University of New England vice-chancellor Brigid Heywood.

University of New England vice-chancellor Brigid Heywood.

New England's economic powerhouse is hidden in plain sight

Opinion: New England a learning region for a modern Australia

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Opinion: New England a learning region for a modern Australia.

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For the New England region, education is a major industry hidden in plain sight.

Education is an economic powerhouse that is also in the business of generating the knowledge that will be the scaffolding of our future economy. As a recent article noted:

"Education is NSW's second most valuable source of export revenue, injecting more than $13 billion into the state's economy in 2018 and supporting more than 95,000 jobs.

"In Wollongong, Newcastle, Armidale and Bathurst, education contributes $1.7 billion to the economy each year, and employs 10,000 people directly and a further 10,000 indirectly."

Our region has over the past 170-odd years built an exceptional collection of educational assets that have served this country well. The world is now making new demands of us, which prompts me to reflect: what if all our regional educational assets were viewed as a collective, with the aim of making New England an internationally-renowned "learning region"?

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A yearning for self-reliance has given New England an impressive list of institutions dedicated to education. It started with the Catholic St Mary's School in Armidale in 1848, and has advanced from there with the forerunner to today's Presbyterian Ladies College (1887), The Armidale School (1884), New England Girls School (1895), Calrossy (1919), Armidale High School (1920), Armidale Teachers College (1928), New England University College (the forerunner to UNE, established in 1939), Farrer Agricultural High School (1939), the University of New England (1955).

Member for Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall at Armidale's TAFE Digital headquarters.

Member for Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall at Armidale's TAFE Digital headquarters.

More recent recognition of the region's critical mass in education came with the NSW Government's investment in the new TAFE Digital headquarters and $120 million forward-thinking redevelopment of Armidale Secondary School.

This commitment to education is a significant economic force. UNE itself is a $300 million dollar plus per-annum business. It is Armidale's largest employer, and supports a constellation of other businesses: builders, caterers, childcarers, food retailers, health care providers, tourism and agribusinesses across the Armidale Region. We work closely with the local council and related agencies to support their goals and achieve shared objectives.

Education itself also happens to be a growing focus for a new form of tourism, as people worldwide seek to develop their knowledge and competency outside of the classroom environment. In just one week of conferences, UNE drew an estimated $500,000 of additional conference-linked revenue into the region. This additional activity contributes to the viability of the airport, taxis services, and food and accommodation businesses. Over the long-term, the University has produced more than 15,000 alumni who have stayed to contribute directly to the region, while UNE draws on the support of over 100,000 alumni from around Australia and the world.

To a large degree, our regional educational institutions currently operate autonomously. Can we now identify the collective strengths of New England's education sector and combine them with other educational assets to create a "learning region" of national and international significance?

We might start by codifying our regional strength in education, and owning that force through - for instance - co-developed education conferences and workshops. For instance, at UNE, our Growing Regional and Agricultural Students in Science (GRASS) program has just hosted 110 secondary science school teachers from across NSW in UNE's annual Teacher Professional Development event. Our innovative work with Aboriginal youth education is linked to other regional programs fostering modern community leadership. There can be little doubt that in aggregate, New England demonstrates creativity and innovation in the field of education.

There are many other education assets in the region, among them the New England Art Museum (NERAM) and Tamworth Regional Gallery; UNE's SMART Farms and Discovery program; heritage sites like Saumarez Homestead. UNE is also in the process of developing its Boilerhouse project, which will provide an innovative space for research-led learning in early childhood. Then there are our natural resources - farms, forests, oceans - that provide a unique environment for education around shrinking natural resources. The University's plans for a new virtual health network are a cutting-edge vision of the new paradigm of work-based, experiential learning.

Put all these assets together, and it is clear that the region has the credentials for what might be legitimately called a "learning region".

The use of a dedicated "learning region" brand would be an encouragement for educational tourism, a large and growing sector, and help cities like Armidale to commit to being a centre dedicated to transgenerational education in all its forms.

As the world grows more complex, and the labour market is changed by automation and other technologies, people seek access to lifelong education to broaden, enhance and sustain their skills base and wellbeing. New England has all the elements of a region renowned for helping people of all ages better understand our world and themselves.

Brigid Heywood is the vice-chancellor of University of New England

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