Giving every urban secondary student the opportunity to live and learn in a country school and community for a term or semester could help revitalise rural Australia, according to Professor John Halsey.
In Wednesday’s 2009 Elford Lecture, Professor Halsey – the Sidney Myer Chair of Rural Education and Communities at Flinders University – will also propose that rural schools be resourced not just on the basis of educating children but on the contribution rural schools make to sustaining communities.
“It is well known that in rural communities, schools are frequently the largest and most well-endowed public institution,” Professor Halsey said.
“They connect into and with communities in multiple ways and at multiple levels,” he said.
Encouraging urban students to attend a rural school was likely to achieve two outcomes, Professor Halsey said.
“It would improve the viability and, in some instances, the vitality of rural education by increasing enrolments.
“And, over time, it would increase the pool of youth who have had the firsthand experience of rural Australia and therefore may become positively disposed to a career in rural areas to advocate for rural.”
Based on projections that Australia will have a population of 35 million by 2050, Professor Halsey said rural communities will need to play an important role if Australia is to be a vibrant, sustainable, productive, secure, civil and inclusive society.
“There are at least four major reasons why radically rethinking and reframing rural is a pre-eminent priority for our nation,” he said.
“First, the majority of the food consumed in the world is produced in rural areas. The food security of Australia is a critical issue.
“Second, much of the world’s energy is sourced from rural and remote regions and many of the world’s fresh water supplies – including Australia’s – have their headwaters in rural locations and traverse substantial rural landscapes.
“Third, there is the need to arrest the decline of the natural environment.
“And, fourth, there is the issue of maintaining territorial security. Last year’s Desert Knowledge Australia report raised the possibility of Australia’s sparsely populated interior being seen as attractive ‘vacant’ land for others in need.”
The annual Elford Lecture is given in honour of the late academic Dr Ken Elford, “who believed it was critically important for Australians to examine their own society deeply and honestly”.