By DAVID MYTON

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn’s argument that many higher education institutions have disengaged themselves from their local communities (see my previous HECG Trendwatch) has been challenged this week by Universities Australia.

In its latest newsletter UA says Australia’s higher education sector is globally oriented but also has a strong local role in regional, rural and remote communities as well as outer suburbs of metropolitan areas.

Universities, it says, are significant employers with huge spillover benefits for their local economies.

“They are often the mainstay of their communities. Facilities and services for their local communities range from medical and dental clinics, to community and sporting venues, and even act as emergency shelters during natural disasters.”

UA is using the newsletter in the main to muster arguments against the Turnbull Government’s Budget proposals for the sector.

Vice-Chancellors have already expressed “deep concern” about what they say will be the negative impact of the proposed public investment cuts and student fee rises.

That’s the context, but politics aside they do make a strong case for the extent and impact for universities’ engagement with their communities.

For example, University of Tasmania vice-chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen looks at how universities can reinvigorate regional economies, with examples from the work of his own institution in a state that is “confounded by high levels of underemployment and regionality, poor social mobility and an economic environment that supports an average wage some 20 per cent below the mainland average”.

New programs have been launched, he says, starting with associate degrees designed to drive access and boost employability.

“These programs, delivered in the regional Tasmanian centres, will produce graduates to meet local industry needs, and carry up to 100 per cent credit towards bachelors entry. The first participants have been from cohorts not traditionally associated with university study, and not attracted to bachelor programs.”

Critical to reversing a culture “that does not see or understand the benefits of post-secondary education” is lifting the visibility and profile of the university so that prospective students can see and interact with university life “to understand that their school mates and relations – people like them – can participate with success”.

And so the university is building new inner-city campuses in Launceston and Burnie, new infrastructure in the Hobart city centre, and links to improved transport options.

“Introduction into the CBDs of thousands of students, at once a consumer base and a workforce, energises the social context, drives economic advance and attracts private investment,” he writes.

“Defining a position for the university at the heart of the community that is Tasmania is a statement of the importance we attach to knowledge, education and innovation as the foundations of tomorrow, and recognition that it is from that community that we draw authenticity and meaning.”

In an inspiring article Professor Adam Shoemaker, vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University and a leading researcher in Indigenous literature and culture, among other things tells of the university’s work with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience program. Its Coffs Harbour campus, the university’s smallest, was one of the first sites outside of Sydney to have an AIME program, starting 12 years ago.

More than 1000 Indigenous students are being mentored in AIME this year, he writes, including at locations in Lismore, the Gold Coast “and everywhere that we operate”.

“Although Southern Cross is one of smallest universities in Australia by total population, it has one of the highest Indigenous participation rates of any institution of higher education in the nation,” he says.

“Every day that I enter the VCs office I remember that fact. And telling that story gives all of us a greater appreciation of future potential, of what Australia could be.”