First National Conference on the
Future of Australia's Country Towns
The Regional Institute

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Introductory remarks

Professor L A Kilmartin

Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean Latrobe University, Bendigo

Let me first of all welcome all of you to this conference co-hosted by La Trobe university's Bendigo campus, the home of what is known as the Bendigo faculty. It is a pleasure to have you here at this important conference. I know that the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Osborne, who is currently on leave, would join me in welcoming you here.

The campus is a pleasant one, as you will discover, with many facilities and resources. I hope you will feel free to explore the campus - in fact, we have two - and look into buildings especially some of distinctive ones such as our award winning ironbark centre. We have a wonderful and important art collection in the education building and I hope you will all attend the special regional artists art opening at our Phyllis Palmer gallery on Thursday evening.

I guess that there will be opportunities at another time to thank various parties but perhaps I should record how important it has been to collaborate with Trevor Budge and his colleagues at RPD in planning this conference. It is an excellent example of how universities and businesses can collaborate to achieve important outcomes.

When I was considering what I might be able to contribute to this opening session, my thoughts turned to the astonishing claim that we are making that this is the first national conference on country towns. Could that be true? Is this country so committed to levels of urbanisation that are among the world's highest that it has consistently overlooked its country towns?

As I thought back over my own career, it struck me that perhaps it is the case that there has been precious little attention, particularly in forums such as this, paid to the particular form of human settlement that is the country town. Early on in my career, I worked on the national growth centre program in regional Victoria. While that program did not specifically focus on country towns, it did hold the possibility of taking the national focus away from the large, coastal metropolitan centres.

As I thought more about that program, it occurred to me that we may have moved on since those days in the level of sophistication we are applying to the circumstances of Australian country towns. Let me explain what I mean.

First, I think we now recognise that the plight of many country communities is now so extreme that the social, economic, cultural and political fallout has nationwide significance. It is not possible to think of rural and regional Australia as a discrete entity whose fortunes have no implications for urban Australia. A healthy urban Australia requires a healthy regional and rural Australia. It is no longer possible for city dwellers to tell country Australians that their part of the boat is leaking.

Second, earlier attempts to address the problems of rural and regional Australia were based on faulty logic. In particular, one thinks of the decentralisation policies of the early 1970s. These were based on theoretical models of an ideal Australian population spread, fuzzy notions about the unsustainability of the major cities and a false belief that urban residents were ready to relocate to a small number of regional centres chosen by government. (and was observed at the time, decentralisation was every government's policy and no-one's program.) Inevitably, such decentralisation programs failed.

Third, thinking these days is superior to the population decentralisation model. Governments these days will not try to identify growth centres or new towns, government will not contribute significant finances to support country centres, the leadership required to make a difference to country towns will not come from government, government will not attempt to pick winners.

Rather, government will facilitate corporate involvement and investment, government will establish partnerships with corporations and communities to achieve regional and rural renewal. Government will attempt to persuade corporations that they can do well by doing good.

And in contrast with earlier programs, government will work in partnerships and through community foundations in ways which allow communities to identify and achieve their own goals and ways which give all communities some hope of renewal. I imagine this will be a pervasive theme of our conference.

Fourth, since the ill-fated decentralisation models, the world of information technology has dramatically changed and grown and provided new tools for renewing even the smallest community and for connecting the residents and businesses of any part of the nation with any other part of the nation or the world.

I hope that this development and its immense potential will also be addressed over these next few days. In particular, what are the possibilities for industry, business, education and communities of the internet, e-commerce, on-line education and so on?

In short, we are on the verge of a new era in rich with possibilities for identifying strategies for renewing and reviving Australian country towns.

Let me now say a few words about the role of a country university.

Over the past five years, I have been preoccupied with the question of the role of the university in a regional centre and its surrounding country towns. I am convinced that its role is profoundly different, in some respects, from that of the typical metropolitan university - and equally important.

These differences arise not so much from a need to provide different courses - such differences are at the margins - but more as a result of social and geographical context, scale of operations and the nature of our clientele. And here there are some challenging questions for universities that go to the heart of what it means to have a regional mission.

The regional university is inevitably more intimately related to its community. It more clearly shares a common fate with its communities than does its metro counterpart and its contributions to its communities can make a profound difference to those communities. Communities care about their university and universities care about their communities.

Inevitably, also, the regional university is a small scale operation compared with the typical Australian university which is now a large, complex organisation. This imposes additional costs on the regional university but confers certain opportunities - indeed imperatives - to be fleet of foot, responsive to external circumstances and anti-bureaucratic.

Finally, the country university has a somewhat different clientele. To begin with, it has a very wide range of educational experience and attainment among its students and this can make teaching them somewhat more difficult.

It also has to confront the contemporary obsession with university entrance scores as an indicator of institutional status. If your students have the highest vce scores in the state, yours must be a better university, your staff must be better teachers and researchers and, of course, you deserve a disproportionately larger share of government funding. To understand that this is often the reverse of what good educational funding should be about is the beginning of wisdom in ensuring strong regional universities.

In fact, of course, many students from country schools have had educational circumstances that are deprived relative to their counterparts in many well resourced metro schools. Their family circumstances have often been more difficult and the support for their school attendance and the resourcing of their schools have often been poorer.

Notwithstanding these facts, I can tell you that these students often perform just as well as more advantaged students when they get to university. Instead of university entrance scores, we prefer to judge our performance as a country university by our students' final results where they compare more than favourably with their city counterparts.

So, what are the ways in which a country university serves its community?

During 1999, I spent quite some time thinking about this matter and I prepared a document for La Trobe entitled `engaging with the regions'. The vision statement sets a goal for the university to `contribute uniquely to social, cultural and economic development and regional sustainability in the Murray valley region'. In terms of the university's core business, the plan requires the university to provide in its regions life long learning programs that meet the needs of country residents and relevant applied research.

The strategy also requires the university to enter into partnerships with local communities and business stakeholders for mutual advantages. It establishes an office for regional partnerships and an office of regional business development to supplement another innovation, the recent appointment of a foundation professor of regional business.

Another significant initiative is our centre for sustainable regional communities.

The centre was established at Bendigo during 1998 after an intensive community consultation. Its aims are to undertake training and research and to expand the university's community service role through community partnerships. Three major areas of activity were identified in the centre's strategic plan:

  • environmental and natural resource management
  • community development and leadership
  • regional economic, social and demographic data bases

The growth of the centre has been steady and it is now making a significant difference both within the region and within the university. I say `within the university' since I am leading a major program of raising the consciousness of academics with respect to their obligations and opportunities as far as the regional and rural communities and businesses are concerned.

Within the region, the centre is making significant contributions such as:

  • Sponsoring this first national conference on the future of Australia's country towns with the theme `practical strategies for sustainable futures'.
  • Conducting a pilot project for the community employment council (central Victoria) through the regional assistance program and designed to stimulate employment and economic development in seven small communities.
  • Published the northern region profile (with RPD)

I would also like to offer two recent examples of ways in which we have led initiatives designed to meet training and education needs in the central Victorian region. Both evolved from consultations with regional stakeholders, both meet pressing regional development needs, both attempt to devise programs which will keep university graduates in the country and both promote continuing community involvement.

Rural pharmacy. In response to approaches from country pharmacists, La Trobe university Bendigo introduced a rural pharmacy degree this year. This is the first pharmacy degree outside metropolitan Melbourne and it will address a serious shortfall in pharmacists in the region.

Regional and rural planning. Recognising a serious manpower shortage, La Trobe university Bendigo will introduce a suite of new post graduate planning diplomas and degrees during 2000. The initiative has been welcomed by rural and regional municipalities and the state government who, together with students, will provide on going funding for the program.

The important point to note about the Bendigo faculty is the way in which it relates with its community and tries to understand community needs for education, research and community outreach. This conference is another illustration of what we are about. I hope all of you enjoy your stay at the university and in Bendigo and that the conference opens many doors for you.

L A Kilmartin
28 June 2000

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