AS THE Vice Chancellor and president of Lismore's Southern Cross University, Professor Peter Lee knows better than most how important regional universities are to the communities they serve.
But even he was surprised at the findings of a new Regional Universities Network report, to be released today, detailing the contribution these institutions make to the regions in which they are based.
"We always knew that our engagement was deep and multi-faceted, but I think what really comes out of the case studies is just how deeply embedded the universities are," Prof Lee said.
"They're (regional universities) in so much of the life and times of the communities that that is just totally missed so often.
"We are not a fly-in, fly-out business - we are deeply embedded in the region in which we are located."
The regional impact study, including 18 case studies on the work of RUN members, demonstrates the many ways in which the RUN universities are making significant and diverse contributions to the social, cultural, environmental and economic development of their regions.
It builds on the economic impact study RUN released in March, which found regional universities contribute billions of the dollars to the Australian economy.
RUN executive director Caroline Perkins said the decision to undertake the impact study was actually a result of the economic research.
"We knew that wasn't the whole story," Dr Perkins said.
RUN chairman Professor David Battersby said the study was important because it proved "beyond doubt" the significant role RUN universities played in the regions.
He said the impact was "so profound that it's almost now impossible to think about the regions without their regional universities".
"The key thing for us is the fact this is the first time a group of regional universities has actually done this," said Prof Battersby, who is the Vice-Chancellor of Ballarat University.
"Because unlike capital city universities we can legitimately talk about a community ... and the impact that we have through all of these mechanisms, whether it be health and wellbeing, whether it be issues around governance, whether it be around civic responsibility.
Prof Battersby, who will be replaced by Prof Lee when he steps down as chairman in August, said RUN would use the findings of the two studies to push for a national regional development strategy, to driven by the work and expertise of universities outside the capital cities.
The study found regional universities represented one of the largest and most visible assets in the region and are looked to for "thought leadership".
Among the other key findings were:
- the study found substantial evidence to show how the needs and attributes of a region influence the selection of universities' niche areas of expertise.
- the study revealed substantial evidence of the contribution made by RUN universities to their regions through "mutually beneficial service activities and knowledge exchange". This included people having access to university sporting facilities.
The latter was a point picked up on by Prof Lee.
"We are big parts of those communities ... and we have such a wide impact," Prof Lee said.
"Yes they are university facilities, but they are open to the community in which we work. It's not about our facility, it's a facility for the community."
WHAT IS RUN?
Formed in 2011, it is an alliance of universities with headquarters in regional Australia.
RUN is comprised of:
- Southern Cross University
- University of Ballarat
- University of New England
- University of Southern Queensland
- University of the Sunshine Coast
The Pascal International Observatory framework was used to assess the contributions of the RUN universities to their regions.
It is an internationally validated benchmarking tool for identifying and assessing the social, cultural, environmental and economic contributions made by higher education institutions to the development of their regions.
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