Education and Research

Briefing Note Summary

Tropical North Queensland’s education sector includes two universities, six TAFE campuses, 35 secondary schools, and private language and business schools.

Youth unemployment sits at 12.6% and the region faces a skills shortage in health, allied health, aviation, and a number of other STEM professions.

Two key infrastructure projects have been identified to address regional skills shortages, with $50M sought for a permanent new CQUniversity campus in the Cairns CBD and $11.2M for the Great Barrier Reef International Marine College expansion.

The CQU campus project is shovel-ready and will create an estimated 330 jobs (direct and indirect) during construction and contribute $549M to the regional economy over 10 years. The project will address current skills shortages in allied health, engineering, and technology.

Regional medical shortages will also be addressed by James Cook University by establishing a complete medical school in Cairns, with support sought for 80 designated Commonwealth Supported Places for domestic students, enabling students to complete JCU’s full Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery program in Cairns.

The Issue

Regional education sector

Tropical North Queensland has a dynamic and vibrant education sector with two universities, six TAFE campuses, 35 secondary schools, and a number of private language and business schools. In 2019/20, nearly 13,000 people were employed in education and training in TNQ, contributing $900M to the economy, an increase of 200% in 5 years1. The region is shifting towards a knowledge-based economy, which has implications for educators and regional training facilities. To accommodate the shift, the sector has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure in recent years, and a number of additional projects are flagged for investment.

With a strong student base now established, CQUniversity (CQU) and James Cook University (JCU) continue to grow in the Cairns region. Through collaborative partnerships and to address current gaps in education pathways, the two universities are working to build capacity across a range of industries and community initiatives.


Since commencing on-campus delivery in Cairns in 2016, CQU Cairns has experienced more than 20% year on year growth2. Given this, it has outgrown its current premises and requires new purpose-built facilities. As part of its 2019 Community Impact Plan, CQU has a shovel-ready project to build a permanent new CQU Cairns CBD campus ($50M for construction/fit out).

CQU currently operates from four leased premises across Cairns. The proposed new campus will allow the consolidation of these sites.

TAFE Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef International Marine College (GBRIMC) continues to grow and expand its range of innovative marine training capabilities. With the growth in Cairns as a strategic marine defence hub and a renewed focus on the Pacific as part of the Step-Up to the Pacific programme, the Department of Defence awarded the contract for Pacific Maritime Training Services (PMTS) to TAFE Queensland and the GBRIMC in March 2021. This programme will enable GBRIMC to provide all technical and non-technical training, as well as pastoral care services to Pacific Island Country crew who have been gifted Guardian Class patrol boats from the Australian Government, estimated to be 320 crew annually.


Building on 30 years of commitment to Cairns and the Far North, James Cook University proposes to expand Cairns-based activity to ensure that students can study a full medical degree in Cairns. Currently, JCU only offers years 1-6 of its medical degree in Townsville, while Cairns is limited to years 4-6. This means that future medical students are required to leave Cairns to commence their studies elsewhere. Research has shown that once students leave regional areas they often do not return. It is vital that Cairns and TNQ retain their local talent in the region and have a full year 1-6 medical program.


Addressing unemployment

The TNQ region has an estimated resident population of 286,873 and population growth of 1.1% per annum. The attainment of a university degree in Cairns is 54% lower than the national average at 14.3%, while 8.5% of residents have an Advanced Diploma or Diploma and 22.9% have a Vocational Certificate, on par with the rest of the state3.

In September 2021, the youth (15-24 years) unemployment rate stood at 11.7%4. While Cairns has two universities, access to appropriate courses and pathways into university is critical in bridging the high youth unemployment rate and encouraging young people to enter the workforce.

Nationally over the next five years, an additional 85,000 health workers and 28,000 educators will be needed to fill jobs in regional areas. COVID-19 has also exacerbated shortages in other sectors in Cairns, most notably engineering. Engineering is ranked as one of the major skills shortages nationwide, and this shortage is greater in regional areas. To fill this need, the importance of regional universities cannot be overstated with more than 65% of employed regional university graduates remaining in regional areas on completion of their studies5.

Next Steps

In addressing youth unemployment and preparing the region’s workforce for the future, the following projects have been identified as essential enablers.


CQU seeks $50M to establish a permanent, purpose-built CBD campus capable of accommodating 4,000+ students by 2030. Due to the proposed location adjacent to the Cairns Convention Centre, the new campus will complement existing infrastructure, effectively creating a knowledge hub precinct in the Cairns CBD. The close proximity to the Convention Centre provides an important link for conference organisers and allows for greater co-operation with regard to facilities and human resources such as the employment of students for events. Most importantly, the new campus will address the significant skill gaps identified in the region, particularly in terms of allied and mental health, engineering, and technology. The allied health courses will be supported by the establishment of on-campus health clinics staffed by supervised student practitioners. The project is shovel-ready and will generate an estimated 330 jobs during construction (80 direct), plus more than 300 direct jobs through expanded university operations and staff and student expenditure in the region. The economic impact over 10 years will be around $549M6.

TAFE Queensland

TAFE Queensland, following preliminary design and planning work, seeks to undertake a facility extension to the GBRIMC campus, with site stabilisation works including pre-loading, construction of new classrooms, and a simulator suite. The cost of this extension is expected to be $11.2M This extension will allow the provision of services to the 320 PMTS students expected each year as well as catering for the growth in Defence and other marine training, following the commencement of the Regional Maintenance Centre for Defence in 2022.


To support the training and recruitment of Cairns-based clinicians, JCU requires an additional 80 designated Commonwealth Supported Places (CSP) recurrent for the JCU Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) program. This will allow JCU to offer Years 1-6 of the MBBS in Cairns.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal Government invests $50M to establish a new CBD campus for CQU.
  • That the Federal Government supports the expansion of the GBRIMC with an investment of $11.2M, to enable training for the Pacific Patrol Boat training programme and other Defence and marine requirements.
  • That to support the training of a regional medical workforce, the Federal Government allocates an additional 80 Commonwealth Supported Places recurrent, plus an allocation of Destination Australia scholarships to JCU’s School of Medicine and Dentistry.


Regional youth unemployment, Sep 21 (

ACER JTD Research briefing (2011) Higher education and community benefits: The role of regional provision Volume 1, number 5.

Cummings, W. Economic and Socio-Economic Impact Analysis: Proposed Development CQUniversity Campus May 2020 p16.