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Universities Accord can promote inclusive development in northern Australia

Posted By , and on May 2, 2024 @ 11:30

Developing a Northern Australia that is resilient, economically and socially prosperous and prepared for our era of continuous and concurrent crises requires coordinated policies of governments at the federal, state, territory and local levels.

These policies must think big and implement bold actions, but must also be delivered in ways that are grounded in local realities (that is, place-based). As part of that, they must recognise that tertiary education and research in northern Australia is a key building block for success.

The Australian government is considering its response to the Universities Accord final report [1] just as it is refreshing its Developing Northern Australia agenda [2]. Connecting the two and delivering them in harmony offers an outstanding opportunity for inclusive and sustainable development in Northern Australia.

To facilitate cohesive delivery of both agendas, the three universities based in northern Australia—Charles Darwin University [3], CQUniversity [4] and James Cook University [5]—have entered into an enduring collaborative alliance, the Northern Australia Universities Alliance [6] (NAUA).

The NAUA represents an innovative, place-based platform to deepen collaboration across the tertiary sector within northern Australia.

We see direct linkages between the future development of the north, our universities and the education sector. By working together, we can maximise outcomes. We acknowledge that northern Australia is part of the nation’s broader education and research framework, so partnering with southern universities, particularly in Western Australia, is critical.

The NAUA provides a simple way for governments, industries, communities and other universities to partner to promote the region’s growth and prosperity. Working together to help implement the Universities Accord will support northern Australia in retaining and building key skills and research capabilities that will underpin the region’s future development.

The NAUA commits us to operating beyond traditional academic pursuits. In it we make a pledge to the future of Northern Australia and envisioning new and more influential roles for our institutions.

A core driver for NAUA collaboration is the region’s demographics. It is vast and sparsely populated: 5.3 percent of Australia’s population inhabits 53 percent of the country’s land. Northern Australia has a young population, with a median age two years below that of the rest of the country. This means that education and skills development can have an even more significant impact than they would otherwise. However, long distances, the smallness of communities, and widespread disadvantages make it harder to engage those who can benefit the most. This pushes up the costs of delivering education locally.

We know that increasing accessibility of higher education for local students empowers individuals and fosters regional growth. Equally, retaining talented locals and attracting newcomers to live, study and work in the north is vital to sustaining population and economic growth.

Consequently, the Australian government has put human capital development at the heart of the northern Australia refresh [7], just as the Universities Accord has prioritised needs-based funding to lift engagement and attainment. Such funding can facilitate the sort of transformation the northern development agenda seeks, enabling northern universities to succeed in sparse markets. A better-targeted approach that empowers our universities to tailor initiatives to meet the evolving demands of northern Australia has the best prospects for success.

The north is critical to Australia’s success on the road to decarbonisation. Massive renewable energy investments are needed to power Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific. New mining ventures will supply the critical minerals needed globally. Investment in these new industries will drive the next phase of northern development.

As we decarbonise, we must also transform industry and northern communities relying on diesel, gas and coal-based energy. Working with commonwealth, state, territory and local governments, the NAUA members can act as the place-based institutions needed to help drive long-term innovation, research and workforce development. Consequently, the Developing Northern Australia agenda’s priority on decarbonisation and the accord’s recommendation for a new Solving Australia’s Challenges Fund [8] for research provides a positive step. Investment in this place-focused work in partnership with industry and communities is crucial to the region.

Across all industry and service sectors, workforce limitations constrain the northern development agenda. We need to build strong workforce ecosystems, and universities within the region are required to help develop these. This is the core business of our institutions, with two providing vocational education as dual-sector institutions.

Current policies and limited resources have held us back, however. Developing a robust, skilled and adaptable northern workforce is key to linking people and education with workforce demands.

We look forward to working with industry and governments to identify future workforce needs, develop innovative educational pathways and increase the flow and success of local people and newcomers into these local education pathways.

It is also important for policymakers to understand that northern Australia is an Indigenous place, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounting for 17.7 percent of the population and holding rights across 78 percent of the land. So, an essential step for northern development involves achieving self-determination; empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to create wealth and well-being across their traditional estates, communities, and businesses.

Nationally, NAUA universities have the largest proportion of Indigenous students. In 2021, 5.9 percent of NAUA students identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, reflecting the population we serve and our dedication to diversity and inclusivity. Indigenous students are also embedded in vocational education; at CDU and CQU, respectively, they were 26.4 percent and 9.7 percent of vocational students in 2021. These cohorts predominantly hail from regional and remote areas.

We have senior Indigenous leadership in our three institutions, all working to find Indigenous-led solutions and to build better and authentic pathways for economic engagement and success. NAUA stands firmly in support of the initiative for a First Nations-led review of higher education, but we can also act now to advance better pathways to self-determination and Indigenous ownership of the next phase of northern development.

As the Universities Accord final report sets the stage for transformative change in tertiary education, NAUA is ready to lead and shape its implementation. By working together and leveraging our collective expertise, our northern communities can realise the aspirations of both the accord and the Developing Northern Australia agenda. We also need the federal government’s support to ensure policy harmony in delivery. We can create a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive future for the north through a collaborative effort.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/universities-accord-can-promote-inclusive-development-in-northern-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] final report: https://www.education.gov.au/australian-universities-accord/resources/final-report

[2] agenda: https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/ona-white-paper-refresh-and-indigenous-accord-flyer.pdf

[3] Charles Darwin University: https://www.cdu.edu.au/

[4] CQUniversity: https://www.cqu.edu.au/

[5] James Cook University: https://www.jcu.edu.au/

[6] Northern Australia Universities Alliance: https://naua.edu.au/

[7] refresh: https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/communique-namf-31-october-2022.pdf

[8] Solving Australia’s Challenges Fund: https://www.vu.edu.au/about-vu/news-events/opinion/universities-accord-gonski-style-funding-is-on-the-table-for-higher-ed

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