On the radar: Supporting the mental wellbeing of mature-aged students in regional and remote Australia
2019/20 NCSEHE Equity Fellowship final report
Dr Nicole Crawford, University of Tasmania
University students’ mental wellbeing is increasingly “on the radar” of universities in Australia and internationally. In this climate, this one-year 2019/20 NCSEHE Equity Fellowship research investigated university students’ perspectives on mental wellbeing and their insights into proactive approaches that they found supportive during their university studies. In particular, the research focused on mature-aged students who live in, or come from, regional and remote areas in Australia. Regional and remote students are in the national spotlight as attested by recent national reports. However, the focus of improving access and participation in higher education has been on school leavers. Mature-aged students are largely missing from the discussion, yet they make up a sizeable proportion of the regional and remote cohort. In focusing on the mature-aged sub-group within the regional and remote cohort, this project responded to calls for deeper understanding of the diversity and complexity of equity group cohorts, as well as the need to understand more about how universities can proactively support students’ mental wellbeing.
Research approach and methods
This Fellowship research investigated two overarching research questions: i) “What factors impact on the mental wellbeing of mature-aged undergraduate university students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?”; and ii) “What are proactive approaches that support the mental wellbeing of mature-aged undergraduate university students in, and from, regional and remote in Australia?” The sub-research question, “who are mature-aged university students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?” was a necessary starting point for approaching the two overarching questions.
This research followed a concurrent transformative mixed-methods design (Creswell, 2014). It was informed by multiple conceptualisations of mental wellbeing (detailed in Section 2.2.1. of the Report). In brief, adapting the WHO’s (2014) definition, mental wellbeing was understood as managing the “normal” stresses of univeristy and life in order to thrive and reach one’s academic goals and potential. The research also drew on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory to demonstrate that students are located within multiple interacting microsystems (for example: university, family, work and local community) that impact positively and negatively on their mental wellbeing, and which are also influenced by other layers of the broader ecosystem. Three methods of data collection (detailed in Section 3) were employed: i) national higher education student data (specifically, the 2018 Domestic Undergraduate Participation data); ii) a student survey; and iii) student interviews. Descriptive statistical analyses of the national student data and the quantitative survey data were undertaken. Specific questions in the latter were investigated for associations between variables using cross tabulations and tested for significant differences using Chi-square tests. The p<0.05 significance level was used for all tests. The open-ended survey questions and the interview data were analysed qualitatively.
The approximately 1,800 survey participants and 51 interviewees were from regional and remote areas all over Australia, in all states and territories; they studied in a range of fields and were spread across the year levels. The majority of participants were from 15 universities.
In response to the research questions, findings are detailed in Sections 4, 5 and 6 in the Report and summarised here.
Who are mature-aged students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?
Notable patterns in the regional and remote student cohort were found from an analysis of the national higher education student data. The more remote the geographical location, the higher the proportion of students who were female, studying online and studying part-time. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students increased with remoteness. The proportion of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) areas was far higher for the regional and remote locations compared to the metropolitan areas. All of these patterns were even more pronounced for older students: that is, for students who were aged 21 or older at the commencement of their degree.
The majority of survey respondents (82.0%) remained in their regional/remote location for their university studies; 41.1 per cent of the respondents had children under 18 years of age living at home, and 81.3 per cent of respondents were in paid employment. Further statistical analysis of the survey data revealed that the students who studied online were more likely to study part-time, work full-time, and live in outer regional, remote and very remote areas; in addition, the students who were the first in their family to attend university were more likely to study online.
Mature-aged students in, and from, regional and remote Australia were found to be a diverse cohort with varying circumstances. Large numbers of the survey and interview respondents undertook their studies fully online in their regional or remote locations. Smaller numbers relocated from regional or remote areas to major cities, but with the intention of returning home upon completion of their studies. Many students had busy lives balancing their studies with parenting, work and community responsibilities. These students, typically women, carved out the space and time for study in snippets between their other commitments. Other students were less time poor and studying was “their time”. Some of these students found that study helped them in their recovery from or management of major life events or situations, such as divorce, retirement and, in some cases, homelessness, or physical or mental ill-health (including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder).
What impacts on the mental wellbeing of mature-aged students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?
A variety of factors impacted on students’ mental wellbeing, both within the context of their daily learning and interactions with their university course, curriculum, peers and staff, and outside of the university environment, such as practical issues (for example, unreliable internet) and financial challenges. Several aspects of the students’ learning experiences were revealed in the qualitative analyses and highlight the importance of teaching and learning for student mental wellbeing. Mature-aged students in certain sub-groups within the regional and remote cohort—such as students who studied online and part-time, and students with children—experienced compounding challenges and impacts.
Almost half of the survey respondents (47.7%) considered deferring/withdrawing from their university course. The top two reasons why students considered deferring/withdrawing were: i) stress (65.6%); and ii) feeling overwhelmed by their university study-load (55.4%).
The survey responses to a series of statements that focused on the different periods within the cycle of a semester highlighted the temporal nature of stress with some periods of time within a semester being more stressful than others. Unsurprisingly, the most stressful periods were the time just before assignments were due and the final weeks of semester. School holiday periods were a stressful time for a large minority of students, as were the pre-semester/orientation periods and the first week of semester.
How do students support their mental wellbeing?
While more than half of the respondents (54.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that they had at least one person (staff member or student) they could turn to at university for support, of concern is that nearly one third (31.1%) of the respondents did not. Also of concern is that 46.7 per cent of respondents reported not having a supportive peer group (whether it be face-to-face or online) at university. The finer-grained analysis found that specific sub-groups of students (that is, students who studied online or part-time or were aged 31-40) not only had no one to turn to for support at university, but they were also likely not to have support with their university studies from people close to them outside of university; for example, they were more likely to report that their family and friends had a negative or extremely negative impact on their mental wellbeing.
There is a discrepancy between universities’ provision of Student Support Services and students’ awareness of them. The quantitative analysis of the survey results revealed a lack of awareness of wellbeing/health events and online resources on university websites about mental health and wellbeing. On a more positive note, 72.4 per cent of survey respondents were aware that they could access counselling services at university. Comments from some interviewees highlighted that they were unaware of their university’s Student Support Services until they needed them and were introduced to them by a staff member, such as a lecturer, tutor or librarian. It illustrates the importance of small actions by staff, which ultimately assisted these students in seeking support from their university’s Student Support Services.
The majority of students in this study indicated that they knew how to look after their mental wellbeing. However, students reported that it was not always possible to implement self-care and other “healthy” strategies whilst juggling multiple commitments. For many students in this study, there was a mismatch between the academic demands and the time that students had available to meet them, along with other commitments vital to maintaining their general health, their families and their finances.
Equity Fellowship Snapshot — “On the radar”: Supporting mental wellbeing of mature-aged students in regional & remote Australia
This Equity Fellowship was conducted under the NCSEHE Equity Fellows Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.