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 10.7% 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 committed in the October 2022 Federal Budget for a permanent new CQUniversity campus in the Cairns CBD and $15m required from the State Government 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 enabling students to complete James Cook University’s full Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery program in Cairns following allocation of 20 Commonwealth Supported Places in the October 2022 Federal Budget. This commitment will build critical rural and remote medical capability throughout the region. Support is also sought for allocation of a further 40 of the 80 CSPs included in the March 2022 Federal Budget.

With the full medical degree now offered at JCU’s Cairns campus, the opportunity to build medical capability and capacity amongst our Pacific neighbours is consistent with the Federal Government’s commitment to greater strategic engagement with our Pacific neighbours.

The Issue

Regional education sector

Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) 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 2020/21, more than 11,000 people were employed in education and training in TNQ, contributing $950m to the local economy1. 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 additional projects are flagged for investment.

With a strong student base now established, James Cook University (JCU) and CQUniversity (CQU) continue to play a vital role in capacity building and the knowledge economy in the 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.

James Cook University

Building on 30 years of commitment to Cairns, 20 Commonwealth Supported Places were awarded to JCU Medical in Cairns in the October 2022 Federal Budget, with another 80 to be allocated nationally via a competitive process, as per the March Federal Budget. It is now critical that the university receives the committed 20 initial CSPs and is considered further for 40 of the additional 80 CSPs.


Since commencing on-campus delivery in Cairns in 2016, CQU Cairns has experienced significant 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. The university currently operates from four leased premises across Cairns. The new campus may allow some consolidation of sites.

CQU welcomed the Federal Government’s $50m commitment in the October 2022 Federal Budget towards construction and fit out of the site, and now await confirmation of a delivery timeline for the funding.

TAFE Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef International Marine College (GBRIMC) continues to grow and expand its range of innovative marine training capabilities, offering domestic and international students specialised maritime education in areas such as safety and survival, security, fire, communications, and electronic chart display information systems. With the growth of Cairns as a strategic marine defence hub and a renewed focus on the Pacific as part of the Step-Up to the Pacific programme, in March 2021 TAFE Queensland and the GBRIMC were awarded the contract for the Department of Defence’s Pacific Maritime Training Services (PMTS), a key part of the Australian Defence Cooperation Program. Under this 5-year contract (with three 3-year extension options) TAFE Qld was awarded $36m to deliver vital maritime training to an estimated 320 Pacific Islands people annually, who will crew the 21 Guardian Patrol Boats gifted by the Federal Government to replace the existing pacific patrol boats that have been in-service since 1987. A GBRIMC Business Case has outlined that $15m is required to upgrade and expand the college to meet the requirements of the PMTS program.  Land is available adjacent to the existing premises and work continues on the business case.  Skills shortages in the marine sector have not abated and this expansion would provide much-needed additional trained personnel across a variety of professions as well as important skills upgrades and mandatory training for mariners across a variety of commercial and defence vessels.


Addressing regional skills shortages

The TNQ region has an estimated resident population of 292,943, with that figure expected to reach 378,000 by 20413. ABS figures for 2021 showed the attainment of a university degree in Cairns was 55% lower than the national average at 16.9%, while 9.2% of residents had an Advanced Diploma or Diploma and 20.6% had a Vocational Certificate, on par with the rest of the state4.

In November 2022, the youth (15-24 years) unemployment rate stood at 10.7%5 compared to 7.7% nationally6. 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. Conversely, the high demand for unskilled workers has acted as a disincentive for young people considering gaining critically needed tertiary qualifications

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 studies7.

Next Steps

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

James Cook University

To support the training and recruitment of Cairns-based clinicians, JCU requires the committed 20 Commonwealth Supported Places for medicine students to be funded from 2023, plus allocation of 40 of the additional 80 designated Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) announced in the March Federal Budget.


CQU seeks delivery of the Federal Government’s commitment of $50m to establish a permanent, purpose-built CBD campus for 4000+ students by 2030. Located next to the Cairns Convention Centre, the new campus will complement existing infrastructure, effectively creating a knowledge hub precinct in the Cairns CBD. Most importantly, the campus will address the significant skill gaps identified in the region, particularly in terms of allied and mental health, engineering, and technology. 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 $549m8.

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 $15m. 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 commencement of the Regional Maintenance Centre for Defence in 2022.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal Government delivers $50m in funding towards establishing a new CBD campus for CQU.

  • That James Cook University receives its allocated 20 CSPs for its Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in Cairns to begin in 2023, as well as an additional 40 of the 80 CSPs announced in the March 2022 Federal Budget.

  • That the State Government supports the expansion of the GBRIMC with an investment of $15m, to enable training for the Pacific Patrol Boat training programme and other Defence and marine requirements.








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

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