Rural students under-represented: Evans

REGIONAL and rural students have been under-represented in Australia's universities for decades.

This is not because they lack the ability or intelligence.

Regional and rural students face economic, social, educational and geographical barriers that those living in our cities do not face. Regional and rural students have not been competing on a level playing field.

The Gillard Government is changing that and giving rural students the chance to realise their ambitions and potential.

Under the previous higher education system universities had an arbitrary cap on the number of students they could enrol.

Under this system regional and rural students often could not get a spot, and lost out to city students who had not had to overcome the same challenges as them.

The Gillard Government has removed this cap and will fund any student that has the desire and ability to get an undergraduate degree.

Critics said non-metropolitan campuses would fade as regional students flooded to city campuses with the lifting of restrictions on the number of students universities could enrol.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With the cap now removed, young people from rural and regional Australia are now taking up the opportunity to get a university qualification in record numbers - regional universities are thriving.

In preparation for the fully uncapped system, the Gillard Government has supported regional universities to grow their student places from 62,600 to 76,500.

And 2012 applications and offers data show regional universities are continue to grow. While applications were up across the board, it was regional universities that had the biggest increase with a rise of 5.9% to a total of 15,400 applications.

To put this in context, the rise in applications for regional universities easily outstripped the increase for the traditional Group of Eight universities that rose 0.4%.

Regional universities are also making a record number of offers to students at a rate above the national average. Since 2009 regional universities have increased the number of offers they make by 19.2%.

Some have mistakenly argued that this expansion has come at the expense of quality. To suggest that the quality of our higher education system is entirely dependent on the rankings of students as they graduate from high school, completely overlooks the fine teaching and learning that goes on in our universities.

Australia has a world class higher education system.

Universities remain responsible for enrolling students they believe will succeed enrol. To suggest that universities would enrol students, who they did not believe would succeed, is an insult to the university and the student.

ATAR scores are not an indication of intelligence and drive; in fact the research shows that for most students they are a poor predictor of success at university. Universities are aware this is the case and take a range of factors into account when making offers to those students with lower ATAR scores.

While greater access to university is a fundamental equity measure that will make Australia a fairer society, it is also a major economic reform that will unlock the earning capacity of regional students and local communities.

There is no question that we must increase the participation rate of regional students or we will consign our economy to low growth and productivity.

Increasing the participation of regional and rural students is crucial if the Government is to meet its target of having 40% of Australians hold a bachelor degree by 2025.

Australia needs more skilled workers with degrees and we cannot afford not to tap into the talent of regional students.

Expanding the number of graduates in Australia is an economic imperative. An elitist model of university education will consign Australia to second rate economic growth.

The expansion of regional universities is also great news for communities in regional Australia because people who train in the regions are more likely to remain in the area and contribute to the local economy.

The economic benefits thousands of additional consumers will also boost retail and services sectors in regional Australia.

After a decade of cuts and neglect under the Howard Government that resulted in a decline in participation of regional students, the Gillard Government knew it had to do more than lift the cap.

The Gillard Government reformed the Youth Allowance system to ensure regional university students receive more financial assistance to go to university.

Under these reforms an additional 21,000 regional students are now getting Youth Allowance.

The Government knew a massive injection of funds was needed and had to build new libraries, cutting edge science and computer laboratories, student-centred learning hubs, engineering pavilions and research facilities.

We had to ensure that regardless of where they went to university every student had access to quality facilities.

Since 2008 we have invested $4.8 billion in research and teaching infrastructure across Australia.

This investment has literally transformed the teaching, learning and research experience for staff and students on campuses in every state and territory.

Under the current Regional Priority round of the Education Investment Fund $500 million will be invested to support students in rural, regional and remote areas.

The demand driven system has proven to be another boom for regional universities, it has given students greater choice and many of them have chosen to go regional.

These Labor reforms are setting up a ripple effect in regional communities - a bright future for all - that will also be felt for generations to come.

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