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Australian Regional Higher Education: Student characteristics and experiences
Higher Education Research
  • Sarah Richardson, ACER
  • Tim Friedman, ACER
Publication Date

Submitted to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) by Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)


This study was undertaken for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) during May, June and July of 2010. It focuses on students who study at higher education institutions (HEIs) in regional parts of Australia, with particular attention paid to their characteristics, motivations, experiences and outcomes, both in terms of further study and of employment. The study catalogues a number of existing data sources which can be utilised for research into this population and identifies key gaps in the current collections which inhibit some areas of analysis into students at regional HEIs. Many of Australia‘s HEIs are located in regional areas. There are, however, significant variations in their degree of remoteness, with locations varying from 'very accessible' to 'very remote' under the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA). Inevitably, the degree of remoteness is strongly correlated with many institutional characteristics, such as the make-up of the student body and the courses which are offered to students. What is clear, however, is that Australia‘s regional HEIs provide the opportunity to gain a higher education to people for whom doing so would otherwise require moving to a metropolitan area. While economies of scale often prevent regional HEIs from offering the full range of opportunities for students provided by their metropolitan counterparts, they are generally highly successful in educating a significant proportion of the population of regional areas, a population which has a marked tendency to remain in regional areas after completing their courses for further study and, most critically, employment. As such, the presence of one or more HEIs in a regional area is likely to mean that its workforce is equipped with greater skills and expertise than would otherwise be the case. Innovation and economic activity are heavily dependent upon these skills, and in many ways regional HEIs contribute directly to the capacity of regional communities to ensure sustainable development into the future. The provision of higher education in regional areas, however, is not without its challenges. Prominent among these are the higher costs associated with the delivery of higher education in areas which are geographically remote, in which campuses are small and in which student bodies differ significantly from their metropolitan counterparts. If funding is to be efficiently targeted to support the activities of HEIs in regional areas it is first essential that there is a clear picture of the students who study in these institutions. This report provides such a picture by synthesizing data from a range of sources. The scale of these sources varies in both depth and breadth. Nation-wide collections such as the 2006 Australian Census and data from the 2008 collection of the Higher Education Information Management System (HESC) provide data of great breadth, enabling the generation of a comprehensive picture of the characteristics which differentiate students who are enrolled at regional HEIs from their metropolitan counterparts. In contrast, targeted data collections including the Graduate Pathways Survey (GPS), the Graduate Destinations Survey (GDS) and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) provide greater depth and allow for a detailed analysis of the motivations, experiences and outcomes of students. Taken together, analysis of data collections which provide both broad and deep perspectives enables the creation of a nuanced and precise description of the ways in which students who are enrolled at regional institutions navigate the higher education landscape, and the pathways they move into. Moreover, submissions by individual HEIs to the Review of Regional Loading provide background details which usefully contextualise these findings. A number of issues in the identification and analysis of students who are enrolled at regional HEIs are raised in this report. Particular difficulties arise from the confusion surrounding the definition of regional areas and the fact that many data sets identify only the institution at which an individual student is enrolled, not the particular campus. Given the large number of HEIs with multiple campuses, often encompassing both metropolitan and regional areas, this causes difficulty in identifying the target population. Consequently, some of the analyses undertaken in this report are based on only those students who are enrolled at HEIs which are solely located in regional areas. Overall, the lack of a targeted study of students who are enrolled at regional HEIs leads to a dearth of information on many aspects of their experiences and pathways. Despite these challenges, a number of conclusions about students who are enrolled at HEIs in regional areas of Australia can be clearly identified. Key findings: 1. Students at higher education institutions (HEIs) in regional parts of Australia are predominantly from surrounding regional areas 2. Students enrolled at regional HEIs are more likely to be female and tend to be older than their metropolitan counterparts. They are more likely to care for dependents and are more likely to be Indigenous. 3. Students from regional areas who wish to attend HEIs are often prevented from doing so by the costs associated with study, and are highly likely to defer the commencement of their courses for financial reasons. 4. Students who complete their studies at regional HEIs tend to remain in regional areas for both further study and employment. 5. Students at regional HEIs in the fields of agriculture and environmental studies, and who undertake further study, are much less likely than metropolitan students to continue in the same field of education.

Citation Information
Sarah Richardson and Tim Friedman. "Australian Regional Higher Education: Student characteristics and experiences" (2010)
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