Regionally based education helps to drive the economic development of rural, regional and remote communities. It is not surprising then that people across the country have been shocked by the decision to close the Schools of the Air in Western Australia.
Late last year (December 2017) the Government of Western Australia announced that it would be closing the iconic Schools of the Air (SOTA) as well as six Camp Schools, the Moora and Northam Residential Colleges and the Landsdale Farm School. Services provided by the SOTA would be folded into the School of Isolated and Distance and Education (SIDE) based in Perth. The decision, which the State Government maintains is about reducing duplicated services, will affect around 170 positions.
This decision has immediate impact on students, parents and teachers and is creating a great deal of understandable emotion and distress. The government line maintains that budget repair requires the removal of perceived duplication of services wherever possible. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that the government may be shooting itself in the foot in terms of long-term budget repair by not considering the impact that closing the SOTA may have on regional development.
To focus on cost and duplication of educational offerings in isolation of the broader context of regional development seems to be at odds with one of the main pathways of economic development for the state.
There are nine Regional Development Commissions (RDCs) in Western Australia whose objectives are to:
maximise job creation and improve career opportunities in the region;
develop and broaden the economic base of the region;
identify infrastructure services needed to promote economic and social development within the region;
provide information and advice to promote business development within the region;
seek to ensure that the general standard of government services and access to those services in the region is comparable to that which applies in the metropolitan area; and
generally, take steps to encourage, promote, facilitate and monitor the economic development in the region.
These are all laudable goals which recognise that the prosperity of the whole state relies on the continuing development of the regions. They are also all goals which can be partly met by maintaining a regional education presence.
Removing regional teachers also removes passionate advocates from these communities who promote the benefits of living and working in rural, regional and remote locations.
While removing these positions changes lives now, there potentially much more significant, insidious, long-term implications of the decision which threaten regional development and subsequently the economic prosperity of all the residents of Western Australia.
An Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) study into Higher education and community benefits; the role of regional provision, found numerous social impact benefits of the regional provision of education which flowed into the economic development of the region. Included in the findings were that:
65.7 per cent of graduates from regional higher education institutions (HEIs) remain in regional areas for employment
those most likely to remain in regional areas for employment are individuals with longstanding regional connections
68.5 per cent of those who complete a course at a regional HEI and move on to further study do so at a regional HEI
greater proportions of graduates from regional HEIs who remain in regional areas are employed in the education, health and community services sectors than all other graduates; and
regional HEIs provide both economic and social benefits to regional areas and play a key role in sustaining regional communities.
While the ACER study was investigating regional Universities, the principles and premise of the findings would seem to apply for all levels of education. That is, if students are required to leave their communities for education, they are less likely to return to work in the community, particularly in areas such as education, health and community services.
An Australian Farm Institute study on regional development in NSW reached similar conclusions and recommended that incentives be put in place to retain students in regional areas, since regional students were much more likely to settle in regional areas.
Keeping regional education opportunities open is a relatively cheap pathway to achieving many of the objectives of regional development sought by the Government of Western Australia. Closing the SOTA may well provide some short term budgetary relief, but at what cost to the longer-term development of the regions, and the subsequent prosperity of the state?