A recent independent review of Australian higher education has made a series of recommendations that the government has largely accepted and that have the potential to alter dramatically that country's university system. In combination, some of the consequences of the review have significant implications for regional education, particularly new criteria for the designation ‘university’, the removal of a cap on student numbers, and targets for participation both generally and for students from disadvantaged groups, including those from regional and remote areas. In response, two universities have proposed the establishment of a new, merged institution to be based in regional Australia but with a national mission, which would necessarily have a significant – and possibly unique – distance education mission. A scoping study for this institution has been funded by the government and initial consultations have been held. These developments come at a fortuitous moment in the history of Australian distance education, a field that, while strong in practice, has lost some sense of its own identity as a result of a general movement in Australia's dual-mode university system from distance education for some to flexible delivery for all. De facto leadership of much of the discussion surrounding online delivery has been assumed by information technologists and online enthusiasts who do not necessarily understand the milieu of the distance student. The position taken in this paper is that the developments proposed afford an opportunity for the distance education community to focus its energies under a new mandate and with a more specific student base. There are, however, significant challenges to which both the present system and distance educators in particular will have to respond. One of these relates to the role of online delivery within the university sector, and particularly for such a national university in the context of an existing diverse and dispersed approach to distance delivery in higher education across the country. It may be the case that the developments outlined herein have some resonance in distance education communities beyond Australia. While this is beyond the paper's present concerns, it seems unlikely that, for example, the issues of identity mentioned above constitute a distinctly Australian phenomenon. These issues will be explored within the paper.
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