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They say that time flies when you are having fun. It is difficult to judge whether that is the case for our government or university leaders right now. When a new Albanese government was returned in May, we entered winter with a pre-occupation with pandemic recovery, forthcoming economic uncertainty, and universities hoping for a change in support from government.

Little more than 100 days later, we have entered spring with a review of the ARC about to start, a cancellation of ERA, 20,000 new student places, and jobs and skills being top of everyone’s mind.

The reaffirmed commitment to employability in all forms of tertiary education are obvious. The particular focus on rebuilding the VET sector and freeing up of TAFE places is clear for all to see.

The scramble for jobs, and students to fill them, looks like becoming a state-based battleground again. Free places for nursing university education in Victoria are being met with consideration of how to respond in other states.

The new policy priority is undoubtedly one focused on accessibility to higher education and meeting skills and jobs needs by engaging relatively under-represented members of the community.

How does this apply to our variety of universities and how well placed are leaders in each, to change to respond?

The 10-year strategy that the University of Queensland published in the summer of 2021 had a clear commitment to increasing access from equity groups as one of its pillars. It is now a focus for fund-raising efforts. This has been re-energised recently with the Queensland Commitment pledging opportunity for all Queenslanders to overcome personal, financial and geographical barriers to education, in allowing 30% of UQ domestic UG students in 2032 to be low-SES or of regional or remote backgrounds.

That will call for new ways of doing things in St Lucia that will require agility among leaders. And it will have ramifications for regional universities in the state, that they themselves will need leadership responses to.

And now the University of Sydney has released its own 10-year strategy, as spring gets underway, with a priority in attracting disadvantaged students including through scholarships of up to $25,000 over the course of their degree. That has not been the priority at Sydney up until now and will call for quite a change in culture to bring about.

Since the recent announcement that the Australian Government will fund 20,000 additional university places from 2023, the Group of 8 and other metropolitan universities have been quickly positioning themselves to bid for the lion’s share. The places will be allocated to students from low-socio economic status (SES) backgrounds, rural and remote areas, First Nations people, first-in-family students and people with disabilities.

But around 28 per cent of the Australian population live in regional, rural and remote areas. It is a significant but all-too-often overlooked segment of the nation that suffers from the disparity in services and investment in comparison to their metropolitan cousins.

In the 21st century, this imbalance has been most obviously borne out in the provision of health services. But in recent years, and since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic especially, this inequity has also been reflected in a critical shortage of a broader range of workforce skills which is starting to hurt our cities, towns and most significantly impacts regions.

According to the National Skills Commission, regional employers can only fill 57 per cent of their vacancies, compared to 63 per cent in the cities. As recently as July, the Regional Australia Institute reported 86,900 regional job vacancies.

Regionally based employers of all sizes and descriptions are reporting extreme challenges in finding suitable qualified and trained staff. Skilled workers in health, education, engineering, business and IT are desperately needed, even more so given the ongoing tree-change migration which was launched by the COVID lockdowns and continues to expand regional Australia’s population.

Most regional universities’ students come from regional areas and a high proportion – around 75 per cent at Charles Sturt – go on to work in regional areas after graduation. For comparison, only a quarter of graduates from metropolitan and outer urban universities go on to work in regional areas.

If UQ and Sydney do attract a greater proportion of regional and remote students, this may worsen where the most acute worker shortages are rather than make it better. For this reason, regional universities are essential in addressing critical and chronic skills shortages in regional Australia and need to strongly articulate this case and make sure they are responding to the need and opportunity for growth in regional provision out of the 20,000 new funded places.

Regional universities have long led the way in making higher education accessible for disadvantaged demographics and have a need and opportunity to lead their institutions to take advantage of these changes of policy now.

In 2021, Charles Sturt’s student participation rates for low SES (20.7 per cent of all students), First Nations (3.4 per cent) and regional, rural and remote Australians (51 per cent) were amongst the highest in the Australian university sector.

The last segment of students is especially telling in the context of the recent Jobs and Skills Summit. Regional students want to study in the communities where they live. Upon graduation, regional communities need their skills in country towns and communities, not siphoned away to the cities. This is how to build the much-needed skilled labour force regional Australia needs.

What we are seeing as new governments with new policies emerge, and as the seasons fly by, is a picture of continuous change in the context and the drivers of our universities and the education they provide. It is an agenda calling for continuous change in universities, their leadership and how programs and support is provided.

It demands skills of agility, managing complexity and repositioning in leaders. Such leaders have often been selected up until now because of their prowess in their academic disciplines. They now need leadership development to innovate and lead change.

And it calls for building a culture open to innovation across whole university communities led by leaders who can manage complexity. Such a dynamic has long been the norm in the public service and the corporate world. We are learning of it becoming the new normal for higher education too.

Drawing on leaders and leadership skills from the public service and corporate worlds and applying them effectively in our universities is going to be more important as one season and policy setting migrates into the next.

First published in Campus Review on 13th September 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Renee Leon is vice chancellor of Charles Sturt University