The pandemic has brought about an energetic rethinking of the role and nature of higher education into the future, but these visions don’t always take account of the challenges and opportunities facing regional and rural Australia. We cannot afford to be left out or left behind on this.
The university of the future should refashion its role in a specific place-based context by increasing attention to community engagement and building mutually beneficial relationships between universities, communities and industry.
As far as place-based education goes, it is surely in regional and rural Australia that these kinds of relationships are likely to have the biggest impact and the most success as communities come together to solve their own endemic and emerging issues. It is also here that the promise of higher education is barely taking root, only to be abruptly disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet a shift in this direction opens alternative possibilities that would see the scope and promise of the Country Universities Centres (CUCs) increase exponentially.
One of the cornerstones of the CUC network is an emphasis on equity, addressing the rural-metropolitan educational divide. The most immediate causes of this gap are the high economic and social costs of relocating to pursue higher education – and reduced access to reliable internet connectivity, which can reinforce a lesser appreciation for the intangible benefits of higher education and diminished access to the cultural capital that underpin wealth creation in a capitalist economy. All of which see metropolitan students significantly advantaged by geography alone.
The CUCs were established to create a more equitable higher education landscape in Australia. By offering a physical space for learning that is quiet, safe, and supported by professional and academic staff, CUC registered students are positioned to overcome some of the constraints that make their university degrees so much harder to attain from a distance, or at all. The overall benefit is for the whole community; by reducing the need to relocate for further study, the CUCs are in a unique position to stop the “brain drain” on struggling towns and to reduce the educational gap that contributes to larger geographical inequalities.
In a discussion on the future of higher education where what is at stake is nothing less than the definition and value of connectivity, it is incumbent upon us to think deeply about how human connection will play a role in building relationships of reciprocity and mutual benefit. While the notion of connectivity has been hijacked by the technology industry, this of course is but one means by which human connections can and should be forged. And given the barriers to online connectivity facing regional, rural and remote (RRR) communities, the necessity of face-to-face connection remains inevitable.
So when the globally influential EY presents an apparently inevitable and and necessary vision for higher education in which individualised AI demand-driven learning is equated with accessibility and connectivity, we should pay attention. This vision of the death of classrooms and the spotifisation of education doesn’t take account of barriers to accessing and interpreting that knowledge, let alone the personal transformations and cultural capital that students develop through in-person learning. In contrast, personalised, face-to-face academic support from a qualified Learning Skills Advisor is a critical service that fills the gap left by a higher education sector designed without the needs of regional Australians in mind and by a distance education model operating as an afterthought for bridging the access gap for those unable or unwilling to relocate.
A third space – relationality and reciprocity
As an affiliated network, the CUC responds to local demands and gives equity and connectivity priority status. And in doing so, they are starting on the path to socially useful and mutually beneficial relationships between universities and the broader community, through the application of discipline specific knowledge in context and the fostering of reciprocity. These are precisely the kinds of relationships that online learning has largely been unable to nurture and that students studying from a distance most crave.
And the potential for meaningful collaboration is limitless. Discussion circles, reading groups, peer-centred, student-led and cohort-specific groups are just some of the flexible and imaginative ways that students can support one another and grow those soft skills and life experiences that higher education promises: a transformation of self through an exploration of knowledge in collaboration with mentors and peers.
The third space that the CUC represents provides the perfect opportunity to experiment in bridging the gap between the necessity of human connection and the reality of a growing online emphasis. Physical hubs in seemingly forgotten places operate to lessen the tyranny of distance burdening RRR students, while community embeddedness ensures that individual success translates into community wellbeing and prosperity by creating and keeping dignified employment local. As part of a larger network of CUCs, individuals are well positioned to take advantage of whatever comes in the future of higher education.
Ella Dixon is the learning skills advisor, Country Universities Centre, Macleay Valley. She has a PhD in Sociology from Macquarie University and over 10 years’ experience tutoring and lecturing in the university sector. She has worked at Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, and Charles Sturt University.
The main image is taken from Country Universities Centres.