Regional student participation and migration: analysis of factors influencing regional student participation and internal migration in Australian higher education

Regional disparities Regional universities Higher education Student equity Students Australia

Executive Summary

This research study examines regional student participation and migration by use of novel data sources and analytic techniques. The data and techniques utilised within the study provide insights that are relevant to contemporary higher education policy challenges and reform processes.

This study builds our knowledge of regional student participation and mobility through quantitative analysis of:

  • factors associated with regional youth progression through school and into higher education, using data from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY)
  • factors associated with the migration of students with a commencing regional home address to major cities and other regional areas, using customised administrative data obtained from the Department of Education and Training, with particular emphasis on the impact of demand driven funding on patterns of student migration.

Through analysis of the 2006 Cohort of the LSAY we find that regional and remote students are on average:
10.0 per cent less likely to have plans to attend university than metropolitan students, after controlling for socioeconomic status (SES)

  • 7.0 per cent less likely to complete high school than their metropolitan counterparts after controlling for SES
  • 4.7 per cent less likely to attend university than their metropolitan counterparts after controlling for Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Rank (ENTER)
  • 5.8 per cent less likely than metropolitan students to graduate from university.

A more detailed investigation of LSAY data explores the impact of credit constraints (an inability to borrow to fund costs of higher education participation) and the original place of residence (metropolitan or regional and remote) on (i) plans at age 15 for university study, (ii) high school completion, (iii) university commencement, and (iv) university outcomes, using four separate models and incorporating a wide range of control variables.

The investigation finds no evidence that likely constrained regional students are less inclined to attend university than their unlikely constrained regional peers, nor are they less inclined to attend university than their likely constrained metropolitan peers. We surprisingly find that likely constrained regional students have a much higher probability of graduating from university than their unlikely constrained regional peers are also more likely to graduate than their likely constrained metropolitan peers. This suggests that likely constrained regional students who make it to university are probably more talented and determined than might be expected, based on observed characteristics.

In view of the importance of school outcomes for higher education success, we also modelled high school outcomes. We find that unlikely and potentially credit constrained regional students (at 15 years) are less likely to have plans to attend university than their metropolitan peers, suggesting lower regional student aspirations, consistent with some of the earlier literature on the lack of educational role models, infrastructure and information supporting higher education in regional locations. We also find evidence that regional students are less likely to complete high school; regional potentially constrained students are 2.9 per cent less likely than metropolitan potentially constrained peers to graduate from high school – a critical factor in their eligibility for higher education. (See Cardak and Ryan (2009) for more information on high school achievement and university enrolment eligibility.)

Finally, high school achievement is a strong predictor of university admission and more importantly a strong predictor of university outcomes; students with high ENTER scores are more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out/fail to complete. The policy implication is that an effective way to improve higher education participation and graduation among students of regional and remote origin is to improve educational outcomes in regional and remote schools.

The LSAY 2006 cohort largely commenced university in 2009-10, before the full implementation of the demand driven funding system and associated equity interventions such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP). Given this, the above findings may require further analysis in view of the expansion in student participation evident in recent years. This expansion has led to wider opportunity, with a greater potential for credit constraints to influence student participation. The increased participation of more marginal or at-risk students in higher education may have heightened the effects of credit constraints on academic success at university. Further investigation might involve the use of LSAY data from cohorts that commenced after the introduction of demand driven funding (yet to be collected) and/or a more in-depth longitudinal analysis of administrative data.

Our analysis also draws from customised Department of Education and Training administrative data for the years 2008, 2011 and 2014. The important innovation in this data is that for each cohort, the regional or metropolitan status of students has been identified by their commencing permanent home address, in addition to their regional or metropolitan status while studying, based on current term address. The importance of this approach is that it allows students of regional origin who have migrated to metropolitan areas to be identified as regional students. Current higher education indicators are based on current permanent home address in the year of reporting. Any change in a student’s permanent home address from year to year may lead to changes in the regional and socioeconomic status conferred with implications for overall patterns of participation identified in equity performance indicators. The analysis identified that the growth in the number of students with a regional commencing permanent home address between 2008 and 2014 (38.8 per cent), and between 2011 and 2014 (18.2 per cent), has been significantly higher than the growth in students identified as regional under the existing higher education equity performance indicator framework, and has been significantly higher than overall sector growth (33.1 per cent between 2008 and 2014, and 15.6 per cent from 2011 to 2014).

The data enables us to study the destination of students originating from regional locations, providing:

  • the participation of students with a regional commencing permanent home address and a regional term address is not growing as quickly as the overall student body and this difference is statistically significant (28.4 per cent vs. 33.1 per cent from 2008 to 2014)
  • the participation of students with a regional commencing permanent home address and metropolitan term address is growing more quickly than the overall student body and this difference is also statistically significant (76.3 per cent vs. 33.1 per cent from 2008 to 2014)

The growth in participation of students with a regional commencing permanent home address and metropolitan term address was examined in more detail across a range of variables to ascertain any specific trends relating to demography, enrolment and admissions practices. The analysis finds higher growth that is statistically significant for the proportion of students with a regional permanent home address at commencement and metropolitan term address across a range of variables. Specific examples include:

  • mode of study, with particularly high growth for multi-modal (149.5 per cent from 2008 to 2014) and external study (156.6 per cent from 2008 to 2014)
  • type of attendance, with a significant increase evident in the proportion of students undertaking part time study
  • age, for all ages above 20, and with particularly strong growth for mature age students between the ages of 25 to 29 (228.6 per cent from 2008 to 2014). There was, however, a significantly lower rate of growth for students aged 19 years and under
  • equity, with particularly strong growth for students with disabilities (145.0 per cent from 2008 to 2014) and Indigenous students (168.4 per cent from 2008 to 2014). There was no significant change, however, evident in the distribution of students by socioeconomic status, nor in student gender
  • course level, with a significant shift in the proportion of relocating students undertaking postgraduate and enabling study, and a parallel reduction in undergraduate level study
  • field of education, with a significant increase in enrolments across every field of study when compared against other students in the field of study.

In addition to analysis of students relocating to metropolitan areas, analysis was also undertaken of the propensity of regional origin students to move to other regional locations. In 2014, students who apparently relocated from one regional postcode to another accounted for 7.5 per cent of all regional students. Those relocating to metropolitan locations accounted for 24.2 per cent of regional students, indicating that around a third of regional students relocate. The regional relocation data highlights a dynamic pattern of mobility, with students tending to gravitate towards adjacent regional centres with campuses operating at significant scale within their state. Future research may examine patterns of intra-regional mobility in more depth.

The data obtained from the Department of Education and Training included information on the relocation of metropolitan and remote students. There are differences between patterns of relocation for regional and remote student populations that necessitate separate analysis for remote students. The relocation of metropolitan students to regional locations occurs at a lower rate than relocation of regional students to metropolitan locations. The drivers of metropolitan relocation are different from those of regional students and also require a separate analysis. These analyses are part of our future research agenda on student geographical mobility and migration.

The findings of this report are relevant to contemporary higher education policy challenges and reform processes. The higher education options paper, Driving Innovation, Fairness, and Excellence in Australian Higher Education (Department of Education and Training, 2016a), sought feedback on a range of questions relating to regional student access and support, and regional higher education delivery. The questions raised in the options paper were predicated on the view of regional student underrepresentation and declining rates of participation.

Measuring regional student status using regional commencing permanent home address, this report finds growth in regional student participation is significantly higher than conventional indicators currently in use would suggest. Regional students remain underrepresented. However, their true level of access is higher than reflected in the current statistics based on existing indicators.

The number of regional students who move to the city has grown at a much faster rate than the number choosing to undertake study in regional areas. This has implications for the design of incentives that support regional delivery and regional student relocation. The demographics of students relocating also reveal a growing proportion of mature age students, students with disabilities and Indigenous students. This again has implications for the assumptions driving student income support and institutional support practices.

The authors recommend piloting the use of commencing permanent home address as an additional measure for postcode based equity indicators used in Australian higher education. This type of measure has potential use in understanding influences of social origin and mobility by statistical geography measures of regional and socioeconomic status. The rich administrative data available through the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training provides excellent opportunities to study the progress of students through their education pathways, and optimally would be examined using more granular unit record data. Appropriate access to longitudinal data of this type will enrich our understanding of important factors that determine academic success.

The report highlights slower rates of participation growth for regional youth. The LSAY analysis highlights that when controlling for other variables, regional status is not a significant driver of participation. Rather, school achievement and aspiration exert more influence on poor outcomes relating to regional student school completion, higher education participation and higher education completion. To reiterate the policy implications of our findings based on LSAY data, investment in regional families, regional schools, partnerships between regional schools and higher education providers, and in regional school outreach programs, remain key interventions for improving regional student participation rates. These policy outcomes could be achieved by appropriately pursuing needs-based funding recommended by the Gonski review into school funding and recalibrating higher education equity funding towards regional-specific interventions.

The emphasis in the report on regional student relocation to major cities is counterbalanced to some extent by analysis of mobility within regional Australia. Regional higher education delivery will continue to be an important feature of Australian higher education (around 70 per cent of regional students had a regional term address in 2014). The pattern evident in 2014 suggests that there are only a handful of regions with campuses operating at sufficient scale and the reputation to act as net recruiters of students from a more distant regional geography. Policy makers may wish to consider these patterns of mobility, and the extent to which regional campuses are serving a broader geography when investing in regional higher education delivery.

The authors anticipate that this study will be of interest to many stakeholders in regional higher education. We have deliberately avoided normative positions around whether the patterns of regional student participation and mobility are inherently positive or negative. This study is perhaps the first study of its kind in using a new indicator for student geographic origins, with potential applicability to regional and socioeconomic status related policy questions. From the authors’ perspective it throws new light on a long-standing policy challenge, but also raises many additional questions. For example:

  • What forms of school interventions will lead to improved regional school outcomes and higher education participation and success?
  • Beyond the information on commencement and participation analysed here, how do patterns of geographical mobility vary across the student life cycle and post-graduation?
  • Do student success and employment outcomes vary by patterns of geographic mobility and participation?
  • How responsive are regional students to policy reforms such as scholarships and relocation grants that incentivise geographic mobility?

We would encourage those that engage with this report, or who undertake future research, to consider exploration around how this analytic approach can be used to progress the objectives of providing regional communities with better access to high quality tertiary education and an advanced skill base to drive social and economic development. The research team will continue to analyse the data underpinning this report, and anticipate that research considering metropolitan to regional migration and remote to regional and metropolitan migration will be published in the near future. We welcome feedback and opportunities to collaborate with other researchers interested in this topic area.

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