Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Problems with the word regional

No post yesterday. It was the last formal session in the year long Aboriginal mentoring program that I have been taking part in. My mentee has done well, while I have learned a lot. While the formal program is coming to an end, graduation will be in July, we will continue on an informal basis.

Earlier in Measuring regional disadvantage in higher education I commented on a story suggesting that regional universities of themselves did not have a significant impact on regional university participation rates. The effect here was swamped by varying socio-economic status. A number of universities have criticised the implications drawn from the report and for similar reasons to those that I put forward.

I have come to detest the Australian misuse of the word "regional". It carries the connotation regional = provincial = second rate. The location of a university or any other institution in a regional area does not make it either provincial or second rate. Once you call it a regional university, you condemn it.

Growing up, the term regional was little used. The main geographic descriptor was country or city. The label country had its own positive attributes. I was proudly country. I am not proudly regional.

The substitution of the word regional for country occurred for all sorts of reasons, including the dislike of those living in big country centres for the application of the word country. They saw country = farming or grazing, whereas they were urban.

A more pernicious influence has come from the perceived need to develop geographic descriptors for policy purposes. These link to the desire to have standard policies across Australia or various states. Not only does this ignore difference, but it actually stigmatises.

In simple terms, the word region means a geographically contiguous space with some identifying, unifying feature. Used in this way, it remains a useful term.

The Sydney metropolitan area is large, around 12,145 square kilometres (4,689 square miles) depending on how you define it. People speak of the Sydney region. By this, they generally but not always mean the Sydney basin. However, on another measure, Sydney is large enough to contain a number of regions in its own right.

Defined by location, the University of NSW, for example, is a regional university that can be located variously to Sydney, the Sydney Basin or just the Sydney eastern suburbs. Calling it a regional university would get some very snooty responses. We are an international university, might be one response, drawing students from a wide variety of areas!

This type of response shifts the playing field at once from location to status or student reach. The first actually gives the game away by showing the underlying focus on pecking order, the second is arguable. All universities draw their students from a variety of areas.

Take the University of New England as an example. Ranked by size and geography, its students come from:

Location Number
Remainder of NSW 4,401
Sydney 3,212
Northern Tablelands, North West 2,563
Other states & territories 2,342
NSW North Coast 1,948
Overseas (international) 1,199
Southern Queensland 830
Brisbane 685
Rest of Queensland 366
Overseas (domestic) 337

I have used UNE as an example. However, the pattern would be not dissimilar to many universities. All universities draw especially from particular catchments. UNSW, for example, draws disproportionately from areas of Sydney within an easy transport distance. It makes as much sense to call UNSW a regional university as UNE. That is, none.

I have written a fair bit on this blog about the way the mental constructs used in developing policy (and this applies in the private sector as well) distort results. It explains why the first thing that I do with any policy document is to analyse the words used, to try to drill down to the underlying mental structures.

I have a fairly good record in picking what won't work. This isn't rocket science. It simply involves a test, a comparison of the words and structures built into the approach with external reality. Often, its not necessary to do detailed analysis. Just a rough reality check can throw up enough to suggest that the approach is likely to fail.

In all this, the thing that I have come to detest most is simply sloppy thinking. The current use of the word regional is an example.     


Anonymous said...

It is not only the terminology which has changed since you were young - the world has also changed. The Tamworth/Wagga/Toowoomba/Canberra/Coffs Harbour etc of today are massively different beasts to what they were 30-40 years ago.

It makes sense to differentiate between the needs of rural/remote dwellers from those living in or close to a centre of 40 000.

Any label has limitations ... you don't seem to suggest an alternative.


Jim Belshaw said...

That one is pretty easy, LB. As much as possible you avoid the use of labels.

Take the university disadvantage question. You plot uni attendance by LGA. Then you look for patterns rather than imposing an ARIA distance classifcation. Then you analyse those patterns. Then you set up your policy.

There is a close relationship between socio-economic status and ability to (and interest in) attending uni. This links in part to time travelled and cost of travel. It applies as much in Sydney as it does in the Riverina.

It's not rocket science to link what you want to achieve to on-ground realities.