Equity groups: Rural, Remote and Regional students

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

In addition to – and sometimes collapsed into – the discussions around low SES students, there is a significant body of work that is interested in the experiences of students from rural, remote and regional Australia. There is certainly a large overlap between these two groups of students; as Curtis (2011) notes, a third of regional students and two-fifths of students from rural or remote locations are situated in the lowest SES quartile. The literature establishes that students who come from rural and remote locations are significantly disadvantaged throughout their education and in their post-school futures, when compared with their metropolitan counterparts. At the school level this is attributed to issues such as distance and need to travel, a shortage of experienced teachers, a more limited range of options in the school curriculum; with higher education issues extend to include cost, distance from home/ the location of university campuses, leaving family and friends, worries about public transport, and comparatively fewer role models and networks, (Alloway et al., 2004; Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Curtis, 2011; Wilks & Wilson, 2012; Cuervo, 2014). The financial costs related to leaving home are a particular concern (James, 2002; Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Carson, 2010), as are the affective anxieties about leaving family, ways of life and community behind (Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Stewart & Abbott-Chapman, 2011). In Stewart & Abbott-Chapman’s account of longitudinal ethnographic research on remote islanders’ transitions to post-Year 10 education foregrounds the influence of connections to home, as they students’ sense of displacement when they move to attend college on the mainland, more so for the Indigenous students in the cohort. Once at university, issues continue with relation to access to accommodation (Burge, 2012), technology and digital resources (Carson, 2010), and retention (Wilson, Lyons & Quinn, 2013).

On the surface, it appears that these challenges work together to create a challenging set of circumstances that are enhanced by geography. However, a further complicating factor that has significant consequences for rural and remote students is the changing work landscape of rural Australia, with what Cuervo (2014) callsa weakening of traditional structures and pathways to work enjoyed by previous generations, as well as by the significant lack of economic and cultural resources available in their communities compared to major urban centres” (p.544; see also Mills & Gale, 2011). These changing times have eroded a traditional sense of direction and purpose for young people living in rural areas, meaning that higher education has taken on new importance for these communities. Responding to the dual concerns of the corrosion of futures-security for rural youth and the identification of rural and remote students as an equity group, there has been a strong focus on raising aspirations for higher education. James (2001) argued that coming from a rural and low SES background was a potent combination for limiting aspirations to higher education, particularly when viewed in relation to the completion of high school, with SES a more significant impact on likely participation for rural and remote students than distance to university. The significant work reported in Alloway et al. (2004) suggests that similar to low SES students, the ‘poverty of aspiration’ discourse is a myth and that the rural students in their study generally had high levels of aspirations, with most of the participants reporting that Year 12 would not be the end of their educational journeys (see also Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Fleming & Grace, 2014, 2015). Alloway et al. also found that the discourse of living in ‘New Times’, and needing to continue with further education because of the changing economic and social landscape of their rural homes, was ‘naturalised’ in the participants’ talk (see also Cuervo, 2014). A differentiating factor between rural and remote students and low SES students is the critical factor of distance; Alloway et al.’s data suggests that rural and remote students viewed the continuation of their education beyond school as synonymous with leaving home and their communities. 

In related work, Dalley-Trim & Alloway (2010) present data that adds further detail to the imperative to leave home, with participants in their study suggesting a sense of the ‘inescapability’ of further education. The narratives of these participants are constructed around the desire ‘to be something’ and not be caught in dead-end jobs. This awareness of the unsteady socio-economic landscape of (parts of) rural Australia suggests that many of the participants had thought in detail about their futures and “had accumulated know how and street savvy that would assist them in navigating their futures” (p.113), via pathways and ‘backdoor’ entries to high-status courses. However, Curtis’ (2011) work, which examines the TAFE-to-university pathway as a means to access higher education, contradicts the idea that rural and remote students are confidently navigating the tertiary educational landscape. Curtis’ data suggests that rural and remote (‘non-metropolitan’) are more likely to congregate in lower certificate levels (see also Griffin, 2014); however these are unlikely to be ‘effective’ for ameliorating inequitable patterns of access for rural and remote students because “the level of the VET programs taken by non-metropolitan students is typically lower than that taken by metropolitan youth, and lower-level VET qualifications have rather modest returns” (p.32).

Alloway et al. (2004) also noted a trend in the gendered aspirations of rural and remote students, with more females aspiring to higher education, which they suggest could be a result of the perception that rural spaces are ‘male’ (in terms of the kinds of traditional agricultural work), and a sense of diminished opportunities for females. Similarly, Fleming & Grace’s (2014) explorations of regional, rural and remote students’ participation in outreach activities at the University of Canberra found similar patterns of higher rates of aspirations for higher education in female participants. In their later work, Alloway & Dalley-Trim (2009) again highlighted the significance of gender, arguing that,  “For many young men and women in rural communities, it is difficult to construct aspirations and expectations that can move beyond the gendered culture of the communities within which they live”(p.52). However, Fleming & Grace’s (2015) work suggests that on-campus visits can ameliorate some of these entrenched perceptions and patterns by offering a lived-experience of campus life and what living away from home and studying at university might feel like, although they also contend that these students still need “assistance to believe that they can make the transition to university and (albeit temporarily) city life” (p.11; see Penman & Sawyer (2013) for a similar argument

A further issue that fuels educational disadvantage is the reduction of rurality into a homogenous category, or as a binary with urban/ metropolitan dwellers, which denies the richness of the landscape and patterns of advantage and disadvantage across a country as geographically spread out and diverse as Australia (Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009). Roberts and Green (2013) critique the construction of rural Australia as ‘backward’ and in need of ‘rescuing’ (p.766); like Cuervo (2014), they contest the application of metropolitan norms and views of teaching quality and equity to rural/remote contexts in a way that serve to devalue and paint as deviant the capitals held by rural people. Indeed, Roberts & Green argue that the application of a metro-centric views to rural spaces and places impacts upon the possibilities for equity: “Such inherently metro-centric and cosmopolitan views of equity and quality have resulted in deficit views of rural educational achievement, along with simple redistributive equity approaches that take no account of the particularities and affordances of rural social space” (p.766). In Cuervo’s (2014) work, the application of urban norms to rural people has contributed to an unsettling of place in the global sphere, resulting in the appropriation of neoliberal discourses – rather than the liberal egalitarianism that has historically guided notions of equality in rural contexts. He contends that this appropriation of neoliberal discourses is evident in rural school students’ talk, through the promulgation of discourses of competition, self-reliance and individual effort and merit, which is problematic because “it has the potential to transform structural disadvantages into individual failures” (2014: 555). For Roberts & Green (2013), inequity is evident in the treatment of urban and rural education as the same, and the judgment of rural education against metropolitan, and increasingly global, conceptions and measurements of quality, with the particularities of geography (space/place) factored out (“geographic blindness” in the words of Green & Letts, 2007, cited in Roberts & Green, 2013: 756). This, Roberts & Green argue, leads to issues of recognition and inequity and results in an “essentialised view of rural education (treated as homogenous) “determining the needs of the rural in relation to the cosmopolitan values of urban élites” (2013: 765).

Working against reductive and homogenous views of rural and remote students, researchers have argued for a more developed understanding of who these students are and what they bring to higher education, working to recognise theimportant role rural and remote students have to play in the diversity and quality of higher education (Burge 2012) and towards an understanding that they “represent a gain to their universities and to the higher education system as a whole” (Robinson, 2012: 91). In order to do so, universities have an equally important role to play. The expansion of rural and remote students in Australian higher education is partly dependent on universities being able to to respond to the local communities they serve; however, this is based on an assumption that communities know what they want. Robinson argues that instead of expecting communities to identify what is needed for present and future students, there is an opportunity for rural campuses to “act not only as brokers between rural populations and higher education institutions, but as educators of public opinion and shapers of local educational aspirations” (2012: 79).


Alloway, N.; Gilbert, P.; Gilbert, R.; & Muspratt, S. (2004). Factors impacting on student aspirations and expectations in regional Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Alloway, N. & Dalley-Trim (2009). ‘High and Dry’ in Rural Australia: Obstacles to Student Aspirations and Expectations, Rural Society, 19(1): 49-59.

Bandias, S.; Fuller, D. & Larkin, S. (2013). Vocational education, Indigenous students and the choice of pathways. NCVER: Adelaide.

Burge, L. (2012). Infinite possibilities: exploring opportunities for non-traditional students to become global citizens, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 13: 6-18.

Carson, T. (2010). Overcoming student hardship at Swinburne University, Australia: an insight into the impact of equity scholarships on financially disadvantaged university students, Widening Participation & Lifelong Learning, 12(3): 36-59.

Cuervo, H. (2014). Critical reflections on youth and equality in the rural context, Journal of Youth Studies, 17(4): 544-557.

Curtis, D. (2011). Tertiary Education Provision in Rural Australia: Is VET a Substitute for, or a Pathway into, Higher Education, Education in Rural Australia, 21(2): 19-35.

Dalley-Trim, L. & Alloway, N. (2010). Looking “Outward and Onward” in the Outback: Regional Australian Students’ Aspirations and Expectations for the Future as Framed by Dominant Discourses of Further Education and Training, The Australian Educational Researcher, 37(2): 107-125.

Edwards, D. & Coates, H. (2011). Monitoring the pathways and outcomes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and graduate groups, Higher Education Research & Development, 30(2): 151-163.

Fleming, M. & Grace, D. (2014). Increasing participation of rural and regional students in higher education, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 36(5): 483-495.

Fleming, M. & Grace, D. (2015). Beyond aspirations: addressing the unique barriers faced by rural Australian students contemplating university, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2015.1100718

Hossain, D.; Gorman, D.; Lawrence, J.; & Burton, L. (2012). Factors That Impact on Rural and Remote Students’ Participation in Higher Education, International Journal of Modern Education and Computer Science, 7: 1-8.

James, R. (2001). Participation disadvantage in Australian higher education: An analysis of some effects of geographic location and socioeconomic status, Higher Education, 42: 455-472.

James, R. (2002). Socioeconomic Background and Higher Education Participation: An analysis of school students’ aspirations and expectations. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

Mills, C. & Gale, T. (2011). Re-asserting the place of context in explaining student (under)achievement, British Journal of Sociology in Education, 32(2): 239-256.

Penman, J. & Sawyer, J. (2013). Expanding Horizons: UniReady Program for Multicultural Groups, Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 23(3): 71-81.

Roberts, P. & Green, B. (2013). Researching Rural Places: On Social Justice and Rural Education, Qualitative Inquiry, 19(10): 765-774.

Robinson, S. (2012). Freedom, Aspiration and Informed Choice in Rural Higher Education: Why They Are Saying ‘No’. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 22(2): 79-95.

Stewart, A. & Abbott-Chapman, J. (2011). Remote Island Students’ Post-Compulsory Retention: Emplacement and Displacement as Factors Influencing Educational Persistence or Discontinuation, Journal of Research in Rural Education, 26(6): 1-17.

Wilks, J. & Wilson, K. (2012). Going on to uni? Access and participation in university for students from backgrounds of disadvantage, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1): 79-90.

Wilson, S.; Lyons, T.; & Quinn, F. (2013). ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’: Rural and Remote Students in First Year University STEM Courses, Australian and International  Journal of Rural Education, 23(2): 77-88.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.