‘I never thought University was for me, but I gave it a go because a mate of mine had done it’, is a statement I often hear from the students I teach. I am fortunate to work as a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Tasmania’s Cradle Coast Campus with students of all ages and from different paths of life. Here on this campus educational journeys often become transformative journeys of growth and change, and the assertion that ‘University is not for me’ is soon replaced by a passion for a particular issue that students want to pursue in their careers: education, social work, child protection, public transport, disability services and so on. These stories speak of the powerful role of education in enabling individuals to develop their own potential and pursue their desire to positively contribute to their communities in unique and meaningful ways.

The transformative power of education goes beyond the individual and benefits the whole of society through the building of human capital – people’s skills and capacities that can be put to productive use. Indeed, the World Economic Forum indicates that human capital can be more important for a nation’s success than virtually any other factor. From this perspective, the student who wants to improve public transport in our communities could improve the economic prosperity of the region by increasing access to resources such as education and work. This person might also be ‘the mate’ who inspires other community members to realise their own aspirations.

Education is not some kind of abstract idea that only takes place between the four walls of the classroom. We all learn every day whether we work in the home, on the farm, or in the supermarket. Indeed, the very best way to foster the skills needed for the contemporary labour market, such as critical thinking, problem solving and innovation, is not through traditional classroom teaching but via interactions between education and the wider community. For example, that student who wants to change the way public transport operates might spend some time with a local bus company to learn about the challenges of public transport provision in rural areas as part of her studies. Such dialogue between practical and theoretical forms of knowledge strengthens the capacity of individuals to create social change through a more complex understanding of key issues. A collaborative approach to learning in the community also supports a culture of lifelong learning. This is known to work as a powerful form of protection against the unpredictable nature of the labour market, enabling communities to upskill or fill skills gaps. This is particularly important for regional economies which tend to be disproportionately affected by global forces.

Community interaction in education is not a new idea and this approach to education is evident at all levels of the education system. For example, in a previous ‘Reimagining the Region’ article Dr Peter Brett highlighted how today’s teachers ‘embrace opportunities to partner with local Aboriginal people and organisations to share their wisdom’. From my own perspective, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is to see how the often informal and practical knowledge the Sociology students bring to classes enrich the more theoretical content of the curriculum and help to deepen our understanding of society. Whilst the idea of community interaction in education might not be a new one, there is still much to be done to deeply embed this form of learning in learning experiences across the education sector.

The University of Tasmania’s strategic direction of place-based teaching, learning and research provides a meaningful context in which to continue to strengthen community interactions in education to produce strong lifelong learning cultures, enhance health and wellbeing and address skills gaps. Most recently the University has produced ‘The Wellbeing Toolkit’, a number of short courses designed to help Tasmanians navigate the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.

The many small communities of North-West Tasmania already enjoy high levels of social connectedness, innovation and entrepreneurism. As a community we can harness these qualities to enable individuals to realise their aspirations and build strong lifelong learning cultures that can protect against an increasingly volatile labour market. The Education that I imagine for the future of our region is one that embeds both informal, formal, practical and theoretical forms of knowledge in its approach to teaching and learning. An education that truly values all ways in which people learn has great potential to empower community members to reimagine and create the future of our region.

  –  Dr Merete Schmidt is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Tasmania’s Cradle Coast Campus.