Overcoming Barriers to Education in Regional Australia

  • Author:

    By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Overcoming Barriers to Education in Regional Australia

Access to quality higher education is vital for personal development, career opportunities and economic growth in any country. However, students in regional Australia face unique challenges that can impact their high school and post-school studies.

And while fee-free place initiatives are helpful, the challenges can go beyond the cost of tuition. Today, I want to explore some of these barriers and how we can overcome them.

Keeping students in school

The first step to improving higher education outcomes for our regions is ensuring students can engage with school in a meaningful context.

The percentage of students who complete school studies remains notably lower in regional Australia. While this can be motivated by several causes, anecdotally, we see some key drivers here in the Central West.

One is about the experience at home. Often families are working hard to make ends meet and don’t have the resources to support educational outcomes at the level afforded to families with more privilege. Secondly, it may be about a lack of engagement with the curriculum among students.

We see the outcomes of engaging students and families in the curriculum through our Aboriginal Leadership Program, an initiative run in the Central West. The program supports Indigenous students and their families to engage with education, provides cultural context and offers a vital branch between the Indigenous community and the school system.

Another key program that is driving results but, in my opinion, is underutilised, is the School-Based Apprenticeships and Traineeships program. This program allows students to finish their HSC while getting a head start on an apprenticeship career. It helps kids build a tangible pathway between school and a career, particularly in our regions where work can be harder to find.

More programs like these will help our youth to thrive in the school system and beyond.

Limited course availability

One of the primary barriers is course availability in regional areas. Due to lower student numbers, they are thin markets, making it hard for providers to run a full suite of courses sustainably, particularly as many, like VERTO, are not-for-profit.

And while online learning can bridge some of that gap, it’s crucial to note that there is a digital literacy divide in regional areas, so it’s not a viable solution for every student. It’s also important to note that the divide is likely exacerbated by the lack of access to facilities, resources and technology, a further barrier to online learning.

Of course, students can relocate, but this can have second-order impacts for both students and our regions.

The paradox of relocating

When regional students go to metropolitan areas to study, a significant percentage of those who finish their studies don’t return. It’s regional Australia’s brain drain, and it’s a loss for the communities that need younger generations to innovate and grow the local economy into the future.

And then there is a notable proportion who don’t finish their studies.

Students who relocate can lack the resources and support to sustain their studies. This can be about exorbitant living costs and rents in our cities, but it’s also about being away from everything and everyone they know.

Many city-based students remain at home while completing higher education, meaning they don’t have to worry about rent, bills or groceries. It doesn’t mean these students aren’t working hard or paying board at home, but they aren’t as likely to have the same unrelenting financial pressure.

They are also likely to have local friends and family members, people who know them and have their best interests at heart. Those who have these informal support networks can underestimate their power. Informal networks play an essential role in keeping us on track and making the best life choices as we enter young adulthood.

Students who’ve relocated often do so alone, making it hard to stay the course when real-world pressures mount.

So, how can we improve access to education for regional students?

The longer-term solution is to invest in more satellite campuses for higher education in all its forms, providing local access to education. If these facilities can also provide the support and tools to access technology, we can further break down barriers by providing another channel to complete online learning.

And it’s great to see federal and state governments making regional investments, but it does take time to reap the rewards.

In the short term, more facility sharing amongst regional institutions can help. Here in Bathurst, the local university is generous with sharing its world-class facilities with community groups, and it would be great to see more of this state-wide.

Other steps could include more scholarships and fee-free places that provide additional funds to cover the cost of living and structured mentoring programs. Connecting newly relocated regional students with those who have been in their shoes can provide contextual support to overcome challenges.

But it also starts earlier – in the high school years. Building pathways to meaningful post-school education and work is a must. And it’s great to see so many programs doing this already, but we can always use more.

At the end of the day, ensuring all students have access to post-school education and career opportunities is a win for us all. And recognising the barriers is vital to addressing them.

We’ve made significant progress, and I look forward to seeing what more can be done as technology rapidly accelerates to provide inclusive education for all Australians.