Universities in regional Australia should provide comprehensive mentoring to better care for first-year students and prevent losing enrolments to city campuses, university leaders say. The future of universities in regional Australia will be debated at a forum on tertiary education in Ballarat.
Six regional universities, including Ballarat University, will also sign an agreement to share teaching staff and collaborate on research projects amid mounting financial pressure on Australia’s higher education sector. Students will also receive credits when transferring between universities as part of the deal.
The executive director of the Regional Universities Network, Dr Caroline Perkins, said regional institutes developed close relationships with their communities but risked losing students without extensive support programs. Many universities already provided substantial support but still needed to improve, she said.
Dr Perkins said regional universities were attracting increasing numbers of mature-age undergraduates who had little experience of academic study. . Just under half of Ballarat University’s students come straight from high school but many have worked full-time or studied at TAFE before enrolling.
Dr Perkins said it was crucial for universities to provide mentoring for first-year students, particularly those with no academic background. ”That’s actually when people are most at risk of dropping out,” she said.
Regional universities needed to work hard to retain students who could easily choose to study at metropolitan universities. ”I think they’re educated consumers now and there’s so much choice available,” she said. ”Universities must respond to that.”
Dr Perkins said regional universities faced unique challenges and drew enrolments from a smaller pool of prospective students. ”They have to offer a wide range of degrees. Yet their markets are thin and costs are high, particularly for the smaller campuses.”
At Ballarat University some students are paid to mentor first-year students as part of a six-week wellbeing program. Vice-chancellor David Battersby said providing academic and personal support to students was a constant challenge.
Professor Battersby said the universities that signed the regional agreement would specialise in different fields. ”It’s probably not a good use of resourcing for all universities to offer a full range of languages,” he said.
Universities that have signed the accord included Ballarat, Central Queensland, Southern Cross, New England, Southern Queensland and Sunshine Coast.