Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Pilbara region covers 507,896 square kilometres (representing 20 per cent of the State’s total land mass) and extends from the Indian Ocean in the west across the Great Sandy Desert to the Northern Territory border in the east. Its main industries, iron ore and liquefied natural gas (LNG), are valued at over $70 billion, representing more than 70% of mineral and energy production in Western Australia. The region therefore makes a significant contribution to national wealth.

The COVID-19 intrastate travel restrictions that were introduced on 31 March 2020 and then the interstate border controls introduced on 5 April have resulted in a significant economic downturn and financial stress on individuals, communities and industries in the Pilbara. During this period, strict guidelines allow for essential workers to enter the Pilbara, but there still have been negative effects on workforce and education. Many students on placements had to return to their homes at the start of the restrictions.

The relaxing of the intrastate boarder restrictions from 18 May, provides an opportunity for students to undertake their placements/work integrated learning in the Pilbara later in the year. This offers a great learning opportunity for the students, while also increasing workforce capacity across many industries as the region recovers from the impacts of the pandemic.

The estimated residential population in the region is more than 60,000 people, 14 per cent of whom are Aboriginal. There are more than 31 Aboriginal cultural groups in the Pilbara. Pilbara local government authorities and the Pilbara Development Commission have been working to make the local communities sustainable with a focus on establishing residential workforces with a strong sense of place. The City of Karratha  has worked with key stakeholders, including community members, the Pilbara Development Commission (PDC) and industry, to build a residential workforce and a city where people choose to live.

There is an estimated $144 billion investment pipeline due to new projects proposed in the Pilbara over the next 10 years. The residential population in the City of Karratha is estimated to grow from a current population of approximately 23,000 to around 28,000 by 2031. This growth does not take into account the short-term growth in the communities during the construction phase of the projects by the temporary workforce (e.g. FIFO). It is forecast that during the construction phase the total population, including the temporary workforce, will grow to approximately 40,000 in Karratha at any given point in time over the next 10 years. The additional population will result in an increased demand on local services, including health and education. This growth in the Pilbara provides an opportunity for UWA to grow its regional reach within the community, in both education and research.

UWA has a long history in the Pilbara, with researchers collaborating with industry on a variety of projects. Through the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, the WA Centre for Rural Health (WACRH) and the Rural Clinical School of WA (RSCWA) provide structured rural programs to develop the professional skills, knowledge and attitudes of heath science students, including allied health, pharmacy, nursing, medicine and public health, in rural healthcare by undertaking periods of experiential learning in the region. The RCSWA program allows medical students to embed themselves in the region for one year of their medical program. The WACRH student programs enable clinical and research placements of varying length, with a current average placement length of over five weeks. These periods of work-integrated learning provide students the ability to embed themselves within the community, while learning and building on their professional skills and understanding the community. The RCSWA and WACRH programs are funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health through its Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training Program.

Regional practice provides extraordinary career opportunities for UWA students. Those who have worked and learned in the regions are exposed to myriad challenges, which provide them with insights, experiences and exposure to people and learning opportunities rarely available in city practice. UWA has the potential to expand the learning opportunities and enable their graduates to demonstrate richer practice and skills over their contemporaries who are limited to urban practice.

To grow regional communities, there is a need to provide educational opportunities to all members of the communities, across the lifespan, including children and the current workforce. The Regional Education Expert Advisory Group released the National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy in 2019. This strategy provided a commentary about equal opportunity and educational equity for all Australians, by increasing the participation and outcomes of regional, rural and remote students in post-secondary education.

The report highlighted five key issues:

  1. Access, opportunity and choice;
  2. Student support;
  3. Aspiration, career advice and schooling;
  4. Equity groups; and
  5. Regional Development.

Families and children form the backbone of the future workforce and communities, therefore educational pipeline programs from primary school through to post-secondary education are critical to the development of sustainable regional communities.

UWA has an opportunity to address each of these key issues by collaborating with the community, industry and education sectors. In 2018, the Commonwealth Department of Education funded 16 new community-owned Regional Studies Hubs, now called Universities Centres, at 23 sites across regional Australia, including the Pilbara. The Pilbara University Centre was established in 2019 and is currently working with universities to support the delivery of tertiary programs to students who are located in the Pilbara. In a report commissioned by the PDC, Haslam-McKenzie and Walker (2016) provided options for open access to university education for the Pilbara. Numerous options were discussed, including an option whereby the Pilbara Universities Centre is developed to incorporate both teaching and research. Collaboration with Universities Centres located throughout WA could assist to extend the reach of UWA into regional areas for both research and teaching, while simultaneously providing students and researchers with unique experiences and practice in rural, regional and remote settings.

Taking into account the recently released Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework in 2019, a focus on addressing the emerging skill needs of rural communities is required, including shorter form credentials such as micro-credentials. [A micro-credential is a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternative or complementary to, or a component of, a formal qualification]. There are opportunities to collaborate with all industries to deliver short non-award course to rural regions, such as the Pilbara. These courses would be useful for professional development of the local workforce and recognition of rural, regional and remote practice.  As the Pilbara enters the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, industries are looking to upskill their workforce to address job requirements. Consequently, the development and design of micro-credentialed courses that build capacity in the workforce are sought after, leading to opportunities for UWA to collaborate with locally based industries.  Individuals living in the region are also seeking courses that increase their skills to take on new roles within the workforce, and it is anticipated that there will be demand from Pilbara residents to study short courses that are aligned with the workforce needs of the industries and communities.

The redesign of existing courses to provide students with the opportunity to undertake extended periods in regional and rural communities during their final years at university will allow students to embed themselves into the communities and understand how their profession aligns to the growth and development of the community. Advancement in bandwidth in many rural communities allows for students to be located remotely, while still interacting with lecturers and other students located elsewhere in WA, including Perth.

In addition to longer placements (e.g. semester or year-long), there is the opportunity for UWA schools to develop courses that are relevant to the local workforce to assist in building capacity within the region. These courses need to be developed in collaboration with industry and could be nested to lead to higher qualifications. UWA’s role in the Pilbara could be to assist in the building of the strengths of all sectors in the community by providing a variety of educational opportunities to the community and industry alike, while also providing the opportunity for UWA students to develop an appreciation of rural communities by undertaking long placements and developing their skills beyond the lecture theatre. The increase of students (both research and coursework) can assist in demonstrating to the community that UWA is underpinning regional, rural and remote education. At the same time, rural, regional and remote experience will expand students’ understanding of the breadth and depth of non-metropolitan communities and the opportunities they offer for career and personal enhancement.

Commonwealth of Australia 2019, National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy

F. Haslam McKenzie and B. Walker (2016). The options for tertiary education delivery to the Pilbara region . Crawley, Centre for Regional Development, University of Western Australia.

Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework Final Report 2019 .

Associate Professor Rohan Rasiah, WA Centre for Rural Health
Professor Fiona Haslam McKenzie, Co-Director, Centre for Regional Development


Education Quarterly