The Regional Australia Institute is keeping the evidence flowing about educational attainment in Australia’s countryside.

The Regional Australia Institute (RAI) was established in 2012. It’s a think tank devoted to generating analysis about the bush and practical policy ideas for the future of regional and remote communities. In late March RAI released a report, Human Capital Index: Developing human capital across Australia (36 pages), which updates earlier Human Capital Index (HCI) data.

Stubborn country-city divides on learning outcomes

Let’s start with a disturbing finding which will come as no surprise. It’s disturbing simply because it persists:

‘Across Australia, few regional LGAs perform as strongly as metro areas in terms of Human Capital measures. This deficit places regional Australia at a clear disadvantage to the rest of the country in terms of responding and adapting to structural changes reshaping the nation’s economy… It’s not only a shortage of formal education services, but also non-traditional forms of training like job readiness or upskilling programs.’

There are no regional areas ranked in the HCI’s top ten. Only three regional city local government areas crack the top 100 – Hobart at 27, Newcastle at 74, and Darwin at 91. The disadvantage accumulates over time. Lower learning outcomes in country primary schools compared to city primary schools ends up meaning that, on average, students enrolling with regional VET providers start well behind their city counterparts.

School leavers and adult learners in regional Australia

After secondary school, engagement in employment or further study is the common expectation for people aged 25 or younger. But if you live in the city you’re much more likely to be engaged in employment, education or training than if you live in the bush. And while average figures are startling, they hide disconcerting variations between regional communities. If you live in the Robe region of South Australia or around Kiama in NSW you’re much more likely to be learning or earning than if you live in the Portland region of Victoria’s south-west or, worse, the west coast of Tassie.

Despite the fact that many school leavers start their post-secondary learning behind the eight ball, and too many are neither earning nor learning, the HCI report underlines the ongoing significance of VET learning to regional social and economic wellbeing. Regional Australia, the report observes:

‘… demonstrates a clear strength in technical qualifications. As the economy evolves, communities will need to leverage this and build on a strong skill base to keep their regions competitive.’

VET providers are front and centre in upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce – a key source of skills supply in regional areas, which typically have older age profiles than cities. Again, regional variations are substantial when adult learning rates are considered. There is a high rate of participation in areas like Lismore in NSW and Wodonga in Victoria, but frankly abysmally low levels of participation in areas like the stretch of turf from Port Lincoln to Whyalla in South Australia and either side of Swan Hill on Victoria’s side of the Murray River.

The challenge to get adult learning happening across regional Australia is real and pressing, and we need to invest in developing provider and learner online capability to make it possible.