When, how and where students choose to study appears to affect whether or not they will quit their university studies more than the remoteness of their permanent home address. However, it is clear that full-time and on-campus study soon after leaving school maximises a student’s chance of completing a degree, whether or not they are from a rural area.

So say the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton and Ittima Cherastidtham in the organisation’s submission to a Government-commissioned independent review into regional, rural and remote education (pdf), headed by Flinders University Emeritus Professor John Halsey.

The review is examining the “key issues, challenges and barriers” that impact on the learning outcomes of regional, rural and remote students.

It also aims to “identify innovative and fresh approaches to support improved access and achievement of these students in school and in their transition to further study, training and employment”.

The Grattan submission focuses on “the gap in higher education achievement” between rural and metropolitan highered students and the barriers to improved outcomes for rural students.

Rural students, say Norton and Cherastidtham, are more likely to be older, studying part-time or externally than metro students.

The more remote a student’s home the higher their risk of attrition, they write; however while the attrition rate increased with remoteness the largest gap was between older and younger students.

They say that students older than 25 are twice as likely to leave university without a degree than the younger cohort, regardless of the remoteness of their homes.

Fewer than one in four rural students aged 25 or below left university without a degree whereas the rate was one in three for metro students aged over 25.

Higher attrition rate

A larger share of older rural students contributed to the higher attrition rate, they say.

Less than 20 per cent of metro students were older than 25 whereas the share of older students increased with the remoteness of students’ location up to about 35 per cent of remote students.

“High attrition exacerbates the eventual higher education attainment gap between people living in metro and rural areas. The attrition rate fluctuates year to year but the relationship persists.”

Nearly one in four remote students were not enrolled in their second year, they say.

A student studying on campus is half as likely to leave without a degree than an external student despite their remoteness – however, the more remote a student’s home the higher their risk of attrition.

Norton and Cherastidtham say that helping students to understand the barriers to completing a degree could improve their decision-making.

While the government’s completions information is a step in the right direction, they say, the results “are too broad for students to make robust inferences”.

“Rural students are more likely to be older, studying part-time or externally than metro students.

“Because these characteristics are also associated with worse outcomes, students cannot disentangle the actual causes of low completion.”

They reveal that the Grattan Institute is working on a statistical model to help students improve their chances of completing a degree. It aims to predict individual completion rates and therefore the risk of non-completion.

“The model will take into account student personal characteristics like age, how remote their home was, and student choices like studying internally or externally.”

The many changes impacting on regional, rural and remote areas

Emeritus Professor John Halsey’s Review outlines some of the challenges in improving outcomes for regional, rural and remote students.

These include:

  • demographic changes and especially the flow of young people from rural areas into urban areas
  • the closure of many services once ‘taken for granted’ like banks, post offices, the local hospital and sub-regional work depots, all of which helped add to the viability of a community and provided local employment opportunities
  • the mechanisation of farming and the introduction of high-end technology into almost all stages of primary industries production cycles leading to bigger farms, fewer people and especially children per farm, and therefore fewer children for the local school
  • the growth of cities and their capacity to generate economic, social and cultural advantages, plus the spread of regional service and shopping centres and the impact of these on small country towns like the closure of the one remaining grocery store or bakery
  • the introduction of secondary education and combined primary/secondary schools which has brought major educational benefits, but also hastened the closure and consolidation of hundreds of small schools
  • information and communication technology (ICT) and the use of markets and competition to deliver essential human services.

Read the discussion paper in full.

More information on submissions, forums and stakeholder consultations