Tasmania has an economic biological clock, and it's ticking.
Projected population decline will hit the state hard and exacerbate existing skill shortages, meaning higher education has a strategic role to play in funnelling skilled students into those gaps.
The University of Tasmania is on the cusp of great change, with vice-chancellor Rufus Black intertwining its fate with that of the state's - and he believes there is a finite window in place.
In other news:
Professor Black recently released the university's strategic plan to encompass its legacy and future over the next six years, with a cohesive focus on reinvention and integration with the community.
The vice-chancellor sat down to discuss the plan and the transformation of UTAS and the economic benefits for Tasmania.
RELATED STORY:University VC Rufus Black outlines vision
Economic prosperity is within Tasmania's grasp but there is a finite window to see the state on its way to change, Professor Black says.
"We have no time to lose. We have a mere 10-year window to see the state on a different trajectory and a five-year-horizon to see the university develop into a sustainable operation, or we will not be able to fulfil our mission."
That bold statement is the first written in the strategic plan under the sub-heading "the challenges we have to deliver our mission" and it's one that Professor Black does not take lightly.
RELATED STORY:New UTAS report highlighting population trends
"We see Tasmania going into negative population growth in the next 10 years, and we've already seen that in some populations this year, so we think there is a 10-year window for Tasmania where we [the university] need to make a significant contribution," he said.
Failure to halt population decline ends with a population that is highly dependent on services and welfare.
Professor Black said that scenario made it "hard for any area to thrive" and UTAS and Tasmania needed to turn it around "before those forces become too hard to resist."
What role does UTAS play?
Universities play a completely different role today than they did in the past, and in recent years there has been a shift at UTAS to become "a university for Tasmania".
"In modern society, if you want to turn it [the economy] around, it will be knowledge and skills that will do it," Professor Black said.
"If we [UTAS] is not providing those skills to address things like the health challenges, for example, then no one else will."
Professor Black said society had evolved to the point where jobs are increasingly requiring higher levels of skills and universities were ideally placed to provide those skills.
Tasmania is experiencing a skills shortage in key trade areas such as construction, and while UTAS does not offer those traditional trade-based education models it does have the University College that plays in that space.
RELATED STORY:University College poised to fill skill shortages
Also, it is increasing its ties to TasTAFE to offer transferable credits between units and tying TasTAFE courses to its associate degree structures, described as "applied learning".
Professor Black said the strategic plan helped to build a "clear-eyed" objective for the entire university to focus on how to transform it from the University of Tasmania to a university for Tasmania.
However, doing that would mean the university would come across some challenges, due mostly to Tasmania's population size.
Core course decline
Professor Black said to achieve that vision of being a university for Tasmania, there was "a right size and shape" for its student cohort.
However, that size and shape was not the size of the student cohort for today's University of Tasmania.
The strategic plan paints a frank picture of UTAS' core disciplines, which "have been in long-term decline."
"Our core courses, for example, our bachelor's programs, have been in long-term decline and have reached a point where we risk dipping below critical mass in key areas," the report reads.
"These are the courses critical to maintaining our disciplines and, with them, the sustainability of the broad academic community, so we must reverse that decline."
Professor Black said the biggest factor in declining course enrolments was the "right of passage" factor.
The biggest factor of the decline in core domestic students doing core courses is that now 20 per cent of young people do their higher education off the island," he said.
While the flat population of young people was a factor, the largest issue remained that many young people favoured leaving Tasmania to do their university study, with many not coming back.
"We don't have a matching number of students coming our way."
Professor Black said while that challenge remained difficult to change because it was due to preference, UTAS was committed to providing a "rite of passage" experience for mainland students.
"As we do that, we need to address the fact that student satisfaction scores have been flat and below the national average for far too long and that attrition rates in particular cohorts are too high," the strategic plan read.
Destination (University of) Tasmania
Professor Black said the development of the rite of passage experienced drove an important part of their strategy moving forward because interest in UTAS from mainland student was high.
"They [the students] think of us and recognise that we are a quality place to study, which is great, but we know there is a third [of students] who, knowing we are great, would be attracted to Tasmanian qualities."
"Part of our strategy is to celebrate what it is to be Tasmanian and inviting people to come and also doubling down on encouraging people to stay."
Moves away from the "hub-and-spoke" model, which had Hobart as the hub centre, meant UTAS could move towards region-specific offerings, to make the student experience as interesting as possible.
Northern Tasmania, is characterised as the small business and entrepreneurship capital of Tasmania, which UTAS has capitalised on through its accelerated Bachelor of Business course, run from the recently reopened Macquarie House.
"Launceston has some classic strengths," Professor Black said.
He said UTAS would look to offer region-specific courses in those strength areas, including timber, food processing, maritime (through the AMC), education and health.
Launceston has some classic strengths - its always been the business capital and timber and the making side is very important
"Maritime has been here because of the AMC being here, that is a clear strength," Professor Black said.
"It has always been our home for education so that's a piece we want to continue to strengthen and, of course, there's always been a health component to Launceston.
- Part two of this interview will be published on Thursday morning.
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