Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Can Armidale’s educational base survive?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 24 June 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Armidale’s core business is education. We all know this, but a few numbers just as a reminder.

At the last census, 12.1 per cent of the workers in the Armidale/Dumaresq local government area were employed in tertiary education, a further 7.8 per cent in school education, making a total of 19.9 per cent. They were followed by primary production on 5.7 per cent and then cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services on 4.9 per cent.

Within this mix, the university is especially important because it brings income and people to Armidale. While boarding is still important, the school sector itself depends heavily on the local population and hence on the University. When UNE catches a cold, Armidale gets flue.

Armidale’s core education business is under threat. Again, I think that we all know this.

The problem is to find the best way of responding to the threat. This depends in turn on understanding the dynamics that lie behind it.

Armidale is presently caught in a three way squeeze between demographic change, current approaches to public policy and sectoral change.

The demographic trends are well known and I won’t dwell on them.

The population base surrounding the university is simply too small to provide the necessary internal undergraduate numbers. To survive, UNE has to draw its students from a broader catchment. This has always been the case.

UNE’s ability to do this has been seriously constrained not just by recurring internal problems, but also by the way higher education is funded in this country.

Most students have to work to fund their university education, and Armidale has very few part time jobs. This means that students coming to UNE need some other form of financial support.

The problems created for UNE by current public policy do not end here.

One of the features of public policy over the last twenty or so years has been a remarkable instability. Governments keep tinkering and changing their approaches.

We can see this in Armidale very clearly because the effects are so marked. It makes any form of sensible planning at institutional level very difficult.

Problems are made worse by an increasingly mechanistic command and control approach to public policy. We live in a world today dominated by measurement, benchmarks, targets, outputs and plans all over sighted by the great modern public gods of efficiency and effectiveness.

I have argued that our current system is neither efficient nor effective.

Putting that aside, the practical effect at institutional level is that the more dependant you are on public funding, the less real freedom you have to do new things outside those mandated by Government. And UNE is especially dependant on direct funding.

The combination of demographic change with ever-changing approaches to education policy has set in train wave after wave of structural change within the higher education sector.

Again, this has worked against UNE.

The creation and then break-up of the network university not only drained UNE funds, but also cost it much of its traditional North Coast base. The University was also very slow to respond to the emergence of new and effective competitors in distance education.

The latest challenge that UNE faces can be summarised in two words, Charles Sturt. CSU is seeking to position itself as the national regional university and in doing so has attracted considerable interest and financial support from Canberra. That support provides a sign of official Commonwealth thinking; big is still better.

I do not envy UNE’s senior management over recent years. The University has done some good things, things I have written about, but it must be very hard working under such severe constraints in an ever changing environment.

There is too much public investment in Armidale to close the Armidale campus entirely. The real risk is that UNE might be forcibly merged with someone else, with the Armidale campus becoming merely a declining branch campus.

I don’t think that this is yet inevitable.

In my next column I will suggest some things that Armidale might do to protect its core education business.

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