Presence and proximity: Understanding the aspirations for higher education of students in regional schools

Year: 2017

Author: Gore, Jenny

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The need for many students to travel or relocate in order to access higher education remains an enduring concern in improving university participation rates in Australia. The Bradley Review (2008) identified inequality in access to higher education as a persistent issue for those living outside of major urban centres. Studies of the effects of geography in Australia have shown that "distance exerts a unique influence on aspirations" (Parker et al, 2016).
Drawing on surveys involving more than 6000 students in Years 3-12 from New South Wales schools and focus group data involving 553 students, this study uses Bourdieu's concepts of social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) to investigate differences in aspirations for university between students living in regional and metropolitan areas and the degree to which differences were apparent even among primary school aged students. Insight into the early formation of aspirations is particularly important for policy and practice, given that most careers and outreach activity targets students in mid to late secondary school.
Logistic regression analysis found gender was a significant predictor of university aspirations in regional areas, but not in major cities. While prior achievement and SES were significant in all regions, the effect was stronger the further students were from a major city. Student age was a significant predictor for students in all regions and those in early secondary school were less likely to indicate an interest in university study.
The qualitative analysis showed that social capital was an important factor shaping students' aspirations for university, particularly in terms of the influence of significant others. While proximity to university was found to be important, university equity initiatives help to increase exposure to and familiarity with higher education.
With most Australian universities located in metropolitan areas, students in regional areas face particular challenges including the logistic, social and emotional costs of moving away from family and community to pursue higher education. We argue that university presence in rural areas is critical to supporting students from these areas to access higher education, and not just in relation to physical campuses. Targeted outreach programs in schools and communities can play an important role in providing information and resources to students and their families that impact on aspirations for higher education in these areas.
Bourdieu P. (1986). The forms of capital. In Richardson J. (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York, NY. Greenwood.
Bradley et al (2008). Review of higher education in Australia, final report. Canberra: Australian Government.
Parker et al (2016). Does living closer to a university increase educational attainment? A longitudinal study of aspirations, university entry, and elite university enrolment of Australian Youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(6), 1156-1175.