Context

Twenty first century (C21st) higher education (HE) students in Australia enter an environment that is influenced by many complex socio-cultural, economic and political forces. It is increasingly commoditised, deregulated, and replete with choice and flexibility concerning what, where and how to study. In a demand-driven system the student population is both numerous and diverse in terms of economic, social, cultural and educational backgrounds. Increasingly, students are entering HE through alternative modes and pathways that include: second-chance learners and mature age students, students who have undertaken post-secondary courses while completing high school, and students who complete enabling programs to meet undergraduate entry requirements to HE programs. The student population attending regional universities amplifies the diversity found at all institutions. Students enrolled in regional universities, when compared to those in metropolitan universities, are more likely to be from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, the first in their family to undertake tertiary study, female, Indigenous, and entering university as mature age students . Given these characteristics, unsurprisingly students studying at regional universities are also more likely to be involved in longer hours of paid work and studying part-time . This rich diversity of the student body reflects the aspiration of an inclusive Australian HE system encapsulated in the Universities Australia (UA) statement.

A successful university experience for students enrolled in regional universities and a robust regional HE system are essential for Australia’s future. Regional universities have the potential to empower this rich and diverse student population so that they can interact with ideas, and develop attributes and literacies for personal growth. These attributes enable them to contribute beyond the traditional learning disciplines for success in their communities . To realise this potential universities need to understand the complex realities of life for C21st students and attend to interconnected elements of the university environment required to support a successful C21st student experience.

Positively, this environment is at least technology rich. Technologies enable and support a range of learning modalities, from the traditional on-campus and distance approaches to blended and fully online or distance options. Increasingly, there is an emphasis on the role of peers in connected learning. Students use technology to access authentic data and tools that support the development of graduate attributes. Their achievements are now demonstrated in electronic portfolios of work and the technologies provide transferable resources for students to access and use beyond graduation. Universities also need systematic approaches to supporting students’ success and mastery of knowledge and skills. In this sense regional universities have a responsibility to shape what students can expect from a university experience and what their communities can expect from university graduates. They must also meet expectations about their role as contributors to their regional communities.

However, the problem is that data about the performance of regional universities indicate that the student experience, particularly attrition and progress rates, is not equitable with the experience of students who attend city-based institutions. This raises questions about whether the vision of a wide and inclusive HE sector, envisaged by Bradley and her colleagues in 2010 , is being fulfilled. Are regional universities establishing suitable environments in which students can develop and hone their C21st skills similarly to their metropolitan peers? At some regional universities, attrition rates are higher, completion rates and graduate destinations are lower, and withdrawal and fail rates are considerably higher than those experienced by students attending universities in capital cities. For example, at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) the 2012 attrition rate is 29%, compared to the national rate of 19.5% for domestic commencing bachelor students. The 2013 progress rate for the same group of students at USC is 80.4% compared to national 83.1% . Further, USC’s fulltime employment rate for domestic undergraduates is 59%, compared to the national figure of 71% . Nevertheless, since 2007 USC has sustained 5-star ratings for ‘teaching quality’ and ‘generic skills’ in The Good Universities Guide. Additionally, ‘overall satisfaction’ has remained at 5 stars since 2013 . The assumption often drawn from data of this type is that these outcomes and the increased diversity of the student cohort in terms of backgrounds and their modes of entry and participation are somehow related, and therefore explain the poorer institutional performance. However, previous studies have shown that the correlation between demographic characteristics and attrition rates is, at best, weak. Data about regional universities (such as the star ratings for teaching quality) are variable and sometimes appear contradictory (some regional institutions have high attrition, high teaching quality, and high overall satisfaction). Other regional universities have quite different profiles in any or all of these measures, yet regional universities are often assumed to have many common characteristics beside their regional status. These variations in student outcome measures among the regional universities indicate that factors, other than and as well as, the characteristics of the student body are influencing the student experience. This contention is consistent with the growing body of literature on student engagement . In brief, the evidence emphasises a complex interplay among factors such as what students do, what institutions do, the contextual and inherent attributes of students and staff, and the socio-cultural and political context of the institution that contributes to a successful student experience.

Possibly, the assumptions about the characteristics of regional university students and their outcomes may be masking far more complex and nuanced conditions that influence the experience of regional university students. These conditions include interactions between students and their teachers, institutions and wider communities that, if investigated, could provide a richer understanding of the varied and situationally contingent reasons for student success or otherwise at regional universities. To date there has not been a comprehensive study that provides a detailed explanation of these phenomena at regional universities with a view to informing and shaping the future student experience; this project will provide that analysis. The proposed project will provide a better understanding about the context of regional universities, and how they can shape the expectations of students and their communities and meet their responsibilities to provide high-quality graduates. Importantly, this project will provide evidence and examples of robust good practice that attend to the needs and demands of increasingly diverse student cohorts across the student lifecycle and provide a buffer to militate against the impact of increasing demands on HE and students and the pace of change in our university environments.

Project Definitions and Focus

  • Regional Australia is a term used to refer to the non-metropolitan areas of the nation that lie beyond major capital cities and immediate surrounding suburbs.
  • A regional university is an Australian university whose main campus is situated outside a major capital city and its immediate surrounding suburbs.
  • A program is a structured group of courses (previously defined) that leads to the acquisition of a non-award or AQF award qualification. In some universities program is alternatively called course.
  • A course is a discrete element of a program, normally undertaken over a single teaching session, in which the student enrols, and on completion of which the student is awarded a grade. In some universities course is alternatively called unit.
  • A pathway is a single or combination of non-award or AQF awards that provide access to a higher level qualification, normally at the bachelor’s level.

The project will focus on domestic and international undergraduate students in degree and sub-degree programs and non-award pathways who are studying in any mode of delivery at a regional university. Out of scope are students enrolled at a regional Australian university in offshore (international) locations.

The overarching proposition guiding this project is that the experience of students attending regional universities is under-researched and poorly understood. Further, we contend that the measures used to evaluate the performance of HE institutions do not capture the unique nature and nuanced environments of regional institutions, nor do they attend to the characteristics and patterns of engagement of the enrolled students. We propose that a robust investigation of the experiences of C21st students enrolled at regional universities is required and will be delivered by addressing the following four questions.

RQ1: What is the C21st student experience in regional universities?
RQ2: What examples of current good practice exist, and can we draw from these insights to advise about which practices should be adopted to improve the C21st experience of students enrolled in regional universities?
RQ3: What are the emerging challenges and trends for students enrolled in regional universities, and how can these be harnessed to enrich and strengthen the future C21st student experience?
RQ4: Is an additional set of metrics required to ascertain the performance of regional universities and their graduates?

A comprehensive framework will be required to analyse and interpret the complex and interconnected factors that influence the student experience and to allow for the nuanced socio-political and cultural context of each participating regional university to be recognised. Kahu (2013) has proposed a sophisticated model of student engagement, which has utility for this investigation. Her model arises from a meta-analysis of contemporary engagement theories, identifies the distal and proximal influences and consequences of engagement, and has at its core the attributes and interactions of the constructs comprising student engagement. More recently, Kahu (2014) refined this model to emphasise the importance of cohort identification or ‘interest’ with their program of study and ‘connection’ with their HE institution. The model incorporates all of the dimensions of the student experience that are relevant to this project. Kahu’s refined model will be adopted as the theoretical and analytical framework for the project.

The need for the project

The need for a strong regional HE presence to engage regional and rural populations has been highlighted in the last decade. Between 2007 and 2012, population has been growing not only in the major cities but also in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia, where the population has grown by 6.6% and is expected to grow by 26% by 2026 . Encouragingly, the proportion of residents in remote or regional areas with Bachelor degrees or above in the first decade of the 21st century has increased and has even outstripped that of metropolitan areas . Importantly, approximately 60% of regional HE graduates continue to work and live in regional communities , which addresses chronic skills shortages in some fields. Regional universities and their graduates contribute to the diversity of industry, decentralise wealth and make up a significant proportion of regional economies . The need for responsive HE to provide access, engagement and outcomes which grow and sustain local areas has been accepted as critical for regional development and prosperity, both in Australia and internationally. The context alone makes regional universities worthy of more comprehensive study.

The value to the sector

Acknowledging the importance of regional universities, the criticality of increased levels of student success in these environments, and the apparent lack of understanding about how various factors influence the experience of C21st students at regional universities, the proposed project will deliver value to the sector in four key ways. Firstly, it will identify the unique features of the C21st experiences of regional university students and reveal practices and insights, not previously discovered, for further investigation and immediate action. Secondly, it will explore these unique aspects, trends and insights to highlight robust transferrable practices shown to improve the student experience for take-up, as well as foreshadow emerging innovations and trends essential for strengthening the C21st student experience. Thirdly, beyond the participating institutions, the project will focus attention on the national contributions of regional universities and provide a rich evidence base, sources of information, and a collection of examples of good practice for broad adoption in the sector. Finally, the proposed project will provide a platform for further investigation about the various roles of universities located in regional Australia.