Housing matters: Understanding the housing experiences of undergraduate regional, rural and remote students living outside the family home
Julia Cook1, Matthew Bunn1, Penny Jane Burke1, Hernan Cuervo2, Stephanie Hardacre1, Jace Blunden1
Regional, rural and remote (RRR) tertiary students’ unequal access to, participation in and completion of higher education when compared to their metropolitan peers is a key area of policy focus for the current federal government. This focus led to the recent (2019) launch of the National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy focused on improving the participation and outcomes of RRR students in post-secondary education, along with a suite of regional measures intended to commence in 2021. However, while the strategy identifies finding and financing appropriate accommodation as a challenge for RRR students who relocate to pursue tertiary study, it does not include measures that fully address this challenge. This area of relative silence is echoed in the scholarly literature about Australian higher education, which similarly does not address the accommodation needs and experiences of diverse groups of RRR students who relocate to pursue tertiary study. This report presents the findings of a study designed to begin to address this dual gap in policy and scholarly literature.
The Housing Matters project surveyed undergraduate students at the University of Newcastle (n= 502) who had relocated to Newcastle from a regional or remote location in order to undertake higher education. The sample who responded to the survey were not directly representative of the wider RRR cohort at the University of Newcastle (for further discussion see the methodology section). However, the findings nevertheless highlight areas for further attention that will be of relevance for both the University of Newcastle and other higher education institutions. Follow-up interviews were then conducted with a subset of 27 participants to provide greater depth and contextualisation of student experiences. The aim of the study was to understand how RRR students’ experiences of housing impact upon their participation in higher education. More specifically, the study sought to identify both constraining and enabling factors for RRR tertiary students’ educational participation in relation to housing, and to identify the specific housing challenges faced by students who experience multiple forms of disadvantage related to a range of geographic, social, economic, cultural and representative inequalities.
The findings of the study demonstrate that students living in on-campus accommodation generally reported higher levels of satisfaction with their residence than those living in the private rental sector. However, on-campus accommodation was not appropriate or desirable for all participants. Many of those for whom on-campus accommodation was not appropriate fit into one or more equity groups (for instance, non-traditional students, students living with disability). The challenge facing higher education institutions and student accommodation providers seeking to enhance equity of access to higher education for RRR students who relocate to study thus becomes how to increase access to on-campus accommodation for students for whom it is appropriate, and how to harness some of the key benefits of on-campus accommodation for students for whom it is not appropriate.
Specific findings emerging from the survey and interview data are detailed as follows:
- Analysis of the survey data showed that, when compared to those living in private rental accommodation, students living in on-campus accommodation reported significantly higher levels of overall satisfaction with their current residence, higher overall positive benefits of relationships and experiences of social connectedness while at university, and that their residence had a significantly lower overall impact on their experiences of studying.
- Students living in the private rental sector reported that as their satisfaction with their current residence increased, so too did their perceived benefits of social connectedness, and that the more satisfied they were with their current residence, the less impact their residence or work commitments had on their experience of studying. However, unlike on-campus students, for off-campus students there was no significant correlation between the impact of residence on studying and overall positive benefits of social connectedness at university.
- Students living alone or with relatives reported significantly higher satisfaction with their residence than students who lived with housemates. Students living alone also reported that their residence had a significantly lower impact on their studies compared to students who lived with relatives or housemates, and that their work commitments had a significantly lower impact on their studies compared to students living with housemates.
- While considering the role that paid work played in the students’ experiences of tertiary study, we found that whether or not they undertook paid work was much less important than how many hours they worked. Those working between one and 10 hours weekly during semester reported little impact on their studies, while those working more than 11 hours each week reported significant impact on their studies, which increased in concert with the number of hours worked.
- Financial support from one’s family was found to be a significant enabling factor, with those who did not receive support being more likely to work more than 30 hours a week during semester, and more likely to be experiencing rental stress.
- Many of the survey respondents belonged to intersecting equity groups, with those who were from a low socioeconomic status (SES) background more likely to also be from outer regional or remote areas.
- Students who relocated from remote areas had housing needs and experiences that were distinct, even within the wider RRR categorisation. They were more likely than their regional counterparts to be living in on-campus accommodation, and to be receiving income support from a scholarship payment.
- For the interviewees, the choice of how and where to attend university was generally a choice between either relocating to study in person, or remaining in their local area and studying online. The interviewees cited concerns about maintaining motivation for study, and concerns about missing out on the hands-on aspects of study as their primary reasons for choosing to relocate to study face-to-face.
- The distance between the participants’ local areas and their place of study was not judged purely in kilometres — it was judged in part by accessibility, with rail access and the quality of roads between Newcastle and the participants’ local areas acting as significant facilitating factors.
- While institution-related factors were important in the participants’ relocation decision-making, practical and identity-based factors including cost of living and anticipated level of comfort in the area were equally, if not more, important.
- While the interviewees generally viewed on-campus accommodation as a relatively stable landing place for young first year students relocating from an RRR area, it was not an appropriate or desirable choice for all RRR students.
- The interviewees’ experiences of entering the private rental sector varied significantly. One of the key factors informing their experience was the degree of practical support they had while finding and securing appropriate accommodation. Those who did not have strong social networks, and thus lacked practical support, were particularly vulnerable to experiencing challenges while seeking accommodation, and settling for inappropriate accommodation due to time pressure and a lack of other options.
- The participants’ living arrangements impacted upon their studies and experiences of higher education more broadly in a range of ways. The lack of a quiet space to study was a challenge for several of the participants — both those living in on-campus accommodation and those living in the private rental sector.
- Challenges associated with concerns about personal safety were not experienced in the same way by all of the participants — aspects of identity such as gender impacted upon the participants’ feelings of safety.
- Many of the participants who took a gap year before commencing tertiary study did so in order to undertake paid employment and be declared independent from their parents for the purposes of receiving Youth Allowance or other forms of income support at a higher rate once they began studying.
- Some of the participants were not eligible for federal income support payments such as Youth Allowance because they were deemed dependant on their parents after means testing on their parents’ income. Subsequently, participants experienced feelings of embarrassment or shame associated with accepting financial assistance from their parents.
- The participants’ feelings about accepting financial assistance from their families varied significantly. Some felt comfortable doing so, while others were aware that their parents remained financially responsible for other siblings and felt uneasy about accepting money from them.
- Financial assistance from family was not always clear-cut. Some of the participants were unsure of the specific terms under which they were receiving assistance from their parents, and for how long they could expect to continue receiving this support, while other participants received support with the implicit expectation that they would assist with a family business.
- Many of the students who were first in their family to attend university (First-in-Family), or whose parents had not attended university, needed to conduct a significant amount of independent research to identify information such as how the HECS-HELP loan system worked. Although their families were often very supportive of their decision to pursue higher education, in many cases they were not familiar enough with the system to provide advice.
- Relocating was often a very emotional experience, not just for the prospective student, but for their family.
This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
1 University of Newcastle
2 University of Melbourne