Regional University Centres

New evidence: Stark inequity of online access for rural and remote students

It’s long been known that those in regional and remote areas of Australia do not have access to the same quality of internet as their metropolitan counterparts. Now we have more evidence about how regional and remote students are disadvantaged by this low-quality access. We should mention here that Australia’s average internet download speed is 43.4 mbps, ranking Australia 62nd in the world for connectivity. So generally, Australia lags way behind in internet download speeds compared to other parts of the world.

During the COVID-19 lockdown we asked university students in eight regional NSW towns – Cooma, Goulburn, Broken Hill, Narrabri, Moree, Grafton, Griffith and Leeton – to run an internet speed test and share the results with us. The regional internet speeds reported by our students were a long way behind the rest of the the country.

The students in our study were all registered with a Country Universities Centre within the eight towns. These centres are part of the network of Regional University Centres. The students were mostly enrolled in a fully online, distance mode within a range of universities, while some  had recently returned from on-campus study to their home towns, to study remotely during the COVID-19 restrictions. Due to these same restrictions, none had been able to physically visit one of these centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns for some weeks prior to our survey. We asked them what their home internet download speeds were, whether this was sufficient for them to do their university work and how it was affecting their study.

A total of 55 students responded over one week. Almost two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that their internet was sufficient for their studies. Among those who strongly disagreed, the median download speed was 4.5 mbps, with some experiencing speeds of less than 1 mbps. Multiple problems were reported in accessing or downloading materials, including being unable to watch lectures and having assessment tasks interrupted. Understandably, many expressed anger, stress and frustration, with some being unable to access the internet from home at all.

 “It takes an eternity to download lectures and streaming them requires extensive buffering. Uploading any files for group work or assignments is extremely slow and frustrating when deadlines are looming. The fluctuating connection which completely drops at times makes live tutorials or meetings pointless.” (Internet download speed: 6.4 mbps Broken Hill)

 “I am currently unable to properly access my zoom calls and online lectures because of how unreliable my internet service is. It often cuts out or is incredibly delayed. (Internet download speed: 1.6 mbps Goulburn)

The median download speed test was slightly higher amongst those who disagreed (rather than ‘strongly disagreed’) that their internet was sufficient, at 10.6 mbps, although many experienced lower speeds than this. These students talked about interruptions, disrupted focus, reduced productivity, and being unable to study at certain times.

 “It’s challenging and frustrating to be productive when everything takes so much more time.” (Internet download speed: 5.2 mbps Broken Hill)

“If it is really slow you easily lose focus and you get easily frustrated. This can turn you right off studying in these conditions.” (Internet download speed 9.5 mbps Goulburn)

Only those with a download speed above 16 mbps agreed that their internet was sufficient. Even among this cohort, difficulty with video calls and slow internet at certain times of the day or evening were reported. Across the whole cohort, cost of internet was a recurring theme.

I also do not have access to NBN or broadband where I reside and having to complete my whole degree at home has become quite costly with all the excess data charges (for incredibly bad service)”

Students studying online are two and half times more likely than those on-campus to withdraw from university without a qualification.  Certainly, this survey revealed that internet problems can make it nearly impossible for a student to continue with their online course, much less perform at their best.

Access to reliable internet has been identified as a key equity issue for education in Australia, with previous research identifying that poor local residential internet connectivity is a significant barrier to regional university study.

The sudden and exponential increase in online delivery during COVID-19 restrictions has led to a heightened focus on the quality of online deliveryTechnology advances coupled with universities aiming to deliver a more engaging online experience means that online course content increasingly contains interactive and engaging content, such as video, live streaming,  collaborative tools and other interactive multimedia.  However, students with poor internet speeds will struggle with accessing, let alone participating in this more engaging and interactive remote learning environment.   Unless home internet connectivity is adequate and affordable, those in regional/remote areas and/or from low SES backgrounds are likely to be excluded from these technological and pedagogical advances in online learning.

The lifeline of Regional University Centres

Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, many students in regional/remote areas were relying on Regional University Centres which offer high-speed internet connection (100 mbps up/down) to any student studying at any Australian University. These centres have been a lifeline for many online students in country areas, with some students willing to travel up to 150km to access a centre.

Country University Centre Clarence Valley
(Image by Monica Davis)

Offered free to students, the centres are supported financially by Commonwealth, State and local Governments, as well as community and university partners, and provide face-to-face support for regional online students, not only with fast internet but also with academic and social support.  Most of these centres have now reopened or are planning to reopen under socially distancing guidelines, however some students may face other COVID-19 related reasons they cannot attend their centres.

The COVID-19 restrictions have further exposed the inequitable access to adequate internet across Australian society, affecting those who are already among the most educationally disadvantaged. This is a problem that urgently needs attention if the past and current lower participation rates in higher education across regional and remote Australia are to be seriously addressed.

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at cathy.stone@newcastle.edu.au Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Monica Davis is the Director of Educational Delivery for the County Universities Centre. In this role she focuses on student support and collaborations with Australian universities to make higher education more accessible to regional, rural and remote students. Monica completed her Bachelor of Science with Hons I from the University of Newcastle, and a Masters in Geostatistics from the University of Adelaide. Monica believes that the future of an aspiring student should not be predetermined by where he or she lives. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at monica.davis@cuc.edu.au The Country Universities Centre is on Twitter @countryuc