particpation in higher education

Raising aspirations not the solution to low participation rates of rural students in higher education


Getting more Australian girls from country areas into higher education will take more than just raising their aspirations.

In recent times there has been discourse and policy around how to address low participation in higher education; especially for disadvantaged students from rural and remote locations in Australia. Raising aspirations is one strategy suggested. These policy initiatives imply disadvantaged students, including rural students, are lacking in aspiration and this is the reason for low participation.

I decided to investigate this perceived link. My PhD research explored the life aspirations of rural girls aged 14-16 years old living in the Cradle Coast region of Tasmania. One of my main findings was that, contrary to perceptions, the girls had multiple aspirations for early adulthood, including those for higher education.

Many of the girls in the study had aspirations for college (years 11 and 12 in the Tasmania context) and careers requiring a university degree. The majority also had aspirations for travel, owning their own business and careers associated with helping, and they wanted stimulating jobs. Further to this, around half of the girls expressed aspirations to take a gap year and/or volunteer to do humanitarian aid work. Apart from these shared aspirations for their early adulthood lives, many of the girls wanted motherhood, marriage and ‘a nice house’ sometime around their late twenties or early thirties. The girls also had numerous other aspirations in life that were not necessarily ‘shared’.

So I found that rural girls do have various aspirations in life, some of which are shared. Most notably, and directly relevant to the current educational policy context, are the girls shared aspirations for university.

What my PhD research demonstrates, is that the aspirations for university are in fact there. I suggest that the reasons for low participation in higher education in rural areas, and in the Cradle Coast, is therefore not as straight forward as ‘raising aspirations’. The study provides many ethnographic insights on the types of factors that may influence participation in higher education in the rural context. However, my paper concentrates on only one. As I see it, it is the balancing of multiple future goals that impact on the educational decision-making of rural girls, rather than low aspirations.

The girls have desires for balance and fulfillment of all aspirations and this impacts on participation in the workforce and in education. I believe aspirations for higher education may not be a priority for some, over aspirations to ‘experience’ and ‘see’ through experiences outside of formal education settings.

So solving the low participation rates of rural students, particularly girls, is not as simple as “raising expectations”. It is a complex issue that deserves our immediate and full attention.


This blog is based on the paper The Graduate, the Globetrotter and the Good Samaritan: Adolescent girls’ visions of themselves in early adulthood by Cherie-Lynn Hawkins.


Cherie_Profile_Pic copyCherie-Lynn Hawkins graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy with the University of Tasmania in August 2014. Prior to this, Cherie completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a double major in psychology and a minor in sociology; and worked largely in the disability, community and children’s sectors. Cherie has worked on a number of applied projects and conducted research for Tasmanian state and local government entities, for the Institute of Regional Development (IRD) and in partnership with other faculties within UTAS. She is passionate about projects that explore participation in higher education, rural educational disadvantage and social inequities more broadly.