By Ron Maxwell - CEO

I've always been a big believer in education as a catalyst for change; the right opportunities can help individuals and economies to thrive. But in many of Australia's regional areas, where skill shortages, unemployment, population decline, and mental health issues are on the rise, access to education has long been a challenge.  

This past month has seen the announcement of an inquiry into regional education in Victoria, and a Regional Youth Taskforce in New South Wales, which got me thinking. There is a huge disparity in access to education between our regional and metropolitan areas and it has been an issue for as long as I can remember. Over that time, there have been a number of government initiatives designed to address the issue, but we haven't found the right solution yet.

Education is vital but there are barriers

Access to education and training is vital for the health of individuals, communities, and even the broader economy. We regularly see the impacts of long-term unemployment on individuals and communities, from immediate mental health issues to creating a long-term cycle of unemployment that can negatively impact on future generations. One of our clients, Kerri, comes to mind, who knew she had to find employment not only for herself, but to break the cycle and set a good example for her teenage son. 

Improving access to education can also resolve skill shortages, which can present a much greater challenge in our regional areas. I recently discussed aged care skills shortages, and these are certainly exacerbated in many of our regions, such as Conargo Local Council, who are facing the prospect of a staggering 400:1 patient-to-carer ratio in the near future. 

In our regions, there are many barriers to education that don't exist or are far less prevalent in our cities. Some of these include a higher proportion of disadvantaged students, intergenerational unemployment and of course, distance and reduced access to courses. Even the courses that are available tend to be poorly funded and don’t adequately acknowledge many of the barriers to entry in the community. 

Understanding communities is critical

As a regional Australian myself, I think unsuccessful initiatives are defined by two things; an uncoordinated approach between different levels of government and a lack of understanding about life in our regions. While there is no denying that it costs more to deliver education in our regions and current funding doesn't cover that shortfall, simply throwing money at the issue isn’t the answer.

Decisions that affect education in our regions are often made by policy makers in our cities, who typically have little or no knowledge of life in the communities they are impacting. Without a first-hand understanding of the challenges, it's always going to be difficult to find an effective solution. 

The reality is this; life in our regions is substantially different to life in our cities and I see this first-hand, leading an organisation that operates in metropolitan, regional and remote locations. It also differs region-by-region; just like living in Sydney or Perth offers different lifestyles, benefits and challenges, so too does living in Bathurst or Townsville. 

The differences can be driven by the mix of local industry and farming, socio-economic and cultural factors, and distance to a major centre, to name just a few. So, when we lump these communities together and try to solve the challenge state-wide or even nationally, we see a disconnect. An initiative that does address a challenge in one region may not even break the surface for another. 

It didn’t surprise me that at a recent summit, local community leaders and citizens called for four major things; investing in 'soft infrastructure' such as education, closer collaboration with government,  policy that reflects the identity of their region, and a change in the way we talk about our regional areas that recognises the diversity and value of these communities. 

Locals need a voice

While money and policy always has a role to play, building an understanding of our regions is critical to ensuring they are employed in the right way. 

Community consultation, not just with activist groups, who often stem from the city – coming in with good intentions but little actual knowledge of life in the community - but with the individuals who make it what it is. The school and vocational educators, local leadership and the families facing the challenge must have a voice in decisions. After all, they live with the issues today and will live with the outcomes of policy decisions tomorrow.  We've seen before that money invested in our regions can be a short-term solution that can make the underlying challenges worse when the band aid is ripped off. 

Our regions are a significant contributor to our economy, producing much of the food we eat and the products we export, so it should be important to all of us to get the solution right and invest in these communities. 

It is my hope that programs and inquiries like those announced this week, will take a different approach, to truly understand the communities they are serving. In this way, we could break down some of the barriers, and ensure regional Australia gets the right investment in education, that will reduce unemployment and develop a strong economy.