Launceston the university city

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By Font Strategic Partner Tom O’Meara

The $200 million project to relocate the University of Tasmania’s (UTAS) northern campus to the edge of the Launceston CBD will create an education-driven economic revolution for the city, and while such a project was never going to be easy, please – all naysayers, take a deep breath and wait for the detail.

An updated campus at Inveresk, on the banks of the North Esk river adjacent to Aurora stadium, and expanded course offerings, including associate degrees, have the potential to create thousands of jobs. In fact, it is a job-creation project of a scale not seen since the halcyon days of the textile industry in Launceston 50 years ago.

Yet research in surrounding electorates of Bass and Lyons show the majority of the community is opposed to the move.

To be fair, research at this early stage was a bit like doing an exam at the start of the term before you have understood the subject. It is also no shock the research threw up undecided figures varying between 25 per cent and 40 per cent.

While UTAS has shared a preliminary outline with its major partners – the State Government, Launceston City Council and TAFE – the public does not yet understand the detail because the project is still in the embryonic stages.

This means the dissemination of the ‘good news’ now becomes critical to winning back the support of the community.

The main arguments against the project at this stage are:

  • introducing associate degrees is equivalent to dumbing down the campus
  • it’s simply a move to grow the Hobart campus at the expense of Launceston
  • uncertainty about the Newnham campus and the Australian Maritime College.

UTAS Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mike Calford, clearly addressed the first point in a two-page spread in the Examiner, stating UTAS needs another 15,000 students to reach the national average in 18-24 year olds. But the Tasmanian system isn’t capable of taking another 15,000 students, so with the move into the city, the plan is to extend the range of programs into the associate degree space, offered over two years or two year equivalent university training.

Research shows that there are more potential students in this age range in the north and north west than in the south. The new courses could attract up to 8,000 new students in Launceston and it’s expected that 50 per cent of successful associate degree students will then go on to full degree courses.

Hardly a dumbing down, to have an additional 8,000 northern students at university.

The second point was addressed by the state government at the signing of an MoU with UTAS, which ensured there would be no downgrade of current courses in Launceston and that unique courses would be developed for the Newnham campus.

There’s certainly been a perception that a number of professors have disappeared from the north and turned up in Hobart, and of associated unbalanced decisions by UTAS. However, through Treasurer Peter Gutwein and the MoU, the State Government has put the hand brake on this perceived practice.

As for the final point about the fate of the Newnham campus, it is outdated and not servicing northern Tasmania well. Just ask the students.

It comes down to dollars and cents, as Professor Calford explained. It’s cheaper to build than renovate. He compared this to a renovation of a 24-year-old containment laboratory to meet today’s standards. This would cost an absolute fortune.

While the Australian Maritime College remains at Newnham, some of the campus buildings continue as community accommodation and function halls. The sporting facilities and grounds are already home to a host of community sporting teams and these will remain.

The opportunity for a major real estate development is estimated at over $40 million and a significant job creator.

So now it’s up to the partners to agree to a plan and win over the community through consultation, both traditional and social media, as well as unearthing a couple of high profile businesses and academic champions to embody the ethos of a university city.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild the pillars for a proud but wounded city.

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