The dichotomy of how to maintain quality services across dispersed rural communities, while also promoting the state’s tourism and agricultural industries faces rural educators and policy makers, but University of Tasmania Professor Michael Corbett has some answers.
Professor Corbett has lectured in rural education at the university’s Newnham campus for the past two years and recently spoke about the myths, challenges and opportunities for the field.
Rural schools are the, “heart of the community,” he explained, and said they provided vital services to the people living there, as well as often being the institution that brings people together.
Agriculture is obviously a huge industry in Tasmania and it has enormous potential.
“Schools in rural areas tend to be very important institutions, not just for the purpose-built regular function of educating children and helping them move through various stages in their lives through to graduation and then into careers,” Professor Corbett said.
“Rural areas tend be less institutionally complex than cities so the school takes on additional roles in the community. They are very often important gathering places for the community that you wouldn’t find so much in many urban communities,” he said.
The movement of people away from rural areas to find work and how this impacts rural communities is a topic that Professor Corbett has seen in the state.
“We’ve seen in Tasmania – and where I come from in rural Canada – a fairly steady movement of people from rural to urban locations, so urban populations have grown fairly rapidly and rural populations have tended to stagnate or, in some cases decline, so they’re more challenged to provide basic services to young people,” Professor Corbett said.
“I think that’s a huge tension that sits at the heart of rural education and rural policy development in places like Tasmania. How do you maintain a level of service that’s accessible to people in a fairly dispersed geography?” he asked.
As a society we are now much more mobile than generations before us.
Professor Corbett said schools played a major part in this change because educational institutions mobilised students by encouraging them to become independent and pursue careers outside their community.
“Schooling is designed to help us become better employees, but also more flexible workers within a labour market, which means that we’re not being educated to remain in a community and to build that community, so much we’re educated to go and find those opportunities, regardless of where they exist,” he said.
“I’m interested in how that has developed over the past few generations and the tension that that creates for teachers and parents between raising a young person who loves where they’re from, loves their community and wants to contribute to their community, but at the same time is ready to take advantage of those opportunities that exist outside the community.
“Populations everywhere are much more mobile and much less located in any particular place,” Professor Corbett said.
Despite a move towards declining populations in rural areas, Professor Corbett sees that Tasmania has an opportunity to buck the trend through tourism and agriculture.
“Agriculture is obviously a huge industry in Tasmania and it has enormous potential; the state government has committed to dramatically increase agricultural production over the next 30-40 years. If that’s actually played out, it may well mean that rural communities will remain vibrant and, perhaps, become even more vibrant,” he said.
The other side of this equation for Tasmania is its reputation for natural beauty, clean air and pristine wilderness.
“Tasmania has remarkable diversity of natural beauty within this very small package of an island,” Professor Corbett said.
Industry based on rural tourism needs people to stay within the regions for it to succeed.
“One major part of the state’s economic potential is making sure that rural areas are potentially, sensibly and well developed,” he said.
The combination of booming rural tourism and people’s desire for a quieter life means opportunities for Tasmania.
“Rural areas are tremendous magnets for all sorts of newcomers. Lots of people are tired of cities; they want to live in places that have a little slower pace of life, better connection to nature, places where they can actually afford a better quality of life,” Professor Corbett said.
“The composition of rural communities is not what it was 50 years ago where you had people living in the same place across multiple generations. We’re seeing a lot of movement into rural communities ... people are coming for whole different sets of reasons that have nothing to do with the traditional pursuits of farming and fishing and logging,” he said.
Professor Corbett sees many links between rural Tasmania and Atlantic Canada, where he moved from two years ago.
Tasmania’s small communities built around the city fringes of Launceston, Burnie, Devonport and Hobart are similar to Canada’s diverse rural populations.
Rural Canada has, “...very dispersed populations concentrated on hunting, fishing, logging, farming very much the same as here, and a similar kind of colonial history of settlement by Europeans for extraction of resources, so there are a lot of similarities between the history of the place I have come from and this place” Professor Corbett said.