How universities engage: the US in USQ

02 August 2012
Local Government Managers Australia (LGMA)
Southern Queensland Branch Compass Series: Communication and Community
2-3 August 2012. Highfields Cultural Centre, Highfields
3.15-4.15pm Thursday 2 August

How universities engage: the US in USQ
Professor Jan Thomas
Vice-Chancellor and President
University of Southern Queensland

Overview (as written in the program): Universities contribute to regions in a range of ways; including as an employer and consumer, as a source of unique expertise and knowledge, as a source for locally-relevant research and as a focus for a high quality and innovative education and training system. An essential element of a university performing its role in the community effectively is that is actively engaged - linked to the real world of business, industry and government, actively involved in the region and seen as relevant by its community.
This presentation will discuss USQ's role in our region and explore ways that the engagement between, USQ, local government, business and the community can be enhanced.

Hello. My name is Jan Thomas and I am the Vice-Chancellor and President – which is another name for the CEO - of the University of Southern Queensland. I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak with you today. I note that the topic I’m speaking on is rather different in nature to the other issues covered at this conference – so I hope this will provide you with an interesting and informative diversion. The conference organisers have asked me to discuss the role that my university plays in its regions and explore ways that constructive engagement between USQ, local government, business and the community can be enhanced.

I’d like to begin by telling you a little bit about my university.

This year represents the 45th anniversary of USQ as a higher education provider, and its 20th year as a university. USQ began as a regional college of advanced education and this has very much influenced how we go about our business.

From the beginning, USQ has been involved with broadening higher education participation. We recruit from a broad student constituency and our emphasis is on providing high quality learning, teaching and student support as a basis for ensuring students from a wide range of backgrounds achieve graduation standard.

We adopted distance education early in our development and became a leading institution in this area – again by virtue of high quality teaching and learning materials, and innovative strategies for supporting students studying away from campus. We used our expertise in distance learning to teach international students in their home countries from the 1980s – becoming one of the first Australian universities to develop an off-shore teaching program. We were also an early adopter of emerging educational technologies in the 1990s, initially to enhance distance study, and we were amongst the first University to offer fully online courses in Australia. All of this development occurred while we were building our on-campus teaching capacity, and in the last 15 years we’ve become a multi-campus institution.

So you will appreciate that USQ is a different kind of university to, say, the University of Queensland, which has come from a very different type of background. In short, USQ’s reputation is built on teaching to a diverse student body which requires excellent teaching, innovation and a service-oriented culture.

USQ also differs from UQ in that it has always been a part of its community. You see we were established as a direct result of intense lobbying by the community to government in the 1960s, and we have been working with and growing with our community since that time. So you can think of USQ as a particularly engaged university.

Finally, during the 1980s, and especially since becoming a university in 1992, USQ has built a strong research portfolio with a particular emphasis on applied research that is relevant to regions – in areas including Rural and Remote Area Health, Sustainable Business and Development, Engineering in Agriculture and Sustainable Catchments.
So if we consider USQ today ...

... almost 27,000 students will study with us during 2012. Some years ago we would have made a distinction between students studying on-campus and those studying by distance education, but increasingly these distinctions have become blurred. Just as emerging technologies have been used to enhance distance study since the 1990s, technology is also playing an increasing role for students with ready access to our campuses. So we are moving towards more personalised learning experiences for students regardless of their location or individual circumstances.

We operate from multiple locations – with campuses in regional and outer-metropolitan locations, so we enjoy a strong regional identity operating in parallel with our large online community. Our significant international education program, as well as international research and scholarly collaborations, makes us a transnational business.

Some 6,100 international students will study with USQ this year, 20% on-campus in Queensland, 70% off-shore and 10% studying at the USQ Sydney Education Centre which we operate in association with the Canterbury Institute of Technology. Our international students come from over 100 countries and involve 30 international partners.

So what are the take home messages so far?

Firstly, it’s very important to appreciate that all universities are not the same. Australia has a diverse higher education sector. So if you’ve had negative experiences with universities in the past, if you’ve found universities difficult to deal with or have come to doubt the commitment that particular universities have with the community – then don’t paint us all with the same brush.

In particular, the image of the university tends to be dominated by the older universities, and institutions such as my own which operate quite differently can find it hard to get our messages across.

One example of this is in relation to our international program. You’ll recall that I said that USQ had 4,200 international students studying with us in their home country by distance education with support by international partners. Incredibly, the way that the Commonwealth collects statistics on international students only classifies off-shore students as those studying on off-shore campuses of Australian universities. Because USQ doesn’t operate an off-shore campus, all of our off-shore students are counted as studying from Toowoomba. So as far as the Commonwealth is concerned, and anyone else relying on their statistical collection, USQ does not have an off-shore program despite the fact that this year, over 4,000 international students are studying in their home countries through USQ. This reflects how pervasive the standard model for a university is – any university that operates differently to the standard model can have its message distorted through official channels. So please judge the performance of each university on its own merits. We are not all the same.

A second take home message so far is that USQ is a significant transnational business with a strong regional presence – a local success story that has built its business and branched into new locations; and this positions the University to provide considerable benefit to the community.

This last point is what I’d like to devote most of the rest of my presentation to.

There is a considerable literature on the phenomenon of a “University City” – looking at the impact that the presence of a university has on a local region. While universities are now located in most of the largest cities of the world, the term ‘university city’ has most resonance with regional centres that are closely associated with a university. Examples range from Oxford, Cambridge and Saint Andrews in the UK, to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana, the University of Lund in Sweden, and the University Town of Shenzhen in southern China, These examples demonstrate a range of characteristics...

... They typically contain not only a university but a concentration of usually prestigious educational institutions at all levels – serving effectively as an education hub.
Furthermore, the presence of the educational institutions pervades the economic and social life of the community – as major employers, purchasers of services and as a focus for attracting students and others from outside the region.

The education providers represent a source of high value human capital and resources to the community – staff, students and graduates with high levels of commitment to the community, who are well educated and who represent sources of specialist expertise; and this influence both encourages and is fed by the positive community spirit by the rest of the citizenry.

The educational providers support a range of infrastructure and institutions in the community such as clinics, laboratories, libraries, business incubators, and residential accommodation. Typically, university cities are also centres for cultural development in their regions, and are magnets for specialist industries and innovation incubators.

In short, university cities are seen as highly attractive places to live for the range of reasons listed here – representing centres of open-mindedness, tolerance, vibrancy, creativity, innovation, safety, beauty and well-being; combining a robust economy with strong social and cultural life.

They are also the sorts of places that position a city well for the future – linking the city to the world, promoting high educational attainment and strong employer activity, developing human capital, attracting 21st century industries and serving as a centre for innovation, skills and development.

And, importantly, the university provides a focus for effective engagement with the community.

Looking specifically at USQ, here are some of the ways that the University contributes to its local communities:
Firstly, USQ serves as a people magnet - providing a catalyst for people to live and work in the region. Large numbers of students come into USQ’s regions to study. For example, after only six years of operation, already around a third of the eighteen hundred students studying at USQ’s Springfield campus in western Brisbane travel more than 30km to attend the campus. Universities attract staff from outside the region and large numbers of visitors. In addition, events such as graduation ceremonies, conferences, cultural events such as Shakespeare in the Park and the McGregor Schools, and graduations attract thousands of visitors to our regions each year.

Secondly, USQ is a major employer – with almost sixteen hundred staff both recruited locally and from all over Australia and overseas; who spend over $156m in wages each year. USQ shares with the armed forces the distinction of being the largest employer on the Darling Downs and is a major purchaser of local services. As a major business, USQ’s success represents success for its communities. It is estimated that every six full-time student enrolments at USQ generates one new job in the City! As well, the community involvement of such a large scale workforce and student body in a regional location is significant.

Having a local university provides the basis for students to be educated locally, with a greater potential for local talent to be retained in the regions. USQ is about expanding regional choice, growing regional opportunity and developing regional capacity. A local university is positioned to respond to local skills needs, and to engage with local business and industry and other education providers such as TAFE to ensure that local business development is not impacted negatively by skills shortages. The importance of this capacity is now well appreciated by the Commonwealth. For example, In a Ministerial Media Release in February this year, Minister for Regions Simon Crean noted that “"Universities are embedding localism by offering education options that connect with the skills needs of the community.” USQ is, by necessity, closely engaged with business, industry and the professions in the development of our learning & teaching programs and in pursuing our research agenda.

USQ helps attract, retain and strengthen industry in the region because we can provide an educated and professionally qualified labour pool. In this way we are supporting Toowoomba and Dalby Regional Councils transition to a diversified workforce through professional qualifications and retained labour pool. It is well appreciated that a strong nexus between local government, industry and education is needed for industry attraction and family migration to the region, particularly when the region is growing rapidly.

USQ is also concerned with promoting regional innovation. As mentioned earlier, USQ has placed an emphasis on focussing its research program on projects that are of relevance to the regions and in this way supports the growth of local business and industry. As well, many of our research projects involve work in the community that has a direct benefit to the community. For example:
  • The Queensland Smart Home Initiative is a research project designed to build and demonstrate innovation for aged and disabilities support in home and community settings through the development of assistive technologies for homecare.
  • USQ’s IDEAS project – which stands for Innovative Designs for Enhancing Achievements in Schools – has operated for over ten years and involves assisting schools to determine their strategic vision, and improving work practices and professional learning. 
  • USQ’s Centre for Rural and Remote Area Health (CRRAH) conducts a number of community-based projects in areas such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, Mental Health, and the promotion of Physical Activities in Rural Communities.

USQ also makes significant contributions to local cultural and social development. For example, USQ’s Artsworx, in conjunction with our School of Creative Arts develops and delivers accessible arts and cultural experiences in regional Queensland, including through an annual season of high quality art exhibitions and music and theatre performances.

Finally, USQ has also been active in projects that build community capacity – most notably as a major player in the development and maintenance of the Toowoomba Flexi School located on Chalk Drive in Toowoomba, which provides pathways for completing secondary school for disenfranchised youth.

I also note that Professor Michael Cuthill from our Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development will be holding a regional community development workshop with key stakeholders from the Darling Downs region in the near future to inform a strategic research program to be implemented through USQ in partnership with interested agencies.

I’d like to look now at ways in which USQ works specifically with local Councils.

I mentioned earlier hat USQ has a campus in Hervey Bay on the Fraser Coast. The campus itself is a joint precinct with Fraser Coast Regional Council involving many shared facilities, particularly with regard to joint use library services.

USQ Fraser Coast and the FCRC are working together on the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration (EDEC) project with other regional stakeholders leading towards the development of a centre for research and scholarship in economic development. We are an active partner in the Fraser Coast Opportunities Partnership Group that meets monthly and the campus is always invited to be a part of any local council initiatives to progress the region. For example, we were recently invited to actively contribute to the development of the Fraser Coast draft Regional Marketing Strategy which has just commenced for the region.

With regard to our USQ Springfield Campus, which has been in operation since 2006, I can cite a number of examples of good cooperation between the campus and the ICC. The Ipswich Mayor is a member of Springfield Advisory Forum, USQ is involved in a number of community activities – for example, we run the Ipswich City Council’s Father's Day billy cart race and are involved in other community activities with ICC involvement such as the local Anzac Day celebrations - USQ has been a major sponsor of the Mayor's Charity Ball and Ipswich Festival Events; ICC offers scholarships for USQ students, there is collaboration on school events such as a recent sustainability conference, and Council has involvement in the advisory committees for USQ’s academic programs for areas such as Construction.

Of course, USQ is an active member of local Chambers of commerce.

USQ holds an MOU with the Toowoomba Regional Council, but I’m not satisfied that we’ve progressed this MOU sufficiently since its signing in 2010. There is, I believe, great potential for USQ and TRC:
  • to undertake collaborative research and joint projects relevant to the regional economy and community; 
  • to engage in staff exchanges, mentorships, secondments and training; 
  • to collaborate in professional development and organisational development programs; 
  • to collaborate in public corporate communications activities; 
  • to share information and benchmark to improve services; and 
  • to explore opportunities in work-integrated learning and the procurement of student scholarships.

There is of course excellent collaboration currently underway in the discussions around the promotion of Toowoomba as the Education Capital.

In reviewing the current TRC Corporate Plan , there are any number of areas where USQ could provide additional discipline expertise to assist Council to achieve their objectives in areas including: arts and cultural development, economic development, environmental management, public health and community development. Similarly, USQ has a key role to play in TRC achieving many of its strategic directions – particularly under its Theme 7: Stronger Communities which identified its desired strategic outcome in the following terms:

The social and cultural needs of our diverse communities are addressed to ensure the ongoing vibrancy of our region.
Good quality facilities and services foster the wellbeing of our people.
Our resilient communities are characterised by strong social networks.
Social justice, access, equity and fairness are key foundations of our strong communities.

As an example of the kind of expertise I’m referring to, Associate Professor Heather Zeppel from our Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development has produced a report outlining the status of strategies and methodologies employed by Queensland local councils to achieve a reduction in the carbon intensity of their operations in response to climate change and legislative action by the Australian Government. This report has been based on a comprehensive survey of Queensland councils and provides key recommendations to federal, state and local governments to assist them with achieving carbon reductions, reduced costs and assured compliance.

Returning to the TRC Corporate Plan, clearly, lifelong learning, the encouragement of learning communities, the building of social capital, the promulgation of social justice and equity, and securing effective citizen engagement are all necessary for this admirable strategic outcome to be achieved – and in each of these areas USQ plays a significant role.

Before closing, I would just like to draw attention to two particular areas.

The first is a concept that has recently gained prominence with the Federal government – particular by way of Regions Minister Simon Crean – in what is termed “localism”. Essentially, this equates with the idea of communities coming together to identify and address issues of local importance – or, in other words, community capacity building as it is commonly understood. There is a lot of activity at USQ concerning community capacity building and I would like to engage with local Councils towards building on the opportunities that this creates to find local solutions to local problems.

The second matter concerns the Regional Development Australia Fund that was set up by the Federal government as part of a significant regions package in the 2011-12 Federal Budget. A stated aim of this Fund is to support localism by providing the opportunity for funding projects based on local characteristics and needs. I am keen to make the resources of USQ available to Councils to assist in identifying local needs and priorities, and in developing successful grant applications in conjunction with the local RDAs.

I’ll leave you with those two thoughts.

Thank you for your attention. I am happy to take questions or discuss any of the issues raised as time permits.

1 This statement is actually not accurate – USQ began as Queensland Institute of Technology (Darling Downs).

2 Actually 69%

3 Actually 11%

4 Crean, S and Evans C (1 February 2012). ‘Investment and localism sparks regional education enrolment boom’. Joint Ministerial Media Release:

5 Associate Professor Paul Collits heads USQ's Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration (EDEC). EDEC is a partnership between the University of Southern Queensland (Fraser Coast) and a number of regional stakeholders, including state and local government and industry, which provide substantial funding support for the collaboration. EDEC’s primary current task is to help the region (and other regions) to identify economic assets and to leverage them to increase investment, wealth and sustainable employment in a diverse range of industries and occupations.

6 The Fraser Coast Opportunities Collaboration is made up of representatives from Fraser Coast regional Council (chair is mayor), Lisa Desmond CEO FCRC, WIN Constructions Owner, Peter Smith FCRC Director of community and development, Presidents of the two Chambers of Commerce (Maryborough and Hervey Bay),

Provost USQ, Leigh Bennett Principal of Enterprise innovations Hervey Bay, Wayne Sweeney FCRC Regional Director Infrastructure and Environment, Director of WIDE BAY TAFE (Nigel Hill), 'Daniel Poacher - UDIA and David Buckley (Bell Dixon Butler Legal Group) and Vice President Hervey Bay Chamber of Commerce. The last few meetings worked on selecting and endorsing the preferred options for a model of the economic and tourism development strategies for the region.

7 2009-2014:

8 TRC Strategic Directions Overview, p. 17:

9 A report commissioned from PASCAL PURE Consultancy Development group by Regional Development Australia – Darling Downs and South West and USQ has recommended that USQ seek to develop itself as “a national and global laboratory for regional, social change and economic change” by positioning itself to provide leadership in regional development in the Darling Downs and western Queensland.

Tell a friend!