Sunday, January 07, 2007

Drought, Higher Education and Mental Traps

I have always been aware of the way in which location, up-bringing, contact networks, our experiences and access to information conditions out thinking. So I try to guard against this. Yet every so often I find examples where my own thinking has been unconsciously caught in this conditioning trap. In fact, two this week.

I have so far written three stories linked to drought and water (here, here and here). In doing so, I have tried to come at things from a different perspective, pointing among other things to to the way in which sudden water problems in major metro centres were leading to conclusions about drought and water that did not accurately reflect the variety in conditions across the country. It turns out I got caught in the same trap.

I knew that New England, the north-eastern corner of NSW from the Hunter Valley up, was the wettest part of NSW. I knew that not all parts of New England were in drought. I knew that control over and access to New England's water was becoming an important if still unseen issue. Yet I still got caught.

When the NSW Government announced the building of the Tillegra dam to meet the needs of Newcastle and the Lower Hunter the announcement was couched in terms of the current drought. I simply accepted this. Then yesterday a story in the Sydney Morning Herald throwing doubt on the need for the dam caused me to do some investigation for a story on the New England, Australia blog.

Without repeating the full story again, I found that Hunter Water's storage was over 82 per cent, the two main dams were over 90 per cent full, and that there were no water restrictions. I also found when I looked at the official Government material on the proposal it was all twisted in a strange fashion to make it fit into the drought theme. All very strange, but clearly my previous automatic assumption re need was simply wrong.

Higher education provides the second example.

A lot of my earlier writing on this topic (I won't repeat the posts here) focused on the University of New England's strategic planning exercise. This meant that I was looking at the world from the viewpoint of a particular institution, although I did try to put in a broader context set by overall changes in education and training.

Other writing focused on Australia's regional universities in general and on the linkage between the structure of university education in Australia, population distribution and problems associated with the attraction to and retention of professionals within Regional Australia. One of my aims here has been to sell the value of the regional experience for education and work.

My most recent writing on the NSW HSC, the UAI and the linkages between this and university education has taken me in a new direction because I wrote this in part from the perspective of a parent now living in Sydney looking at education for his own daughters.

This writing caused an interesting paradigm shift because it caused me to look at university education in Sydney as compared to regional NSW from a different perspective, leading me to the unexpected conclusion that in some ways regional kids are significantly advantaged as compared to Sydney kids. This is the opposite of the conventional wisdom, a wisdom that I had accepted to some degree.

To explain this a little, consider the broader New England.

At June 2005, New England's population was a bit over 1.3 million. That population is serviced by three main universities, New England, Southern Cross and Newcastle. In addition, the Seventh Day Adventists' Avondale College provides a range of degrees, Charles Sturt has a theology school at Morpeth, while there is a private technical institution at Byron Bay.

Those universities compete against each other for New England students and also for students from other places. So New England and Southern Cross, for example, draw some students from Queensland including the relatively big population conurbation of South East Queensland.

Most of the bigger New England urban centres now have some form of local tertiary study from one or other of the New England universities whether campus or study centre. The bulk of the New England population now live within an hour and a half's travelling time one way of some form of tertiary study.

All this said, it remains true that Sydney students have a greater theoretical range of tertiary opportunities open to them in reasonable geographical proximity. So a higher proportion of New England students need to move to pursue study of choice. Conversely, Sydney students are much less prepared to move away from Sydney. But this is not the end of the story.

The unwillingness of Sydney students to move combined with competition for places from non-Sydney students makes for high UAIs at the older Sydney Universities. Conversely, UAIs at New England's universities tend to be lower simply because competition for places is less, so it's easier to get in. But again, this is not the end of the story.

Because of the competition, all the New England universities have policies in place that effectively advantage New England students as compared to students from outside New England and especially Sydney.

Take Newcastle. This University has a Regional and Rural Preference Scheme, which will award a bonus four points to the admission ranks of 2006 current NSW HSC students who attend schools within a defined postcode boundary.

The scheme includes schools and TAFE colleges with postcodes in the Hunter, Central Coast, Central West, Northern Rivers, mid-North Coast, New England, Western Plains and Broken Hill mail centres. The scheme applies to all undergraduate programs except B Medicine or any combined degree.

Both Southern Cross and New England also have special schemes.

Within the Southern Cross University's defined Feeder Region - the area bordered in the south by Bulahdelah, by Dubbo and Goondiwindi in the west, and in the north by Warwick and the Greater Gold Coast Region - school leavers from within our Feeder region are elibile for bonus UAI/OP points and special entry schemes such as the STAR Entry Scheme. The STAR scheme is a school's based early entry program that grants admission in advance of HSC results.

The University of New England also has a school's based early admission program. I am not sure that this is in fact limited to New England schools, although that may be the practical effect.

Recognising some variations between areas, the practical effects of all this for students prepared to move are:

1. New England students can compete with Sydney students on an equal basis for places in Sydney universities.

2. New England students receive a degree of advantage over Sydney students in competing for places at New England Universities in terms of flexibility offered by alternative school based entry pathways (SCU, UNE) or bonus additions to UAIs (Newcastle, SCU).

Students with very high UAIs can essentially pick and choose. Beyond that point, New England year 12 students would appear to be advantaged.

No comments: