How education can unleash the tiger in Tasmania

Peter Rathjen has an idea – a very big idea

The need for change: For two hundred years Tasmanians have looked for industries that can use the bounty and beauty of their island to create sustained and sustainable economic growth. And yet the state has long had the lowest, or close to it, standard of living in the country. The reason, according to University of Tasmania VC Peter Rathjen, is the absence of education. Professor Rathjen has long argued “talented Tasmanians are being sidelined from meaningful economic participation by a lack of skills development.”

The aspiration: So, he developed a strategy to ensure young people, especially in the north of the state, have both reason and chance to stay in education after school. And he created a plan to put higher and further education at the centre of the state, literally by re-locating core campus activities to the CBDs of major centres, and conceptually, by convincing the community that education can expand the economy.

He has successfully sold both, with the feds funding major capital works in Launceston and the state’s governing class backing the expansion of education, notably sub-degree programmes for industries where there are skills shortages.

In November 2016 the Hobart Mercury named the VC second most important person in the state. “All sides of politics listen when Rathjen says education is the future of Tasmania,” the paper announced.

Rathjen is leaving to become VC of the University of Adelaide but the foundation of his plan is in place and he has set out his thinking in a farewell address, presented to a Hobart conference yesterday, “reimagining and revitalising communities through higher education – engaging, informing, learning.”

The eight pillars of the plan: (i) Match higher education to the system – the university’s unique relationship with the state underpins Tasmanian progress (ii) A research agenda inspired by the island, with global thinking on local problems and local innovation taken to the world (iii) research and teaching support innovation in the economy and encourage entrepreneurial values in graduates (iv) increased access, affordability and flexibility to open higher education for a new generation (v) energise the cities, with university life in their centres (vi) empower regions with research, innovation and workforce skills to drive growth (vii) engage in policy and practise with the university developing and delivering public policy (viii) international engagement, with the university serving as a conduit of people, knowledge and innovation off and onto the island

A portable plan: But will it fly? Vice chancellors at universities with the potential to play a similar role in their regions want to know and four were at yesterday’s conference, Barney Glover (Western Sydney U), Sandra Harding, (James Cook U), Simon Maddocks (Charles Darwin U) and Andrew Vann (Charles Sturt U).

Others attending with a keen eye for ideas with a future, included Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Mark O’Kane and that most astute of public policy economists Saul Eslake.