I just spent the morning reviewing a new report by Marianne Sorensen from Tandem Social Research Consulting titled "Rural British Columbia Profile: A Fifteen-year Census Analysis (1991-2006). The report is well worth a read to become more familiar with the trends on overall quality of life and disparities in rural areas. (report obtained on the link above - see bottom of the page under publications).
The report provides insights on the current status and historical trends in rural BC. Throughout the report, I was reminded of the complexity of the situation in rural areas of the province due to the range of factors that are influencing change and due to the fact that not all rural areas are the same. I have made this point numerous times in the past because I find that many times rural areas are spoken of as one entity - when in reality, and as the report highlights well - there are oftentimes greater differences between rural areas than between rural and urban areas.
I wanted to highlight this resource today and will reference the report throughout other blogs - but today I wanted to link the report to the provision of higher education throughout BC. If capacity building is one of the central assumptions in the revitalization of rural areas - we need to ask hard questions about the role of higher education institutions in this province.
Rural development and access to higher education
The findings in the report show that rural BC residents are less likely to attain a University degree and possible explanations include that youth may have less aspirations to attend Universities and that there are less Universities located in rural areas. Perhaps because I spend a lot of time in the academic world, I see this issue as a priority. Our Universities and Colleges, for the most part are situated in or close to our urban centers which decreases access for rural youth. In my experience, access is not just limited by increased costs associated to relocation but includes more social and psychological issues as well. Many of my rural students have expressed that they were intimidated by urban centers or universities, that they felt social pressure when they chose to leave their community and for others - that they felt marginalized when they returned to a rural area with their education.
This area, as suggested in the study, is ripe for more research. If getting young people to relocate and settle in rural areas is central to rural development we need to understand more about those already located within rural areas and also youth in urban centers. For example - what are the aspirations of rural youth and how does education fit into those aspirations? What inhibitors, if any, exist and what could be done to limit or remove them to further enable rural youth to participate in higher education? What are the perceptions of urban youth about rural areas? What factors are they most influenced by with respect to their choice of location upon graduation? Do rural areas have these? How can rural areas use their amenities to attract youth to relocate? These are questions I see on the "demand" side of the equation for re population of rural areas.The only communities that survive in the future will be those where people vote with their feet - and these people need to reflect all ends of the age spectrum.
The report hints at questions around the supply side of higher education in rural areas of BC as well. Many questions come to mind to understand if our current system is limiting choice and opportunity for rural youth. Higher education is directly linked to economic indicators such as income attainment. It is one form of capacity building that could provide long term solutions to the obvious leakage of population from our rural areas. I question whether or not higher education institutions view the issue of rural education provision as one of their mandates. If higher education was seen as a more central component in the rural development puzzle, should we not see more collective and systematic efforts to address these disparities? For some reason, we always get hung up on the bricks and mortar approach to education provision - or the location of facilities in rural areas. This is one of the issues, yes - but I think we need to perhaps think beyond this traditional approach to education services and incorporate more outreach type models into our system. Learning is indeed place-based - place matters not only in terms of where we learn, but in what we learn about. We need to ask ourselves are there ways we could provide higher education IN rural areas in ways that meet the needs of rural learners? Are there models working elsewhere that we can pilot? Are there other agencies that could be partners in this endeavor that share the goal of rural development? These questions need to also recognize that the idea of "on-line learning", while useful for many - is not the solution for meeting the needs of rural residents at this time due to infrastructure issues with the Internet. More innovative ideas need to come to the forefront to address this issue.
I am not naive about the higher costs associated to providing education in rural areas - our public institutions are no longer "public" but are driven on a semi-private model where "bums in seats" or enrollment management is critical to their survival. Likely, the ability of our current higher education institutions to respond to the issue of rural development will require stronger connections between provincial government ministries that share the goal of rural revitalization. Expanded networks and cross cutting approaches to develop a strategy that addresses the rural/urban disparities may be needed.
A final note on this topic - when my position was created (to work with rural communities in BC to incorporate amenity based industries in their diversification efforts), capacity building was built into my work plan. To date, I have attempted to bring young people out into rural areas using outreach methods, I have worked with colleagues to bring education and resource sessions to rural operators (conferences, manuals, workshops) and I have worked with colleagues to try and embed "rural" as a concept in our urban university classrooms. I plan to expand these types of strategies and invite ideas and partners from elsewhere to expand opportunities for rural residents to learn about sustainable amenity development in ways that work for them. And, I will continue to find ways to filter knowledge about the rural realities in BC into decision making circles to agitate for innovative ways to move forward.