Improving the 'Beaten Track': Investigating Alternative Pathways to Increase Higher Education Participation for Mature-aged, Low Socio-economic Status Students in Regional and Remote Australia
Lead University: University of Newcastle
Lead Researcher: Bronwyn Relf
Research Team: Bronwyn Relf, Nicole Crawford, John O’Rourke, Emma Hamilton, Caitlin Field, Louise Harper-Penman, Robert Alderson and Lara McKenzie
Year Funded: 2016
A consortium of three universities identified the opportunities and barriers to participation for mature-age students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in regional and remote areas, and investigated the role of open access preparation and enabling programs. An evidence-based set of principles was developed for governments and higher education institutions to support equity of access to higher education and increase participation for this cohort.
- The project had two objectives:
- Better understand the opportunities for mature-age students from low SES backgrounds from regional and remote areas, in order to identify barriers to participation and to explore the place of open access tertiary preparation schemes.
- Increase the participation of mature-age students from low SES backgrounds in higher education by establishing an evidence-based set of principles to support equity of access to higher education for regional and remote communities.
- The project activities undertaken to inform key findings and recommendations included:
- Development of two survey instruments (Prospective Student Survey and Current Student Survey) to collect the views of current and prospective mature-age students on higher education access in regional and remote Australia.
- Administration of the Prospective Student Survey to 316 participants recruited at site visits to the Kimberley and Goldfields(Western Australia); Upper Hunter Valley and Mid North Coast (New South Wales); and North-East and North-West (Tasmania) regions.
- Administration of the Current Student Survey to 64 mature-aged students from regional and remote areas currently enrolled in either an undergraduate or enabling program at one of the consortium universities.
- Interviews with 14 prospective mature aged students, 7 current mature-aged students and 36 stakeholders.
- A desktop audit of accessibility of enabling program information on current providers’ webpages.
- The project produced findings in four areas: accessing higher education; the place of enabling programs in accessing higher education; awareness of enabling programs and pathways to higher education; and barriers to participation.
- Findings in accessing higher education included:
- Limited opportunities exist for mature-age students in regional and remote Australia to access and participate in higher education.
- The presence of TAFE in regional and remote towns increases accessibility to higher education.
- Collaborations exist between regional higher education institutions and community organisations aimed at increasing access to higher education for mature-age people and promoting lifelong learning.
- Findings in the place of enabling programs in accessing higher education included:
- Participation in enabling programs prepared mature-age students for academic success and allowed them to see the benefits of holding a degree. Three quarters of current student survey respondents agreed that participating in their enabling program allowed them to see the benefits of having a degree.
- Free enabling programs are essential for providing access to higher education in regional and remote areas for mature-age students. Over two thirds of current student survey respondents indicated they would not have enrolled in their enabling program if it were fee paying.
- Findings on awareness of enabling programs and pathways to higher education included:
- The existence of enabling programs and their role in providing access to university is not well known in the general community. Over half of prospective student survey responses stated they had not heard of enabling programs.
- Prospective student interview participants expressed a wish to engage with some form of higher education but were unsure of the pathways available, how to start the process, and what was required of them to access further education.
- Findings on barriers to participating in higher education included:
- Mature-age students required access to higher education in their communities without the need to relocate. Sixty-nine per cent of prospective students responded that they could not move away from their town or community in order to pursue higher education studies.
- Current student survey responses and interview participants identified that significant barriers to engaging with higher education included inflexible university schedules and financial stress.
- Very little research has been focused solely on mature-age adults from low SES regional and remote areas in Australia. As a result, recommendations for increasing participation of this cohort may be homogenised and over-simplified in the current debate.
- The project produced eight principles for increasing higher education access for mature-age students from low SES regional and remote backgrounds.
- Recommendations for government:
- Continue to provide Commonwealth supported places for low SES mature-age students from regional and remote Australia enrolled in university enabling programs.
- Investigate the feasibility of increased financial support and/or reduced HECS payments for mature-age students living and studying in low SES regional and remote areas of Australia.
- Implement an overarching policy change towards educational provision for mature-age learners living in regional and remote areas based on reconceptualising blended learning in the context of the university travelling to the student, rather than the student travelling to the university.
- Facilitate and provide long-term funding for the development of formal frameworks of engagement to develop partnerships between local, state and national governments, communities and higher educational institutions across regional and remote Australia.
- Recommendations for higher education institutions:
- Ensure that the role of enabling programs in providing pathways to higher education is more visible on university web pages. Individual institutions should be required to make information regarding pathways programs readily available in plain language on websites.
- Optimise search algorithms to display information about enabling programs on the first page of search results.
- Undertake outreach activities aimed at mature-age adults in regional and remote Australia to increase the awareness of enabling programs and their benefits.
- Develop policies, courses and programs that take into account the needs of the mature-age cohort, including improved student support services.
Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.