Synergy in tough times: how UTAS is regenerating itself and the island state

Professor Peter Rathjen, Vice-Chancellor, University of Tasmania, writing in Campus Review


The University of Tasmania and the state it serves have a powerful connection; revitalising higher education can be the key to a return to prosperity.

At a time when regional campuses in Australia appear under threat, the news that the University of Tasmania will invest $300 million to revitalise higher education in Northern Tasmania has raised some eyebrows. Equally surprising, the project, which is ambitious in breadth and scope, attracted multipartisan support at federal and state levels, and across the Tasmanian community. It was a local issue through the recent election, when both major parties committed $150 million in funding, matching contributions from state, university and local councils.

Much of the public attention has focused on the prospect of new campuses in Launceston and Burnie, proud regional communities that have fallen on hard times. The problem the university is tackling, however, is much more than a need for bricks and mortar.

The project is part of a long-term vision for the university to harness its unique connection to the Tasmanian state and develop a central role in future prosperity on the island. The vision incorporates a distinctive educational program that responds to the needs of Tasmanians and is defined by the island’s demography, geography and economy.

Deep connection between university and state

Like many Australian locales, Tasmania is in economic transition. The island has, for many decades, been supported by commodity-based industries and manufacturing that are now closing, shrinking or attempting renewal.

The population and the economy are hamstrung by persistent low employment and wages 20 per cent below the national average. There is a growing, community-wide, recognition that the future social and economic prosperity of the state must be founded upon investment in its people. It’s a future that will be based on innovation and human capital, new knowledge and a skilled workforce with the ability to use knowledge in creative ways.

It is an uncomfortable truth that this future is constrained by low levels of education, with participation at secondary and tertiary levels trailing national averages. Talented Tasmanians are sidelined from economic participation by a lack of skills development.

The University of Tasmania is the sole university in the state. It serves as the key provider of tertiary education, the training ground for the professions and the most important research provider. It is a major economic contributor in its own right, one of the largest Tasmanian businesses and employers outside government. If innovation and human capital are the foundation of Tasmania’s future, then the University of Tasmania must be placed at the centre of its renaissance.

An embedded university system for Tasmania

In 2015, the University of Tasmania signed a comprehensive memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the state government. This agreement articulates a shared vision for the role the university will play in advancing the social and economic prosperity of Tasmania over the next decade. It defines targets for educational attainment, professional training, health and education delivery, research and innovation, international engagement, growth in industry, revenue and jobs. The MoU embeds a place for community in the university mission and defines a role for community in informing the university’s agenda. Institutional autonomy remains a critical determinant of quality and distinctiveness; the agreement is informative rather than instructive.

The university is responding to the needs of Tasmania by rolling out a new model of higher education, based on the tenets of affordability, flexibility and regionality, and designed to meet the needs of the Tasmanian population. The model will involve the formation of an integrated university system, maintaining and reinvigorating the regional campuses.

Affordability, flexibility and regionality

Like all Australian universities, the University of Tasmania offers a portfolio of bachelor and professional degrees for Tasmanians who have attained a qualifying ATAR. University graduates work in local industries and provide critical services for the population. What concerns the university is that Tasmanian participation in education, including higher education, is the lowest in Australia. Alone, traditional offerings are unlikely to raise participation to reasonable levels; existing pre-degree and sub-degree programs have been useful but insufficient. It falls to the University of Tasmania to determine why large numbers of young Tasmanians are not attracted by, or qualifying for, entry into higher education.

Affordability is a critical issue on an island where most are far from wealthy. The key financial issue does not appear to be the cost of education itself; this can be borrowed through the HECS scheme, with repayment contingent on earnings. But living away from home is expensive, about $12,000-15,000 a year. Increased regional delivery provides a solution; for example, commuter-based campuses can be accessed from home and enable students to balance education with employment and family responsibilities.

Shorter, flexible programs that reduce time out of the workforce have proven attractive to non-traditional cohorts in other jurisdictions. Genuine local relevance – based on a match between teaching and research programs and distinctively local milieu – offers prospects of a job or a better job.

Realisation of these ambitions is predicted to increase the attractiveness and accessibility of the university’s offerings to the Tasmanian population, creating opportunity for graduates where they live, improving local economic performance, providing a regionally relevant skills base, and improving prospects for local development.

Diversification to attract more Tasmanians into higher education does not challenge our existing strengths in education and research. Rather, it is a new mission matched to economic circumstance and community need.

A new model for tertiary education

The associate degree, familiar in the US and parts of Asia, is not common in Australia but fits the criteria required to lift Tasmanian participation rates. Unlike pre- and sub-degree programs, which are used primarily to articulate students into bachelor programs, the associate degree will be a standalone Level 6 qualification, recognised by employers and targeted at a cohort that may be attracted by vocationally relevant pathways for entry or re-entry into education.

Associate degrees will be teaching-intensive rather than research-focused, and can be studied over a 40-week teaching year, a delivery that reduces cost to both government and student. The curriculum can be informed, and in part delivered, by industry partners, and tailored to local industries. In Tasmania, these include agriculture and aquaculture in parts of the state, advanced manufacturing and the like, in others.

Associate degrees are based on curriculum, rather than competency. They address a gap between the technical training offered through the VET sector and the academic requirements of the bachelor degree. Experience elsewhere suggests that attainment levels and employment outcomes amongst non-traditional cohorts may be higher for associate degrees than for bachelor programs, with the prospect of reducing unpaid HECS loans.

Critically, the associate degrees to be offered at the University of Tasmania will be structured to allow students to decide in their second year between a two-year qualification that takes them directly into the workforce, or a pathway that emphasises more academic content. They will then be able to articulate, with credit, into a cognate bachelor degree. If the American example is anything to go by, about 40 per cent of students will choose further study.

Independent modelling suggests this mode of education will improve prospects for Tasmanian communities, such as those in the north, and is likely to reduce costs to both taxpayer and student. It is ideally piloted in Tasmania and may then be applicable across Australia. The first University of Tasmania associate degrees will be launched in 2017; strong industry  support is already evident.

Economic renewal and infrastructure

For associate degrees to be successful, they must be delivered regionally, where the need for increased university participation is greatest and the advantages of commuter access are most acute.

Our campuses in Launceston and Burnie are tired, away from the public transport hubs and in locations invisible to the majority of Tasmanians. Placement of renewed infrastructure at the physical heart of the regional cities embodies the concept of placing higher education at the centre of statewide renewal and facilitates access to public transport. Highly visible buildings that celebrate education, students and student life can bring awareness of university education to the tens of thousands of Tasmanians for whom it has never been on the radar – a new and realistic life choice.

The expanded student cohort that is at the heart of this model is both a consumer base and a workforce. Located within an ecosystem that supports part-time work, internships and social balance, the students can bring about socioeconomic revitalisation, filling empty shops and helping establish new businesses. Education in this context can form part of the new economic mix required for prosperity, as a clean, green industry that adapts to technology and need. Independent economic modelling suggests a direct and indirect economic impact of $1.1 billion during construction and an ongoing annual impact of $428 million in direct economic output, including additional staff salaries and student expenditure.

These developments in the north of the state complement major new infrastructure in the south. The university is transforming the skyline of the state’s cities and with it the educational aspirations and future prosperity of Tasmanian communities.

The university’s mission recognises that higher education in the 21st century must include participation beyond the traditional base. Further, if innovation is to be at the heart of our economy, then education must be at the heart of our communities.

Photo credit: Alastair Bett Photography

Professor Peter Rathjen is the vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania. Follow the uni on Twitter @UTAS_

This article was originally published in Campus Review

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