Rural and regional students want to go to university – but they don’t, at least not in the same proportion as their urban counterparts. Education needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of where they live to ensure that diverse perspectives are valued in society.
We aren’t suggesting that university is for everyone or that university is the only positive post-school pathway but underrepresentation of regional and rural students in university populations persists. The government’s focus on initiatives to get non-metropolitan students to university, such as increases in scholarship programs, and increased ATAR loadings for completing schooling outside a metropolitan location, are noteworthy but they are not having the desired outcomes.
With this in mind we bring a new ‘take’ to understanding this dilemma. We undertook research that explored the experiences of rural students at university in 2019 and 2020 (prior to COVID-19) with the aim of understanding sociocultural factors that were influencing their success.
We spoke to a total of 25 current university students in group and individual interviews at four universities in NSW and the ACT. Students were asked to describe their experiences of moving to the new location their university is situated in, making friends, socialising, participating in the coursework, and experiences going back home. In these discussions regional students expressed feeling distinct social and cultural differences compared with their metropolitan peers, and that these differences impacted their sense of belonging at university. Two main overarching themes were evident in the students’ experiences: using different knowledges, and impacts on belonging in ‘home’ and ‘university’ spaces.
Using different knowledges
Students identified a distinct difference in the nature of knowledges that were valued in their home town compared to the nature of knowledges valued in their university town, a factor that also impacted on their relationships. This was evident in the conversations that occurred across each space, the knowledges that were valued in their coursework, and their career expectations when they graduate.
In their course work, no student felt non-metropolitan communities were represented in a positive light, instead they were all represented for their problems, such as lower achievement in school, worse health outcomes, and lack of career opportunities. When asked about whether knowledges from non-metropolitan communities were considered and represented in their course work one student described feeling that:
“There’s no representative for that rural lifestyle; the whole conversation is directed from the perspective of people that live in the city the whole time, so they’re using city examples, city schools, that type of thing”.
Further, students felt that examples discussed were usually very negative:
“…there’s only 3,000 people, we have very limited services in our area and it’s been discussed, like we have to travel three hours to the nearest cancer treatment centre, we have to travel to get a cast put on your arm and because I’m in the health faculty, we discuss it a bit because our services are limited and so we look at why they’re limited and how and whatever”.
This was problematic for some students who wanted to return to rural areas for their career:
“I don’t think anybody talks positively about rural towns. Nobody is promoted to go out there. I can’t imagine anybody in my class being like you want to go practice in a rural town like xx or xx. Even the jobs out in xx, like the requirements you need for social work, are a lot lower because no one goes out there”.
The students also described how in the university town, conversations were different and metropolitan students were unaware of many of the issues impacting on rural communities. Students cited the example of the recent bushfires and drought, where many of the metropolitan students were unaware of how it was still impacting them and their home community:
“I know a lot of people who were affected by it on res [university accommodation] and they wanted to talk about it but no-one really gave a damn about it, and people seemed to think with the drought thing – people seemed to think, “Oh well, they’ve had rain now, the river’s flowing again, so it’s over”. It’s not over, it’s nowhere near it”.
Many students also felt that these issues impacted on their identity and made them feel more self-conscious:
“ I know that sometimes people call me “bogan” and stuff before because of the way I talk and I have noticed it and I have actually had to curate my language sometimes for who I’m with…”
These issues all linked to the students’ sense of belonging, both in their university town and their home town.
Impacts on ‘belonging’ at university and at home
Although the physical spaces of their home town and university were different, students described the impact of this to be cultural, social and emotional.
For example, although students were surrounded by more people in the university city, students often missed the sense of community and belonging from their small non-metropolitan home town:
“I guess that’s kind of what means the most to me in a rural location is that sense of community, the sense that you know people, that you grow up with the same group of people; you have neighbourly relationships which is not really something that I see here as much”.
Many of the students described feeling like an outsider, and felt their experiences and lives were treated as foreign and fascinating:
“… I’m like the rural outlier sort of thing; they come to me if they want to know about a lamb or something like that you know”.
These issues all impacted on the students sense of belonging, in particular, their connection to their home town and community. For example, when asked about going back home, many described a disconnect:
“It’s ok. Sometimes it’s a bit distant, like I go back and won’t feel the same”.
“… when I go back home, I’m only seeing family now; my friendship groups have changed and that’s awkward going home to because some people, they say, “Let’s catch up” and we don’t have anything to talk about anymore but I still enjoy going home”.
As the student described, this is more than not being up-to-date with local happenings, it’s more fundamental and related to their changing understanding of the world due to higher education. These are all factors that influence a students’ self-worth and identity while navigating post school transitions.
Implications for Universities
This research provides insight into issues of different social and cultural capitals of rural and metropolitan peoples, especially how students navigate what it means to be rural in an institution that doesn’t appear to value their knowledges and experiences. To succeed at their studies, students have to ‘learn to leave’ either mentally or physically from their place to be able to participate. Students were as a result torn between the knowledges and friendships of their home town and those of their university town, and the needs and expectations of both. For some, this made it difficult to stay connected to their home town. When thinking about accessing, and staying in, higher education, these factors are also likely to influence student retention. Some students who we interviewed considered these issues to be a key contributing factor to the high rate of student drop-out at university.
For universities, this has implications for coursework and support services. From a coursework perspective, universities need to consider rural knowledges in their course content and value careers in rural areas. Examples from non-metropolitan locations need to be valued, rather than disincentivised through the pressure to achieve benchmarks dominated by standards from metropolitan regions. This goes beyond inclusion of examples in practice, but recognition of the epistemological dimensions of those practices. From a support services perspective, students need opportunities for students to access mentoring and support from other rural students. Further, metropolitan students need more opportunity to understand what it means to be a rural student, rather than students from rural areas having to learn to ‘be’ like the majority to succeed.
While we continue to prioritise metropolitan places and knowledges, we will continue to contribute to the gap in rural student participation and achievement at university. We have much to learn from our successful regional university students, we need to listen and to ‘do’ university differently to be a more inclusive and desirable educational destination for regional students.
Natalie Downes works in the Rural Education and Communities Research Group within the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. Her research focuses on rural-regional sustainability and the sociocultural politics of education for rural futures. She also works closely with the Student Equity, Participation and Welfare unit on equity initiatives for higher education participation.
Sam works at The University of Sydney in initial teacher education. Her work explores how teachers’ engagement with multiple knowledges effects the equity of student experience and how students’ lived experiences impact their understandings of education. Her current research projects include: evaluations of widening participation programs for students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage; and shifting discourses of gap year and university for regional students in NSW
Kristy O’Neill is a lecturer of Health and Physical Education at the School of Education, University of New England. Concurrently, she has a decade-long professional background and strong passion for social inclusion and student equity within higher education. This grew from her time working on a range of HEPPP-funded schools outreach projects with Widening Participation and Outreach at The University of Sydney. Kristy completed her PhD at The University of Sydney in 2018.
Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor in Curriculum Inquiry and Rural Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canberra. He is the research leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group in the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. His research focuses on the role of knowledge in curriculum, rural knowledges and the sustainability of rural communities.
This project also includes the team members Fran Collyer, Amanda Edwards, Laurie Poretti and Tanya Willis