rural and remote higher ed students

People call me “bogan”: how to mend the country-city divide in higher education

Rural and regional students want to go to university – but they don’t, at least not in the same proportion as their urban counterparts. Education needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of where they live to ensure that diverse perspectives are valued in society.

We aren’t suggesting that university is for everyone or that university is the only positive post-school pathway but underrepresentation of regional and rural students in university populations persists. The government’s focus on initiatives to get non-metropolitan students to university, such as increases in scholarship programs, and increased ATAR loadings for completing schooling outside a metropolitan location, are noteworthy but they are not having the desired outcomes.

With this in mind we bring a new ‘take’ to understanding this dilemma. We undertook research that explored the experiences of rural students at university in 2019 and 2020 (prior to COVID-19) with the aim of understanding sociocultural factors that were influencing their success. 

We spoke to a total of 25 current university students in group and individual interviews at four universities in NSW and the ACT. Students were asked to describe their experiences of moving to the new location their university is situated in, making friends, socialising, participating in the coursework, and experiences going back home. In these discussions regional students expressed feeling distinct social and cultural differences compared with their metropolitan peers, and that these differences impacted their sense of belonging at university. Two main overarching themes were evident in the students’ experiences: using different knowledges, and impacts on belonging in ‘home’ and ‘university’ spaces.

Using different knowledges

Students identified a distinct difference in the nature of knowledges that were valued in their home town compared to the nature of knowledges  valued in their university town, a factor that also impacted on their relationships.  This was evident in the conversations that occurred across each space, the knowledges that were valued in their coursework, and their career expectations when they graduate. 

In their course work, no student felt non-metropolitan communities were represented in a positive light, instead they were all represented for their problems, such as lower achievement in school, worse health outcomes, and lack of career opportunities. When asked about whether knowledges from non-metropolitan communities were considered and represented in their course work one student described feeling that:

“There’s no representative for that rural lifestyle; the whole conversation is directed from the perspective of people that live in the city the whole time, so they’re using city examples, city schools, that type of thing”.

Further, students felt that examples discussed were usually very negative:

“…there’s only 3,000 people, we have very limited services in our area and it’s been discussed, like we have to travel three hours to the nearest cancer treatment centre, we have to travel to get a cast put on your arm and because I’m in the health faculty, we discuss it a bit because our services are limited and so we look at why they’re limited and how and whatever”.

This was problematic for some students who wanted to return to rural areas for their career:

“I  don’t think anybody talks positively about rural towns. Nobody is promoted to go out there. I can’t imagine anybody in my class being like you want to go practice in a rural town like xx or xx. Even the jobs out in xx, like the requirements you need for social work, are a lot lower because no one goes out there”. 

The students also described how in the university town, conversations were different and metropolitan students were unaware of many of the issues impacting on rural communities. Students cited the example of the recent bushfires and drought, where many of the metropolitan students were unaware of how it was still impacting them and their home community:

“I know a lot of people who were affected by it on res [university accommodation] and they wanted to talk about it but no-one really gave a damn about it, and people seemed to think with the drought thing – people seemed to think, “Oh well, they’ve had rain now, the river’s flowing again, so it’s over”.  It’s not over, it’s nowhere near it”.

Many students also felt that these issues impacted on their identity and made them feel more self-conscious:

“ I know that sometimes people call me “bogan” and stuff before because of the way I talk and I have noticed it and I have actually had to curate my language sometimes for who I’m with…”

These issues all linked to the students’ sense of belonging, both in their university town and their home town. 

Impacts on ‘belonging’ at university and at home 

Although the physical spaces of their home town and university were different, students described the impact of this to be cultural, social and emotional. 

For example, although students were surrounded by more people in the university city, students often missed the sense of community and belonging from their small non-metropolitan home town: 

“I guess that’s kind of what means the most to me in a rural location is that sense of community, the sense that you know people, that you grow up with the same group of people; you have neighbourly relationships which is not really something that I see here as much”. 

Many of the students described feeling like an outsider, and felt their experiences and lives were treated as foreign and fascinating:

 “… I’m like the rural outlier sort of thing; they come to me if they want to know about a lamb or something like that you know”.

These issues all impacted on the students sense of belonging, in particular, their connection to their home town and community. For example, when asked about going back home, many described a disconnect:

“It’s ok. Sometimes it’s a bit distant, like I go back and won’t feel the same”. 

And

“… when I go back home, I’m only seeing family now; my friendship groups have changed and that’s awkward going home to because some people, they say, “Let’s catch up” and we don’t have anything to talk about anymore but I still enjoy going home”. 

As the student described, this is more than not being up-to-date with local happenings, it’s more fundamental and related to their changing understanding of the world due to higher education. These are all factors that influence a students’ self-worth and identity while navigating post school transitions. 

Implications for Universities

This research provides insight into issues of different social and cultural capitals of rural and metropolitan peoples, especially how students navigate what it means to be rural in an institution that doesn’t appear to value their knowledges and experiences. To succeed at their studies, students have to ‘learn to leave’ either mentally or physically from their place to be able to participate. Students were as a result torn between the knowledges and friendships of their home town and those of their university town, and the needs and expectations of both. For some, this made it difficult to stay connected to their home town. When thinking about accessing, and staying in, higher education, these factors are also likely to influence student retention. Some students who we interviewed considered these issues to be a key contributing factor to the high rate of student drop-out at university. 

For universities, this has implications for coursework and support services. From a coursework perspective, universities need to consider rural knowledges in their course content and value careers in rural areas. Examples from non-metropolitan locations need to be valued, rather than disincentivised through the pressure to achieve benchmarks dominated by standards from metropolitan regions. This goes beyond inclusion of examples in practice, but recognition of the epistemological dimensions of those practices. From a support services perspective, students need opportunities for students to access mentoring and support from other rural students. Further, metropolitan students need more opportunity to understand what it means to be a rural student, rather than students from rural areas having to learn to ‘be’ like the majority to succeed. 

While we continue to prioritise metropolitan places and knowledges, we will continue to contribute to the gap in rural student participation and achievement at university. We have much to learn from our successful regional university students, we need to listen and to ‘do’ university differently to be a more inclusive and desirable educational destination for regional students.

Natalie Downes works in the Rural Education and Communities Research Group within the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. Her research focuses on rural-regional sustainability and the sociocultural politics of education for rural futures. She also works closely with the Student Equity, Participation and Welfare unit on equity initiatives for higher education participation.

Sam works at The University of Sydney in initial teacher education. Her work explores how teachers’ engagement with multiple knowledges effects the equity of student experience and how students’ lived experiences impact their understandings of education. Her current research projects include: evaluations of widening participation programs for students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage; and shifting discourses of gap year and university for regional students in NSW

Kristy O’Neill is a lecturer of Health and Physical Education at the School of Education, University of New England. Concurrently, she has a decade-long professional background and strong passion for social inclusion and student equity within higher education. This grew from her time working on a range of HEPPP-funded schools outreach projects with Widening Participation and Outreach at The University of Sydney. Kristy completed her PhD at The University of Sydney in 2018.

Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor in Curriculum Inquiry and Rural Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canberra.  He is the research leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group in the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. His research focuses on the role of knowledge in curriculum, rural knowledges and the sustainability of rural communities.

Acknowledgement

This project also includes the team members Fran Collyer, Amanda Edwards, Laurie Poretti and Tanya Willis

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