This report provides an overview of the key issues, identifies the principal challenges and highlights the major policy responses in view of the findings and recommendations from recent research reports funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). It also draws on an August 2017 submission from the NCSEHE to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education and some of the current work being done by NCSEHE’s Equity Fellows, a program funded by the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).
Research and policy papers show there are general issues that apply across the whole of regional Australia and affect all students from regional areas, but there are also many unique issues that are specific to local areas. Ultimately, each region and locality is subject to different drivers and shapers of change to different degrees. Generalisation on regional equity issues needs to be treated with caution.
Background and trends
In Australian higher education, students from regional and remote areas are viewed as equity students due to their historic underrepresentation at university level, and the documented barriers to their participation.
Several policy responses have been formulated to address the issue of reduced access for equity students, including the introduction of the demand-driven funding system for higher education, combined with funding (through HEPPP) to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as extensions to funding for regional students, such as the regional student loading.
Overall, these measures have resulted in a big increase in equity group students’ participation in higher education. While the total numbers of undergraduate students increased by 34.7 per cent between 2008 and 2015, the growth rates of some equity groups were far higher — students with disability increased by 88.6 per cent, Indigenous by 72.1 per cent and low socioeconomic status (SES) by 50.4 per cent. Students from a non-English speaking background (NESB) increased by 54.7 per cent over the same period. However, students from regional and remote areas lagged behind, rising respectively by 33.1 per cent and 21.5 per cent, less than the overall increase in student numbers.
Despite funding programs to improve access for regional students, the proportion of regional and remote students as a proportion of total undergraduate enrolments actually fell between 2008 and 2015.
Regional student representation fell from 19.0 per cent in 2008 to 18.8 per cent in 2015, and remote students’ representation fell from 1.0 per cent to 0.9 per cent. In comparison, some other equity groups accounted for rising proportions of the total undergraduate cohort over the same period, with the low SES student share increasing from 16.3 per cent to 18.2 per cent; students with disability increasing from 4.4 per cent to 6.2 per cent; and Indigenous students increasing from 1.3 per cent to 1.6 per cent.
In a submission to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, the Grattan Institute noted that most of the growth in university enrolments in recent years has been in metropolitan students. Between 2005 and 2015 student numbers in major Australian cities grew by 60 per cent, compared to 40 per cent for inner regional areas and 17 per cent for outer regional areas. The submission noted that regional students are underrepresented at university by about 30 per cent and remote students by 60 per cent.
A number of studies attribute relative underperformance to lower prior achievement, with poor secondary school performances resulting in lower levels of access to higher education and challenges during it.
This underperformance flows through to completion rates, with the Department of Education and Training’s figures on the 2006-14 student cohort study showing an overall 73.5 per cent completion rate for students, compared to lower rates of completion for regional (69.0 per cent) and remote (60.1 per cent) students.
The underlying reasons for the divergence in outcomes between the general student population and regional students (and other equity group students) reflects the way that various disadvantages compound to reduce participation.
Students from regional areas are overrepresented among part-time, external and low Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) students, with all groups showing observable risks for non-completion of higher education.
The relative underperformance of regional education outcomes suggests that further advances will be much harder to achieve without clearer analysis of the key issues and solutions, accompanied by coordinated long-term strategies to implement them.
The broad high-level statistics that frame ‘the regional higher education equity problem’ provide a general picture only. Below the surface are many subtle sub-trends and countercurrents that give the problem a multifaceted shape and, consequently, solutions to the diversity of those challenges must be clearly identified, targeted and nuanced.