Have you heard the joke about the university that tried to save a regional economy with one hand tied behind its back?
Sadly, it’s not a joke (although if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry). It’s simply the most fitting analogy for the predicament in which many regional universities have found themselves, due to the devastating and sustained impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
My university, CQUniversity, has not taken the outbreak of coronavirus lying down. When international borders closed and social distancing took effect, $100 million in annual revenue evaporated in an instant. But we recognise our importance to the regions we serve, so we knew defeat was not an option. In consultation with staff and unions, we made hard decisions, quickly, to reset our cost base, and made necessary sacrifices to ensure our long-term prosperity.
But being the first university out of the blocks post-COVID wasn’t enough; neither was cutting $50m in annual expenditure to shore up our future. No sooner had we lifted our head above water than the Commonwealth government announced a higher education reform package that would force all of us – as the cliché goes – to “do more with less”. It felt a bit like falling off a cliff and trying to assemble an airplane on the way down.
If you didn’t know any better, you might think the powers-that-be don’t think that universities (especially regional universities) are all that important.
And if you believe the well-worn rhetoric about universities – overpaid executives, big cash reserves, lethargic business models – you might well agree with them.
But if you paint all universities with the same broad brush, you miss a critical point when it comes to our regional institutions. And it’s this: now more than ever, regional universities are absolutely essential in the economic fightback of our regions following the pandemic. Especially when it comes to supporting rural and regional health delivery through the training of future workforces and dedicated research focused specifically on outcomes that are relevant to regional communities.
Training health professionals in the regions is a necessity for our communities. People who study in the regions are more likely to stay in the regions. Without local training bases we would face critical skill shortages in regional healthcare. Regional universities train great practitioners and our communities benefit from their knowledge and skills.
A great example of our innovative approach to training the professionals of tomorrow is how we were able to seamlessly pivot our practical healthcare training at the start of the pandemic. Our students who were completing clinical practicums at our health clinics started engaging in telehealth delivery rather than face-to-face delivery. Not only did this minimise disruption to their study, but they were also able to extend the provision of services further afield, while also being exposed to a delivery mechanism that may become more mainstream in “the new normal”.
Regional universities were well-placed to handle the disruption wrought by COVID-19, because they have already invested in online and digital technologies in order to service the needs of students in rural and remote areas. Ironically, while most of our (arguably better funded) metropolitan counterparts scrambled to adapt to an online world, regional universities were able to leverage their already flexible approach to learning and teaching.
And this nimble, forward-thinking approach actually translates into real and significant economic ripple effects throughout regional communities, belying the relative size of our regional institutions. This isn’t just hot air from a self-interested regional Vice-Chancellor. The independently verified numbers speak for themselves.
Recently, CQUniversity commissioned an independent third party to measure our economic impact on Northern Australia. CQUniversity has a significant campus footprint in Northern Australia, from Cairns in the north to Gladstone in the south and several towns and cities in between.
The study confirms what we’ve long known: that CQUniversity, and by extension regional universities, contribute significantly to the regions in terms of financial output and jobs supported.
According to the study, CQUniversity pumps a whopping $1.2 billion in direct and indirect expenditure into the Northern Australia economy each year; adjust that for consumption-related effects and our total output is $1.8bn per year. Every dollar spent on CQUniversity operations supports an additional $13.50 in spending across other industries. And we’re just one example; similar scenarios play out in regions across the country. Bottom line: if we want strong regions post-coronavirus, we need strong universities leading the charge.
Couple our engaged research impact with our contribution to regional workforces, particularly critical health services, and you have a formidable combination of factors that might leave you scratching your head as to why universities don’t rate highly on the post-pandemic stimulus list.
In a post-pandemic world, not only can universities play an instrumental role in regional recovery if given a fighting chance; we can help build resilience in regional communities that will ensure those communities survive the next pandemic, natural disaster or economic collapse.