The staff who run a learning facility that enables students to complete university degrees in Griffith and Leeton will be going to the regional finals of the NSW Business Awards, after claiming the local Outstanding Community Organisation gong.
The Country Universities Centre (CUC) Western Riverina was established in 2019 to address a major barrier to tertiary education – the fact there is no university within two hours of Griffith. This means many residents haven’t gone to uni simply because they couldn’t afford to move to a bigger city or weren’t in a position to leave their farm or family.
The opening of CUCs in Griffith and Leeton enabled residents to enrol in courses at tertiary institutions, TAFEs and Registered Training Organisations all over in Australia with a local support structure in place, including a campus-like facility, computers, Internet access, learning skills advice and mentorship.
“We started with about 40 students and have grown every semester since then,” centre manager Shiron Kirkman said. “For this current semester, we have 208 students enrolled across 23 universities, including a lot of people from outlying areas such as Darlington Point, Rankins Springs, Narrandera and Goolgowi. About 50 per cent of our students are the first member of their family to go to university.”
The hard work Ms Kirkman and her team put in to achieve 500 per cent growth in just four years was recognised in August, when they won the Outstanding Community Organisation prize at the Griffith Business Chamber awards, which goes to an entity that improves the social, cultural and environmental wellbeing of the community.
“We were very honoured. I wasn’t expecting us to win. There were some fantastic grassroots organisations nominated and we were surprised and extremely proud to get the award,” Ms Kirkman said.
CUC have now also made it to the regional finals of the business awards, where they will vie for the title of the Riverina-Murray area’s premier community organisation. The presentation night takes place in Albury in early October.
Meanwhile, the CUC continues to expand, recently employing a widening participation officer who will target parents of Year 6 students to teach them about the benefits of a university education.
“Research show the earlier you can talk to parents and children about university, the better,” Ms Kirkman said.
“We’ll bring the parents and carers into the CUC for a series of parent information nights. We are going to make the effort to target those who need the information the most.”
There is also the prospect that another CUC could open within the Riverina in the future.
The federal government recently announced it is investing $66.9 million to establish up to 20 new remote learning facilities it calls Regional University Study Hubs – which could include CUCs. Communities across Australia have been invited to apply for funding to support a centre in their area. Region has been informed there will be an application from the Deniliquin and Echuca-Moama region.
“A lot of Australians in their twenties and thirties have a university degree, but not in the outer suburbs and not in the regions,” federal education minister Jason Clare said.
“I want this to change, and that means bringing university closer to them.”