiatives are happening in the regions, then we need regional people to be supported to take advantage of those opportunities.
“The ability to leverage the Regional University Study Hub network, we think, really needs to be explored and used as much as possible.”
Ms Nelmes said the centre was in regular dialogue with industry and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry around opportunities.
It would need funding allocated be localised enough for the centre to capitalise properly.
From humble origins, more than 500 people have graduated from the centre since inception, providing a workforce for the region’s schools, hospitals, community agencies and businesses.
Around 6 per cent of graduates and a further 8 per cent of the current 300-student cohort identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“Offering education to regional or Aboriginal students, or any student in a traditional inequity group, has always been seen as a kind of nice to have, or through a benevolent lens,” Ms Nelmes said.
“This report really says, ‘if we’re going to meet the skills needs for Australia in future, we have to have students from these groups’.
“We’ve already fished the pond of all the students who were going to go to university anyway, we need to find ways we can support the students that we aren’t getting to succeed.
“We’re looking at that, going ‘that’s what we’ve been doing here for 20 years’.”