Country University Centres

Now there’s one surefire way to stop the brain drain

The pandemic has brought about an energetic rethinking of the role and nature of higher education into the future, but these visions don’t always take account of the challenges and opportunities facing regional and rural Australia. We cannot afford to be left out or left behind on this. 

The university of the future should refashion its role in a specific place-based context by increasing attention to community engagement and building mutually beneficial relationships between universities, communities and industry. 

As far as place-based education goes, it is surely in regional and rural Australia that these kinds of relationships are likely to have the biggest impact and the most success as communities come together to solve their own endemic and emerging issues. It is also here that the promise of higher education is barely taking root, only to be abruptly disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet a shift in this direction opens alternative possibilities that would see the scope and promise of the Country Universities Centres (CUCs) increase exponentially. 


One of the cornerstones of the CUC network is an emphasis on equity, addressing the rural-metropolitan educational divide.  The most immediate causes of this gap are the high economic and social costs of relocating to pursue higher education –  and reduced access to reliable internet connectivity, which can reinforce a lesser appreciation for the intangible benefits of higher education and diminished access to the cultural capital that underpin wealth creation in a capitalist economy. All of which see metropolitan students significantly advantaged by geography alone. 

The CUCs were established to create a more equitable higher education landscape in Australia. By offering a physical space for learning that is quiet, safe, and supported by professional and academic staff, CUC registered students are positioned to overcome some of the constraints that make their university degrees so much harder to attain from a distance, or at all. The overall benefit is for the whole community; by reducing the need to relocate for further study, the CUCs are in a unique position to stop the “brain drain” on struggling towns and to reduce the educational gap that contributes to larger geographical inequalities. 


In a discussion on the future of higher education where what is at stake is nothing less than the definition and value of connectivity, it is incumbent upon us to think deeply about how human connection will play a role in building relationships of reciprocity and mutual benefit. While the notion of connectivity has been hijacked by the technology industry, this of course is but one means by which human connections can and should be forged. And given the barriers to online connectivity facing regional, rural and remote (RRR) communities, the necessity of face-to-face connection remains inevitable. 

So when the globally influential EY presents an apparently inevitable and and necessary vision for higher education in which individualised AI demand-driven learning is equated with accessibility and connectivity, we should pay attention. This vision of the death of classrooms and the spotifisation of education doesn’t take account of barriers to accessing and interpreting that knowledge, let alone the personal transformations and cultural capital that students develop through in-person learning. In contrast, personalised, face-to-face academic support from a qualified Learning Skills Advisor is a critical service that fills the gap left by a higher education sector designed without the needs of regional Australians in mind and by a distance education model operating as an afterthought for bridging the access gap for those unable or unwilling to relocate. 

A third space – relationality and reciprocity

As an affiliated network, the CUC responds to local demands and gives equity and connectivity priority status. And in doing so, they are starting on the path to socially useful and mutually beneficial relationships between universities and the broader community, through the application of discipline specific knowledge in context and the fostering of reciprocity. These are precisely the kinds of relationships that online learning has largely been unable to nurture and that students studying from a distance most crave.

And the potential for meaningful collaboration is limitless. Discussion circles, reading groups, peer-centred, student-led and cohort-specific groups are just some of the flexible and imaginative ways that students can support one another and grow those soft skills and life experiences that higher education promises: a transformation of self through an exploration of knowledge in collaboration with mentors and peers.  

The third space that the CUC represents provides the perfect opportunity to experiment in bridging the gap between the necessity of human connection and the reality of a growing online emphasis. Physical hubs in seemingly forgotten places operate to lessen the tyranny of distance burdening RRR students, while community embeddedness ensures that individual success translates into community wellbeing and prosperity by creating and keeping dignified employment local. As part of a larger network of CUCs, individuals are well positioned to take advantage of whatever comes in the future of higher education.

Ella Dixon is the learning skills advisor, Country Universities Centre, Macleay Valley. She has a PhD in Sociology from Macquarie University and over 10 years’ experience tutoring and lecturing in the university sector. She has worked at Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, and Charles Sturt University.

The main image is taken from Country Universities Centres.

No way to study with kids at home. Here’s how a unique program helped

For mature-aged students in regional areas, studying a university degree online can be challenging at the best of times. Add in the pressures that school holidays bring for students who are also parents or carers and continuing university study across this period can be incredibly difficult. 

During the April school holidays, the Country Universities Centre (CUC) Snowy Monaro invited parents to bring their children into the Centre to participate in outreach activities facilitated by a university partner, while they were given the time, space, and academic support to maintain their study patterns.

The Centre was buzzing. Across five days, kids were constructing bridges, learning about the environment, talking about what university is and why their parents were working on obtaining a university degree in one room, while their parents and carers were studying with the CUC resources in another.

Recent research has highlighted the need to recognise that older students – particularly women – are likely to be combining study with family caring responsibilities. For those who are mature-aged, their identity as a student is likely to take second, third, or even fourth place, to other more pressing identities – such as those of parent, carer, financial supporter, and paid employee.

In regional communities, these caring responsibilities that mature-aged students face are often compounded by other forms of inequalities when accessing higher education – such as being first in family, low-SES, or studying part-time. Additionally, students over 25 and studying part-time have high levels of attrition.

These compounding challenges are felt significantly by regional students across the Country Universities Centre (CUC) network, which offer campus-like facilities to any student studying at any Australian University. Each centre is equipped with high-speed internet, computers, workstations, and video conferencing facilities. Additionally, students can engage with academic, administrative and wellbeing support from staff within the Centre. The CUC is part of the larger Regional Universities Centre program, funded by the Commonwealth Government, to improve access to higher education for regional and remote students.

Of the students currently registered with CUC, 76% are female, 59% are older than 25 years, 51% study part-time, 45% are first in family and 63% are from a low-SES background. Regional students are also significantly more likely to be mature-age and studying part-time than their metropolitan counterparts.

Research by Stone and O’Shea on supporting women with caring responsibilities who study online has illuminated several challenges for this cohort of students. While online study makes it possible for them to participate in higher education and balance caring commitments, a significant amount of planning, good time management, multitasking, and dealing with family resistance is required for them to be able to persist.

One challenge that was identified in Nicole Crawford’s recent NCSEHE Equity Fellowship research, and across the CUC network, was that the school holiday period causes high levels of stress for mature-aged students.  It increases the caring responsibilities and creates significant difficulty for mature-age students with children to maintain consistent study patterns.

In response, the CUC developed a pilot program that aimed to provide consistent, uninterrupted study time across the school holiday period for parents in the Centre, while simultaneously nurturing the aspirations and understanding of university for their children.

The program consisted of five days of outreach activities for primary school aged children delivered at CUC Snowy Monaro. These were facilitated by an outreach team from a partner university and were grouped into themes of science, engineering technology, performing arts, and environmental conservation. There was complete flexibility in which sessions parents and children could attend, with some parents utilising the entire week, while others only attended one session.

While children were engaged with the university outreach program, parents were provided the opportunity to study onsite at the CUC with the support of the local Learning Skills Advisor (LSA). Across the week, the LSA provided a combination of 1:1 support for students, academic workshop activities, and “Shut Up & Write” sessions.

Many students reported that having this peer accountability and allocated study time and at the CUC without the distractions of their school-aged children was the most valuable element to the program:

“There is no way I could study with my daughter at home, the [school holiday] program has meant I can come in for a few hours, get work done, and then go home for time with the kids” – Parent

For these students, simply having the time and space to study without the distractions of their children was invaluable. Additionally, the outreach activities enhanced what the children understood about university.

“I felt less guilty knowing that [name removed] got to learn about university and do some fun engineering activities while I could focus on my assignment” – Parent

After participating in the outreach program many children had an increased understanding of why their parent came to the CUC to study.

“This is mum’s uni and this is where she comes to learn things for her job” – Child

The outreach program not only nurtured aspiration for university within the children but helped them understand why their parents were studying. At the end of each session, some of the children were asked about what they had learned or experienced. One session was focused on developing career aspirations:

“I learned about uni and jobs and when I grow-up I want to do uni to be a teacher like my mum is going to be” – Child

Bringing kids and parents into the CUC together helps normalise expectations of studying at university – especially for first in family students. This shared experience helps families to be included in the process of university study, while developing a shared sense of belonging and ownership of their local CUC. The program helped children to understand that the CUC is a place of higher education, and that university study is a ‘normal’ thing for people in their community to do.

The school holiday program is a simple idea that generates a shared experience of university between parents and their children. It highlights that we need to do more than focus on supporting the individual student, we must also support their families to share the university experience. 

It is early days, but programs like this are the start of creative ways to include the entire family of a mature-aged student in their learning journey. Increased understanding of university at the family level further normalises study and develops deeper support structures for mature-aged students to succeed.

Chris is the director of equity and engagement at the Country Universities Centre and has worked on national research projects as part of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and with the University of South Australia in Regional, Rural and Remote higher education policy, student equity, widening participation and rural student transitions. Chris is on the National Executive team for the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA) and is the Director of the National Conference for Regional, Rural, and Remote Education.