Insights from country students inform effective university supports
A universal understanding of the challenges faced by university students from regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas would inform equitable course delivery and support measures, major research has shown.
The Fellowship report by National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) Equity Fellow Dr Janine Delahunty recommends engaging and supporting students from RRR areas to identify their strengths and hopes for the future and communicate their challenges to improve educational outcomes.
“Recent data (ABS, 2021) indicate the proportion of RRR people with a degree qualification remains half that of people from major cities. This Fellowship identified factors contributing to this disparity, and those which enabled students to succeed,” Dr Delahunty said.
Dr Delahunty from the University of Wollongong surveyed and interviewed university students who were from regional, rural or remote backgrounds, across 21 Australian universities or regional campuses. Staff with significant professional expertise from 12 institutions also participated, drawing from their experiences supporting students from RRR backgrounds through various roles from director/coordinator/manager (e.g., regional campuses, university centres, programs) to student outreach and support. A group of secondary school students enrolled in a regional university outreach program also participated.
Student participants identified the importance of having a sense of community and belonging which helped to enhance their university experience. However, it was not always “guaranteed” to be part of the experience.
“RRR students should be engaged in developing bespoke and practical ways to embed a sense of community across all interactions throughout the student life cycle,” Dr Delahunty said.
The study found that students were readily able to identify their own strengths and qualities often developed through the experience of living in smaller communities. They articulated with clarity, futures to which they would (or would not) aspire and were highly motivated towards completion of their university study.
“The personal qualities that RRR individuals commonly possess; for example, resilience, determination and resourcefulness, can be exemplified and built upon when they move into the role of a student in higher education,” Dr Delahunty said.
“Students should also be prepared for potential barriers to realising their goals and counselled on the appropriate supports in place so they can mobilise relevant strategies and support.”
The study found the main barriers to completion included financial constraints; inflexible course delivery and placements; and the combined impact of distance, additional equity factors, and competing responsibilities.
“The provision of scholarships and financial support by institutions alleviates disadvantage associated with expenses including travel, relocation and accommodation, and work placements,” Dr Delahunty said.
NCSEHE Director, Professor Sarah O’Shea said there were significant benefits in developing a clearer understanding of RRR students’ unique challenges and enabling factors.
“This research supports an institution-wide appreciation of the compounding disadvantage facing students from RRR areas, so measures can be taken to alleviate these pressures for a more equitable higher education experience,” Professor O’Shea said.
The NCSEHE Equity Fellows Program is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
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