Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

23 January 2019

Though Australia has seen more students from non-metropolitan areas enter university over the years, it hasn’t focused enough on keeping them there and helping them graduate, Chris Ronan writes.

For too long Australia has suffered from a fragmented approach to regional, rural, and remote (RRR) higher education policy. This year, though, Australia has the opportunity to make a significant impact on the retention and graduation rates of RRR students.

In the last decade, policy initiatives have focused on encouraging RRR high school students to attend university, and have been increasing accessibility through mechanisms like the Demand Driven Funding System. These policies have largely been successful in getting students into higher education, but have ultimately failed to ensure that RRR students stay in university and complete their degrees.

Between 2008 and 2014, there was a concentrated effort to promote equity and access in Australian higher education, which resulted in a 228 per cent increase in RRR students over the age of 20 and a 168 per cent increase in Indigenous students enrolling in universities.

More on this: Australian higher education: where is it headed?

However, these figures did not result in a comparative improvement in retention rates. Regional and remote students are still significantly less likely to graduate than metropolitan students as they often experience multiple disadvantages.

Some 57 per cent of RRR students relocate to study, which effectively doubles the cost of a higher education degree and puts them under immense financial pressure. In addition, moving to a new environment can add physical, emotional, social, and cultural pressures on students as they are withdrawn from their existing support networks. This can lead to social dislocation.

To exacerbate the situation, few regional students who move to cities live in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). These facilities are specifically designed to provide wellbeing services and support networks to students.

Instead, RRR students are more likely to live in share houses and independent accommodation – away from university support services – in order to lighten their financial burden. In doing so, they place themselves at an even greater risk of diminished wellbeing.

More on this: Not a dropout problem

The confluence of these factors contributes to dropout rates of 10 and 15 per cent amongst regional and remote students respectively, before they even enter their second year of study. Research from the Australian Council for Educational Research indicates that, after nine years of commencing a degree, only 59.5 per cent of remote students and 69.8 per cent of regional students graduate, in contrast to 75 per cent of their metropolitan peers.

Of these RRR students who failed to graduate, 84 per cent cited poor emotional health and support as the main reason for withdrawal from university, compared to 66 per cent of metropolitan students.

Australian higher education policy has increased access to university education but has failed to provide adequate support for RRR students throughout their degree to ensure that they graduate.

There have been longstanding efforts to support RRR students financially, but the wellbeing factors that contribute to RRR students’ failure to graduate are far more complicated. It is a ‘wicked problem’ that requires an holistic and nuanced policy approach to remedy.

In 2017, the Turnbull government announced the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education to examine the state of educational attainment outside of metropolitan Australia.

More on this: Indigenous education: a class of their own

One emergent theme of this review was the need for a stable and influential entity with enough impact to thrust RRR education policy into national focus. The report especially recommended that a National Regional Education Commissioner be appointed to oversee the implementation of a strategic policy approach.

In response to the report, the Federal government assembled a Regional Education Expert Advisory Group along with the consideration of a National Regional Education Commissioner at the forefront of their enquiry.

Appointing an official and overarching National Regional Education Commissioner to lead the policy reform will help unravel the complexities that RRR students face during their time at university. The commissioner must advocate policies that focus on supporting RRR students throughout their entire educational journey – not just on getting them through the door.

Both the independent review and the formation of the advisory group have created the necessary momentum for policymakers to begin reconsidering their approach to the issue. Australia must now reimagine RRR higher education retention through a more thoughtful and holistic lens, taking into account the detrimental emotional, health, and financial implications as well.

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