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Traditional views of small town success challenged

Traditional views of small town success challenged

One of the main reasons young people are leaving small towns is to further their education, and an Australian regional development expert says that can be seen as a sign of success, not failure.

Dr Paul Collits, a keynote speaker at this week’s Regional Development Conference in Timaru, is a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in economic development, and regional policy manager at the NSW Department of State and Regional Development.

Dr Collits says many small towns measure their success or failure in terms of population growth or decline.

“But the reality is, society is attaching a dramatically increased importance to education, so when young people leave town to better themselves, we could see that as a win, not a loss.”

Recent research shows the number of young people moving from small towns in Australian regional areas to larger towns has increased dramatically, and he suspects the situation would be exactly the same in New Zealand.

“In the last 20 years in Australia the percentage of students finishing high school has increased from 30-35% to about 75%, and there are hugely greater numbers leaving smaller towns to attend university and other tertiary institutes.

“Job expectations are totally different now and people no longer expect to be in a job for life. They change jobs every five years or so and they want the security of being in places where they have job choice and opportunities, and access to educational institutions.”

Dr Collits acknowledges it’s frustrating when future leaders and talented young people “get up and go”, but he says the challenge for small towns is to be economically and culturally attractive. [more]

“As a society we want these people to be accessing the best opportunities they can. Of course, some of them come back to the smaller communities with enhanced skills so there are strategies that can be put in place to attract them particularly to regions which have good amenity, lifestyle and business opportunities.”

These strategies might involve improving IT infrastructure, providing increased training opportunities and encouraging linkages between dynamic businesses and universities and colleges in the area.

“It could be improving amenities, holding more cultural events, encouraging entrepreneurial activities and nurturing talent.”

He says economic developers are doing a lot of good work, and can help redefine what is ‘success’ at a local community level.

“There are no instant fixes and communities’ expectations sometimes exceed what is realistically possible.

But Dr Collits says the capacity to put a strategy in place can define its success.

“They are turning their communities into better communities – they are more active, they’re more engaged in economic development, and they’re recognising the things that can be done locally. “

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