REGIONAL universities have always cornered the distance education market but some chiefs fear they will soon have rivalry from both metropolitan and international competitors that makes their courses less viable.
Vice chancellors from the Regional Universities Network also fear an impending Federal Government review of the demand-driven system, which has enabled their universities to expand exponentially through uncapping course numbers.
Answering questions during a think-tank conference on the Gold Coast, the university heads had trouble agreeing on how to the combat the problems as they passionately debated how to set themselves apart from their metro counterparts.
To ensure regional universities stay relevant in the communities they service, though, they seemed to agree there must be regional flavours to the core professions they offered as well as unique and demand-driven courses.
CQ University vice chancellor Scott Bowman said he believed regional universities must be engaged with their communities and put in programs the community wanted and needed.
He said that should account for 80-90% of the university's courses but there was also a need for some education that was not demand driven but still enhanced the university experience.
University of Southern Queensland vice chancellor Jan Thomas suggested the percentage should be the other way around because most professions were needed nationwide.
"Why should an accountant in Toowoomba, Roma or Chinchilla be different to an accountant downtown Brisbane?" she said.
"Regional Australia needs all the same skill sets as metro Australia - I don't see why we would do anything differently.
"We know if people are educated in the regions they're more likely to stay in the regions."
Southern Cross University vice chancellor Peter Lee said regional courses might have wide-ranging professions but have subtleties that reflected the area they were located.
He said Lismore's new civil engineering course would enable graduates to work anywhere in the world but they were more likely to focus on the regenerating regional infrastructure, pointing out the 100 wooden bridges in the local government area that needed addressing, than on high-rise buildings.
Mr Lee said, similarly, their nurses and allied health graduates could work anywhere but there would be a focus on regional communities and indigenous health.
He said a study last year showed the economic benefit of the six universities was $2.1 billion - the equivalent to the Australian fishing industry - and they employed 14,000 people.
Ms Thomas said all regional universities had work experience and integrated learning programs to ensure their students engaged in their local communities.
But she said there was little need to actively encourage people to stay in regional areas because most were in their formative years, 18 to 25, and were likely to make all their social and work networks wherever they attended university which would ultimately drive where they lived.
"But for many of our students they are mature age and already living in the regions, so they're already well-connected and established in the regions," she said.
Mr Bowman said regional universities were not about keeping people in the regions but they should play a role in creating communities where people want to stay.
"If you want to keep people in the region, build prisons," he said.
University of the Sunshine Coast vice chancellor Greg Hill said universities could also encourage different economic activity in their regions.
He pointed to USC's innovation centre which was creating jobs in the knowledge sector.
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