Insights from regional, rural and remote students
Background to the research
This fellowship focused on a persistent disparity in Australian higher education: why are university students from regional, rural or remote (RRR) places much more likely than their metropolitan peers to leave their study before completion? In 2020, the proportion of RRR people aged 25 to 34 with a degree qualification averaged 19 percent, while the same age group for metropolitan people was double that, at 39 percent (ABS, 2020).
To better understand this disparity, the aim was to privilege the voices of regional, rural and remote people (university and school, students and staff) – to hear from them about their perspectives on goals for the future and what might get in the way of completion. This approach aligns with Samantha Newman’s sentiments on youth experiences of drought (2019); she emphasised that young people want to be asked what they are experiencing, want to be listened to, want their lives to be understood and want support that connects with their world (p. 10). It should be no surprise then that the best way to find out what it means to ‘be regional, rural or remote’ is to find out from those with lived experience. Some people who participated in this project were school-leavers or in their final school year, but many started uni as mature-age, negotiating complex lives and multiple responsibilities.
From previous research it is clear that regional, rural and remote students, across age groups, are not lacking in aspirations or goals, so I wanted to better understand what they see as obstacles to completion. It is true that financial and economic resources can be significant barriers, but reasons to withdraw can be more than this and quite complex. When study commitments add to an already complex set of circumstances, such as equity backgrounds, geographic location, work or family commitments etc. the cumulative effect can make it quite challenging to ‘get over the finish line’.
About the Research
The perspectives came from a range of university students, who lived in or came from RRR locations, university staff who supported RRR students in a variety of roles, and final year secondary school students on the ATAR track, who were enrolled in a university preparation outreach program. The qualitative and demographic data were collected through online surveys and interviews.
Commencing early in 2020 at the height of the COVID19 pandemic, the focus had to shift from face-to-face interviews as the main method, supplemented by surveys, to a heavier reliance on online surveys and interviews being conducted remotely (telephone or Zoom). However, as the survey and interview questions were similar, the level of consistency across the responses was good.
Here is a summary of the data collected:
Demographic information from university students from RRR areas confirmed that life circumstances often reflect a complex combination of equity factors and additional responsibilities (caring roles, community commitments, paid work etc), and this is the ‘norm’ rather than the exception. The table below summarises the multiple selections of equity factors that participants deemed reflective of their personal circumstances.
The chord diagram then converts these multiple selections as a way of visualising the complexity and diversity of this group of regional, rural and remote students, and helps to make more visible the relationship of students and the potential impact of intersecting equity factors.
The combination of equity factors is coded according to the legend in the table above, for example:
‘RFM n5’ means that five participants selected the combination of Regional/Remote, First-in-Family and Mature-Aged
‘RLWM’ means that one participant selected the combination of Regional/Remote, Low-SES, Working Class Background and Mature-Aged.
The resources on this website were developed from recurring themes in the data and informed by relevant literature. Care was taken to ensure that the regional voice remained centre-stage, to avoid collective or mythic constructions of these worlds. It was also important to bear in mind and account for the complex realities of regional people. Feedback from participants was invaluable for ensuring this (of those who expressed interest in providing feedback 22 have taken up the offer: 12 students, 10 staff).
Th prompts for the My Future Self reflective tool were informed by Possible Selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986) and inspired further after listening to Charlotte Wood podcast in conversation with Sarah Sentilles.
I dedicate this website to all those who contributed so generously to this research, and I am grateful to many who also provided feedback.
The full report from the project can be found here
The study was guided by three overarching research questions:
1. How do regional, rural and remote students articulate movement into and through university?
2. What goals and hoped-for futures are students pursuing?
3. What are the barriers and enablers to higher education participation, and how are these perceived and experienced?
Draft Retention Strategies
These high level draft retention strategies emerged from the findings and are directed toward institutions:
• Embed human care in all processes (face to face and online; administrative and teaching/learning)
• Be proactive in bespoke ways of creating sense of belonging/community and encourage building good networks
• Ensure that RRR students are given equitable opportunities and support to achieve their goals and aspirations
• Draw on RRR student expertise (e.g. students as partners approaches): ways to reach, support and enable regional/remote people to reach their goals and aspirations
• Recognise that impact of distance, multiple equity factors and other responsibilities on regional/remote students’ capacity to realise their goals
• Recognise the impact on participation of work responsibilities and pressures outside university
• Recognise the costs to students: financial, social, time, emotional
• Ensure equitable practices across all dealings with RRR students so they are advantaged, and not further disadvantaged
• Identify (via the RRR student voice) where the university itself contributes to student poor wellbeing/risk to attrition and use these perspectives to implement change through policy/practices