Aren’t motivation and determination enough? Why is attrition so high for regional and remote students?

Significant disparity in educational participation and attainment is evident in Australian higher education. Non-completion rates for regional and remote students are disproportionately high (Pollard, 2018). Currently, 39 per cent of people who live in a major city have completed at least a bachelor degree. In stark contrast, only 22 per cent of those in inner regional areas have a bachelor degree or above, only 19 per cent in outer regional areas and only 17 recent in remote/very remote areas (ABS, 2020).

Only those who live regionally and remotely can provide nuanced insights into these disparities. In my NCSEHE Equity Fellowship, regional and remote university students and staff shared their experience of barriers and enablers to HE. It became very clear that a simple “yes/no” response to the question “are you going to uni?” is rare; decision-making is multifaceted and fraught.

Most-mentioned barriers were largely beyond students’ control, encompassing intersecting issues of distance, multiple equity factors and competing responsibilities. Other factors frequently identified include: financial, time or social/emotional costs, and unreliable or inadequate internet. Universities themselves became barriers when institutional processes and inflexible approaches failed to recognise the impact of these intersecting factors on students’ actual capacity to participate unfettered on the same terms as their more advantaged peers.

Success enablers included students’ clear aspirations for their futures and goal-focused motivation. Generally, they pursued studies that were meaningful and beneficial to self and others. Aspirations were often altruistic: helping others, returning to communities with newly-acquired skills, or healthy work-life balance. Emotional, social and practical support from parents, family, friends and communities were also significant enablers.

To thrive, these students need policies and bespoke practices in various institutional interactions (face-to-face and on-line) which create a sense of community, being valued and known. Students’ participation must be enabled empathetically and conjointly with mitigation of the barriers presented by multiple inequities.

To be effective, policies and practices must draw on the regional/remote student perspective for a more deliberate move to counter high attrition. Universities would do well then, to shut up, listen and take heed of the student voice.


Dr Janine Delahunty, Equity Fellow 2020, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) Curtin University.

Lecturer, Academic Development & Recognition, Learning, Teaching & Curriculum, University of Wollongong


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