An editorial in today’s Age follows on from yesterday’s story about would-be students from regional areas being more likely to defer their university studies to improve their Youth Allowance eligibility.
The editorial draws attention to both the claimed under-funding of regional campuses and the added costs faced by regional students when they have to move to study, calling for an inquiry but effectively suggesting both receive additional Commonwealth resources. Yet there are tensions between improving income support for rural students and helping rural campuses.
I don’t believe that there is any inherent reason why educational delivery costs should be higher in regional areas. The problem seems to be achieving economies of scale by spreading fixed costs over a large number of students. That’s been hard to do for several reasons: low initial population density in regional areas, weak school results limiting the pool of potential applicants, and the preference of many students for study in capital cities.
In Victoria, there is only one truly regional university, the University of Ballarat (though Deakin University has a substantial regional presence, and other universities have rural campuses). The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre provides statistics for each university by the home region of applicants. 35% of applicants to Victorian universities from the Central Highland region where the University of Ballarat is located gave it as their first preference in 2005 for academic year 2006. So about two-thirds of potential local students actually want to go somewhere else – except for Swinburne, applications are spread fairly evenly across the other Victorian universities.
Making it easier for students to move to study by improving income support would increase the problems regional campuses face in holding on to both total numbers and the best students. The 35% market share of first preference applications received by Ballarat presumably includes people who have already decided that studying elsewhere is too expensive given their financial resources and the available income support. Improved income support could let more people attend the institution or take the course that is their real first preference.
In this, there could be a synergy between income support and creating a stronger higher education market. Fewer people would feel constrained to attend universities close to home, rather than the one that suits them best. And hopefully this would trigger changes within universities, creating distinctive strengths that attract people from elsewhere rather than spreading their resources thinly in trying to cater to as many local demands as possible. Of course this needs the other policy changes I have long advocated to make it work.
But it could also exacerbate the problems of regional campuses in achieving economies of scale. Simply giving them larger direct handouts is not the answer, since students are inputs into education as well as customers. The educational experience is not as good if there are few other students around. If maintaining regional campuses is a policy goal (I don’t think it should be, but politically it probably will be) ways are needed to actually attract students. A possibility is a voucher premium for regional campuses, to encourage students to attend.
If campuses cannot attract enough students even with this kind of support then they should not be sustained forever, like the Yes Prime Minister episode about the hospital with no patients.