Completion patterns of cohorts enrolled in Regional University Network (RUN) universities are influenced by the sociocultural, structural and economic implications of equity group membership. This report synthesised prior research on the sociocultural and financial context that students at RUN universities encounter, extending a comparative analysis of completion patterns and informing mitigation strategies to enhance the retention of equity group students in RUN universities.
Regional universities perform an important role in creating and contributing to dynamic communities in their regions, and to increasing and widening participation in higher education. The successful completion of students who study at regional universities is not only a social justice issue but is critical to building capacity in these communities and contributing to the nation’s knowledge-based economy.
While recent higher education policy and funding has encouraged growth in numbers from students from traditionally underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, factors influencing regional participation are longstanding, multi-dimensional and complex, with much recent attention focusing on the relative effects of membership within equity groups.
Department of Education and Training (DET) completion reports have indicated that RUN universities have lower completion rates across all cohorts compared to the completion rates of these cohorts at metropolitan universities. These differences call for a deeper understanding of the factors that impact upon completion rates at RUN universities to shift the focus from the narratives of deficit to one that more appropriately focuses on public policy interventions to mitigate structural and sociocultural disadvantage.
Objectives and methodology
This report aimed to deepen understanding of the higher education experiences of equity cohorts at RUN universities. It synthesised prior research on the sociocultural and financial context that students at RUN universities encounter, to augment a comparative analysis of completion patterns. The research conducted for this study had two major components:
- Analysis of a specific data set from DET—arising from the data set used to undertake its cohort-tracking analyses—to compare the profiles and completion patterns of students attending RUN universities with those of students attending metropolitan universities
- Review of existing evidence and research, exploring the issues and challenges faced by equity cohorts participating in higher education at RUN universities, to establish a picture of the sociocultural and economic challenges facing RUN cohorts, with a particular focus on RUN equity cohorts.
Key findings and recommendations
Across all equity cohorts, RUN universities have a higher percentage of enrolments of equity group students compared to metropolitan universities.
Students from equity groups face a number of structural challenges in accessing, participating and completing higher education, including geographical location, financial constraints, emotional factors and ‘socio-cultural incongruity’, as conceptualised by Marcia Devlin in her 2013 seminal paper, Bridging socio-cultural incongruity: Conceptualising the success of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. The impact of belonging to multiple equity groups exacerbates these challenges.
RUN universities have been highly successful in mitigating multiple disadvantage at policy and practice levels, with the majority of RUN students successfully graduating from bachelor degrees. Furthermore, RUN universities demonstrate a measure of success in mitigating disadvantage through comparable completion patterns of equity group students and non-equity RUN students, who face some of the same structural challenges. Notably, high levels of student satisfaction with the quality of teaching and learning and student support are achieved by RUN universities.
These key recommendations will mitigate the multiple sociocultural, financial and structural challenges that students at RUN universities encounter:
- Recommendations for institutions:
- Continue community and family outreach programs to further develop responsive student support networks.
- Offer flexible access to learning resources and diversify curriculum structures, delivery modes and schedules.
- Provide financial subsidies to reduce stress and remove barriers for individual students.
- Create a sense of belonging through partnerships with students.
- Engage families and communities to broaden the understanding and experience of ‘going to university’.
- Respond to students’ challenges by enabling constructive cycles of learning.
- Offer greater flexibility in learning and assessment design and strategies.
- Recommendations for the sector:
- Increase investment in regional schools and widening participation programs.
- Continue to build partnerships to enhance regional infrastructure and communities.
- Focus on building economic stability in regional communities.
- Promote emotional wellbeing through compensating disadvantage.
- Invest in managing ‘critical first encounters’.
- Mitigate intergenerational disadvantage.
- Establish and maintain constructive engagement with regional communities.
- Continue to support relevant research.
- Recognise flexible progression pathways and nested qualifications.
Conclusions and considerations for policy
Factors that contribute to completion rates for RUN students are nuanced, complex and multifaceted. The issues facing RUN cohorts and regional universities will not be addressed by adopting narratives that attribute blame to either students or institutions. Rather, we must take account of the sociocultural, financial and structural challenges that remain inherent in our system and that impact on completion rates. This report highlighted the complex challenges encountered by equity group students and is well placed to facilitate the application of practices that counter disadvantage, thereby promoting a fairer and more equitable system of higher education.