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Uni quotas for rural students challenged

The heads of some of Australia’s nursing schools have dismissed as ineffective a proposal to introduce mandatory enrolment targets for rural students.

Professor Karen Francis from Charles Sturt University said increasing the rural student intake would have little impact on Australia’s overall rural and remote nursing workforce.

She said recruitment and retention of graduates was the real issue, not a lack of supply of trained nurses.

Francis said about 85 to 90 per cent of students enrolled in rural nursing schools were local rural students but after graduation up to half of that cohort were lost to jobs in the city.

A recent rural health strategy released by the National Rural Students’ Health Network called for a minimum of 33 per cent of enrolments in all health courses to be set aside for rural students.

Australia’s medical schools are currently required to meet a 25 per cent rural enrolment target.

However, many schools are failing to meet the minimum, (about half of the metropolitan universities) and there are few government measures to enforce the policy.

The network said substantial evidence showed students from a rural background were more likely to return to work in rural areas after they graduate.

However, Francis, who is a national and international expert on rural nursing, dismissed the “train them local, stay local” claim as a myth.

“There really is no evidence supporting that around nursing and the evidence for medicine is extremely poor,” she told Nursing Review.

Professor Tracy Levett-Jones, deputy head of school (teaching and learning) at the University of Newcastle, agreed there was little evidence to show that the strategy would work.

She said some rural students see education as an opportunity for broader life and career experiences and choose not to return for clinical placements or employment.

She said financially supporting rural students to study at a university would be a far more effective strategy to recruit students than mandatory enrolment targets.

In particular, Levett-Jones said a lack of long-term employment options for graduates in rural and remote areas was a significant and consistent problem that would need to be addressed.

“I know of graduates who have relocated their whole family, sold their house and at the end of their graduate year they were told that there were no full-time positions available in that area.”

Francis said there was a significant need to reform industry retention strategies in order to retain a stable rural nursing workforce and to diversify employment opportunities for students.

The effectiveness of mandatory targets was recently canvassed during the current Senate inquiry into the supply of rural health services.

The 33 per cent target reflects the proportion of Australians living in regional areas.

Linda Belardi

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