Remote student university success: an analysis of policy and practice
NCSEHE 2017 Equity Fellowship Final Report
The University of Western Australia
All students in Australia, regardless of where they live, should be encouraged to pursue their educational goals. However, a child born in remote Australia is only one third as likely to go to university as a child born in a major city (Cassells et al., 2017). Moreover, of those who attend university, the completion rates are lower (60.33 per cent) than their regional (69.37 per cent) and metropolitan (74.87 per cent) peers (Department of Education and Training, 2017a). This study explored the principles of good practice that support the success of university students who come from remote Australia.
The research confirms that remote students are not just a component of a larger regional cohort, but are a distinct group in themselves. Moreover, remote students often have unique knowledge, capabilities and perspectives that are a valuable part of a wider Australian culture. There is a compelling case to explore the great potential that remote Australia, its cultures and people have to offer.
The research in this report was made possible by an Equity Fellowship in 2017 from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and the Department of Education and Training (DET). It examined ways in which universities and public policy could support remote students’ success. The research adopted a mixed-methods approach. Analysis of national datasets was undertaken to identify the unique characteristics of the ‘remote’ student cohort as a separate group, instead of it being subsumed within the broader ‘regional and remote’ equity category. Qualitative methods involved case studies of three universities, to identify ways in which the government and universities can better support remote student success. Interviews were conducted with 14 remote students and 13 staff members. Themes arising from these interviews, along with an examination of institutional strategies, a review of the existing literature, and a study tour of Canadian universities have led to the findings reported here.
Key findings emerging from this research have informed the recommendations for policy, practice and further research included below. They encourage effective strategies to enhance remote students’ success.
Identifying the unique characteristics of the remote student cohort
This research identified an informative profile of the remote student cohort, highlighting the distinctive characteristics of the group and providing a more nuanced understanding of who they are. The profile of remote students varies considerably from regional and metropolitan students, both in terms of enrolment characteristics and equity group membership, and this has implications for effective student support design and refinement of policy solutions. For example, 45.3 per cent of remote students study online, compared to 16.75 per cent of metropolitan students and 31.29 per cent of regional students. In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students make up a significant proportion of the remote student population (9.59 per cent), yet this important information is concealed when regional and remote students are reported as one category (3.55 per cent).
There is also greater potential for remote students to belong to two or more equity groups (e.g. low SES, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students), and possess student characteristics that have higher risks of non-completion (online study, part-time enrolment). This can have a compounding impact on the challenges experienced by students within the cohort and universities need to respond accordingly, tailoring strategies to assist students achieve university success.
Two sub-groups were identified within the remote student profile based on whether they are studying online, or on campus. Each has their own distinct student characteristics, as illustrated below:
- Students who relocate — Generally school leavers who study full time and on campus.
- Students who study online — Predominantly part-time students who are mature age and continue to live in remote locations.
The profiles highlight the diversity that exists within the cohort and challenge a commonly held assumption that remote students are predominantly relocating school leavers.
Past policy and practice has primarily focused on assisting relocating students through relocation scholarships and income support. Whilst these students still need dedicated support, the online student profile represents a cohort that continues to grow. It is a cost-effective way for remote students to access higher education that does not require students to relocate. However, online students also need to be appropriately supported to achieve success while being geographically isolated. The case studies conducted revealed that there is scope for universities to adapt their support programs and teaching practices to enhance the university experiences of both groups of remote students.
Enhancing remote students university success
A key element in enhancing remote students’ university success involves recognising the differences between the two sub-groups, to design effective learning and teaching strategies. While this would have a positive impact for remote students, there would be flow-on benefits for all students. A student-centred approach, designed with the complex needs of remote students as its focus, would meet support needs across the student population.
The case studies revealed that caring and committed staff members in Australian universities have implemented initiatives that support remote students. However, these initiatives tend to be piecemeal and ad hoc indicating that whole-of-institution approaches are needed to improve the long term and widespread participation of remote students. This was evident in the way individual staff provided assistance to students experiencing internet access issues whilst studying online from their home community. A whole-of-institution solution to addressing internet access would be a better strategy for all students.
Access to reliable internet is a key equity issue for education in Australia that is well recognised and was identified as an issue to address in the 2018 Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (Halsey). While it is acknowledged that investment has been made to improve connectivity in regional and remote areas, the Australian Government needs to undertake urgent action to address this issue systematically, for the benefit of remote communities across Australia. Universities also need to adopt policies that recognise the challenges facing students studying in remote communities.
Universities could also enhance remote students’ sense of belonging to institutions by strengthening and celebrating their relationships with remote Australian communities and organisations. Actively promoting students from urban campuses to experience engagement in remote Australia would provide them with a rich learning experience, especially if remote students took a lead in mentoring their urban peers.
Principles to Effectively Support Remote Student Success
The key findings of the Fellowship have led to the development of the following principles that will guide universities and the government in enhancing remote students’ university success:
- Know your students: recognise diversity across the student cohort.
- Support for students across the student life cycle.
- Collaborate: in the classroom, across institutions, and in the community.
- Celebrate and value remote Australia: in the classroom, through co-curricular activities, and across institutions.
- Recognise the challenges associated with geographical isolation through university and government policy.
- Provide financial support to those who need it, when they need it.
Good practice is present in universities across Australia, as detailed within this report, but improvements can be made. While the focus of these principles is on success of remote students, they would not be the only beneficiaries; the whole student population would also benefit. Enacting these principles requires action across practice, policy and research.
Supporting remote student success requires a multi-faceted and nuanced response. To achieve this outcome, the following recommendations have been developed from the Fellowship findings and principles.
It is recommended that universities:
- develop a better understanding of the diversity within the student cohort and communicate it effectively across the university
- be responsive in the design of learning and teaching strategies and student experience programs, recognising complexities within the remote student cohort
- enhance the presence of Indigenous knowledges and cultures across the student experience, drawing on Indigenous leadership, research and best practice program design when developing and implementing programs that support remote student success
- implement strategies to maintain engagement with remote students who defer an offer or take a break from study
- enhance the links between academic and co-curricular programs, embedding activities that are traditionally outside the classroom, into the curriculum
- cultivate partnerships with organisations in remote Australia to create valuable learning and enrichment opportunities for students
- explore the opportunity of working across institutions to create student learning activities that showcase the value of working and living in remote Australia through the curriculum and through co-curricular activities such as volunteering, work experience and practicums
- refine relevant university policy to recognise internet connectivity challenges facing students studying in remote Australia
- introduce bursaries for online students experiencing financial challenges (full-time and part-time), recognising the cost involved with attending compulsory intensive units on campus; and completing practicums.
It is recommended that:
- DET policy and programs recognise remote students as a distinct equity group (separate from regional students), acknowledging challenges associated with geographical isolation
- DET and Department of Social Services (DSS) focus funding on supporting remote students, having a flexible approach that recognises the diversity that exists within the remote student cohort (online and relocating)
- Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) funding model be refined to prioritise outreach in remote areas and recognise the real cost of delivery
- reliable internet access is immediately recognised as an equity issue
- a universal student indicator be developed and implemented enabling longitudinal analysis of remote students’ experiences across all levels of education.
It is recommended that:
- longitudinal and cohort studies specifically designed to track the success of remote students over extended periods are undertaken
- research is conducted on the cumulative impact of remoteness with other equity groups and student characteristics such as part-time, online and mature age
- further research into the remote (and sub-groups within) student experience is undertaken, given the high first year attrition rates
- further research is undertaken into the reasons why remote students leave the sector, not to return.