NCSEHE Submission to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education
In July 2017, the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (DET) invited submissions from the general public, representatives from the education community, families, business, employers/employer groups, government agencies and the philanthropic sector for the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education. The review is seeking innovative solutions to help regional, rural and remote students succeed at school and in their transition to further study and employment.
The NCSEHE’s response to the Discussion Paper, prepared by independent reviewer Emeritus Professor John Halsey, focuses on the challenge of increasing access and participation to higher education among regional, rural and remote students. The submission is informed by NCSEHE funded research and incorporates a taxonomy of HEPPP and university-funded responses to regional access to higher education.
- The NCSEHE supports initiatives to enhance opportunities for regional, rural and remote students in higher education. At the same time, we recognise that a whole-of-system focus is required to ensure the best outcomes at the tertiary level.
- The introduction of the demand-driven funding system for higher education, combined with funding from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, has seen a big increase in equity groups’ participation in higher education.
- While total numbers of undergraduate students increased by 34.7 per cent between 2008 and 2015, students from regional and remote areas lagged behind, rising respectively by 33.1 per cent and 21.5 per cent. These growth rates were far less than those of some equity groups; students with disability increased by 88.6 per cent, Indigenous by 72.1 per cent and low socioeconomic status (SES) by 50.4 per cent.
- A number of studies attribute this underperformance to lower prior achievement, with poor secondary school performances resulting in lower levels of access to higher education. This under-performance flows through to higher education completion rates, with the 2006-14 total student cohort showing a 73.5 per cent completion rate, compared to 69.0 per cent for regional students and 60.1 per cent for remote students.
- Numerous research reports show that a range of compounding factors are responsible for this relative under-performance. Access and participation issues can be classified into two broad streams: motivations (factors which influence the decision to participate); and barriers (factors associated with participation itself).
For brevity, the terms ‘regional’, ‘rural’ and ‘remote’ are all referred to as ‘regional’.
- Research reports demonstrate that there are many social and cultural factors that shape the motivational aspirations of regional students seeking access to university. These factors can be grouped into three areas: family background; community; and schools:
- Family background is widely acknowledged as an early and ongoing shaper of self-beliefs and aspirations.
- Parental educational levels are a strong predictor of student aspirations, which is particularly pertinent in the case of regional areas.
- One study found that young people whose parents express a preference for them to attend university are 11 times more likely to do so.
- Community background is a major challenge for regional students because it often reflects broader systematic disadvantage as a whole, the cumulative effect of which saps aspirations.
- Rurality and socioeconomic status combine to produce the greatest educational disadvantage.
- Research on ‘community cultural wealth’ frameworks show that programs designed to enhance community local capacity and response can enhance the flow-on effects of schooling and educational outcomes.
- Schools are critical in the shaping of motivations in two ways: educational disadvantage can compound over time at every stage of the educational journey; and schools represent the one institution that acts as a focal point for enabling community change and development from an educational perspective.
- Research by Tomaszewski (2016) found that exposure to university representative talks, career guidance and informational handouts correspond with higher incidences of university enrolment. A background of positive attitudes and relationships with schools and teachers are far more commonly found among university aspirants.
- The barriers to participation in higher education among students from regional backgrounds can be formidable. They include: distance to university; financial constraints; and lower levels of knowledge of university processes.
- Distance to university has been found to be a major impediment for regional students by numerous researchers (e.g. Cardak 2016; Gore 2014)
- Even after controlling for SES and secondary academic progress, Cardak found that regional students, compared to their metropolitan counterparts, are 4.7 per cent less likely to attend university, 5.8 per cent less likely to graduate from university if they do get there, and 10.2 per cent less likely to graduate from a university than their metropolitan peers.
- Financial constraints are a major disincentive to travel to attend university by regional students. The costs of relocation can be considerable.
- Current Australian regulation of student income support programs, such as Austudy have barred prospective students from accessing benefits until they can prove they have been living independently for 14 months (recently changed from 18 months). This means there are increasing numbers of regional and low SES students who are more likely to attend university at a later age (Tomaszewski 2016; Cardak 2016).
- Levels of knowledge of university processes shape expectations and intentions to attend university. Regional students fare less favourably than their metropolitan counterparts.
- ‘Navigational capacity’ (a student’s capacity to navigate the access and participation process) is crucial according to Gale and Parker (2014) who found that 67 per cent of regional students aspired to go to university, but only 18 per cent had a sibling who had been to university and only 10 per cent of their parents had a university degree – yet almost half of all students indicated they rely on their family for information about post-school options.
- This is underlined by Gore’s findings that university aspirants are more likely to use a wider variety of sources of information on university compared to non-aspirants.
Key findings and recommendations
- Reporting on access, participation and graduation of regional students needs to be improved in the context of current work on equity reporting.
- Regional education providers should form partnerships with regional economic development authorities to explore local economic development projects focused on building skills that leverage regional economic advantages.
- The primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors should all provide more, and better focused, resources for career information and guidance.
- Government should re-examine the income and independent living test for Austudy.
- DET and the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) should work together to implement improved transparency in the provision of university access and student income support systems.
Read the NCSEHE Submission to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education here.
This submission is informed by a body of NCSEHE funded research, focusing on improving educational outcomes for students from regional and remote backgrounds. All of the reports are available here.