In 2018, only 22.7 per cent of people aged 25 to 34 years in regional or remote Australia had obtained a Bachelor degree or higher, compared to 44.6 per cent in metropolitan areas. The further from a metropolitan centre, the lower the percentage of individuals successfully completing higher education. Yet the benefits of completing a higher education qualification relate to improved social, economic and health outcomes – equipping the individual with knowledge, skills and opportunities to be autonomous, responsible and productive citizens.
The Country Universities Centre (CUC) seeks to redress this disparity by partnering with higher education institutions to offer local support to students, to enable them to study in their regional community. The CUC offers a network of campus-like facilities across New South Wales (NSW), Queensland and Victoria. They provide high speed internet (100 Mbps symmetrical), desktop computers or bring-your-own-device spaces, videoconferencing facilities, printing, as well as tutorial spaces and areas for social collaboration. They also offer rural students wraparound support through a dedicated Learning Skills Advisor, administrative support such as navigating university platforms, wellbeing support and peer support through a community of like-minded students.
The concept was initiated in the small NSW town of Cooma, in 2013, by the local community, supported by local business and local government. In 2017, the NSW Government recognised the positive impact of the Cooma centre and provided seed funding to expand the model into additional regional communities: Broken Hill (in 2018), then Grafton, Narrabri, Moree, Griffith and Leeton (in 2019). These centres were further supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Universities Centres program, which enabled the establishment of a further six facilities in NSW, Queensland and Victoria in 2021.
In 2020, 803 students registered with the CUC, of which 97 per cent resided in a regional or remote area. Just under half (45 per cent) of all students were the first in their family to study, and 63 per cent were from low socioeconomic regions (based on Index of Education and Occupation). Three quarters of students registered were female (76 per cent), and 59 per cent were 25 years of age or over. A health qualification is the most popular area of study and comprises 28 per cent of students, of which 12 per cent identify as Indigenous (n=26). This compares favourably with the national average of all domestic university health students in 2019, of which 2 per cent identify as Indigenous.
In addition to a dedicated space for study, links have been made with education institutions to provide qualification content support with the aim of supporting students to complete their degree. Charles Sturt University is one of the most popular institutions for students studying health who are registered with the CUC, and a logical choice for a partnership. Charles Sturt supports the educational development of students in rural and remote areas and, through the Three Rivers Department of Rural Health, seeks to encourage graduates to consider rural health careers. This aligns closely with the intent of the CUC in supporting students to study locally and potentially remain in these rural locations.
In May 2020, the CUC and Charles Sturt collaborated to offer free specialised tutoring to students studying nursing. The nurse tutor role provides students with content-specific assistance with nursing concepts and interventions, demystifies academic and clinical terminology, and assists with translating knowledge into practice at an industry standard. The nurse tutor is supported with education guidelines provided by Charles Sturt, to reduce duplication of services and to mirror the theoretical framework of the nursing curriculum.
The outcome of student evaluations determines the pathway to more effective student support and the direction of the collaborations.