Remote, rural and regional Australians experience human rights concerns accessing quality education. Rural participation, retention and achievement in education are far below urban Australia. Yet education is the pathway to opportunity and productivity for disadvantaged people and communities. The recent Federal budget provided some positive steps towards addressing education concerns in rural Australia, but much more is needed.
A collaborative proposal was developed by ten members of the Rural Industries and Rural Communities stream at the Australia 2020 Summit. It collates ideas from the summit, and demands that education is prioritised for rural revitalisation, sustainability and productivity. The proposal ensures that all rural Australians can access their human right to education, and promotes rural social inclusion. Our initiative embraces our long-term, 2020 vision for rural Australia:
By 2020, all rural Australians will have equitable access to quality education and training opportunities. These opportunities will encompass: community-based early childhood learning; primary and secondary education; vocational education and training; higher education; online learning; professional development; and lifelong learning.
This proposal intends to increase the skills, knowledge, opportunities, capacity and productivity of rural Australians, and ensure parity of educational opportunities between rural and urban Australians from “the cradle to the grave” It will increase participation, retention and achievement of rural Australians in education, and address the rural skills shortage and support rural population growth.
The following key strategies will ensure rural access to, and equity and excellence in, the Education Revolution:
A “national voice” for rural education
We need a “national voice” for remote, rural and regional education. A funded peak body will ensure rural education is equitably represented in education policy development and decision-making. The peak body will include education providers, recipients, and associated groups, building upon the current Rural Education Forum Australia model.
National rural education strategy
A national rural education strategy will provide a collaborative policy framework that embraces early childhood education through to adult learning for all remote, rural and regional Australians. It will ensure that no rural Australian is left behind.
Flexible and online learning opportunities
Many rural students cannot access specialised educational courses in rural communities. Funding and support is required to develop and expand primary, secondary, TAFE and higher education online courses. This strategy also encourages rural young people to complete their education in rural communities.
Satellite Education Centres with high tech, high speed communications
The current shortage of teachers impacts highest on remote, rural and regional education. Sending students to cities and regional centres for quality education should not be our only option. This strategy proposes “state of the art” education centres as the hub of towns, with the highest quality teachers zoomed in online. Teaching would be interactive, innovative, exciting and of the highest quality, while maintaining the presence of face-to-face teaching; similar to Rural Clinical Schools for medicine students. These centres will also encourage metropolitan Australians to relocate to rural Australia for their education.
Non-means tested Youth Allowance and Tertiary Access Allowance for all rural tertiary students
Many remote, rural and regional young people must relocate to an urban or regional centre for tertiary education, and encounter considerable costs (recent research estimated expenses of $15,000-$20,000 per year, plus up to $6,000 for start-up costs). Eligibility criteria for Youth Allowance marginalise rural Australians, create a financial barrier to tertiary education, and force many rural families to relocate to urban centres for education. This strategy removes the financial barrier.
All rural young people will be eligible for Youth Allowance if they must leave home for tertiary education. Rural students will also receive a non-means tested Tertiary Access Allowance for their start-up and relocation costs. Tertiary education will become a viable option for all rural young people.
Commonwealth Scholarships for TAFE and other post-secondary students
Currently, Commonwealth Scholarships are only provided for higher education students. However, rural young people who leave home for TAFE and other post-secondary courses also encounter high costs (TAFE students must also pay up-front fees). Extending Commonwealth Scholarships for vocational post-secondary students will ensure equitable financial support.
There are ten authors responsible for this article. They participated in the Rural Industries and Rural Communities stream at the Australia 2020 Summit. They are rural leaders in their respective fields and are: Naomi Godden - Social worker and social researcher; Dr James Fitzpatrick - Paediatrician; Professor Margaret Alston - Professor of Social Work; Mary Nenke - Broadacre farmer and aquaculturalist; Professor Bob Lonne - Professor of Social Work; Karen Morrissey OAM - Pastoralist, educator; Ken Boundy - Remote small business owner; Jacquie Stutt - Youth Development; and Professor Fiona McKenzie - Director of Housing and Urban Research Institute, Curtin University; and John McQuilten - retired MLC, Victoria Government.