The vital role regional universities play in securing access and equity to higher education in Australia is the focus of a new study by Burnie academic Dr Merete Schmidt.
The interdisciplinary project, Studying Regionally: Experiences of University Students on Regional Campuses, is funded by the Spencer Foundation and Edith Cowan University. It spans three campuses in three states: Edith Cowan University’s South West Campus (Bunbury), La Trobe University Shepparton Campus (Shepparton) and the University of Tasmania’s Cradle Coast Campus (Burnie) and is headed by Professor Robyn Eversole from Swinburne University of Technology.
The University of Tasmania is participating in the research through its strong regional community links in the Cradle Coast region.
Dr Schmidt, a sociology lecturer, said regional campuses were critical in fostering and supporting the aspirations of the 30 per cent of Australians who live in regional areas, and provided access to career pathways and degrees that may otherwise be out of reach for people living outside of metropolitan areas.
“It is incredibly important to understand the experiences and needs of our regional students so that we can continue to provide high quality and relevant education to people in the Cradle Coast region,” Dr Schmidt said.
“Despite the importance of regional campuses, there is a dearth of research in this area and Australia’s higher education system remains concentrated in a handful of coastal capital cities.
As Australia’s Universities face budget crises due to COVID-19, the participating universities recognise the important role that regional campuses play in furthering educational opportunities for rural students; developing a research base to understand the needs of these students is crucial.
Dr Schmidt said that while little was currently known about how students engage with regional campuses, regional students in Australia were disproportionately low socio-economic status, mature-aged, and were often juggling caring and work responsibilities in addition to study.
“One study describes many regional campus students as ‘stayers with aspirations’ - young people from Regional Australia who do not leave home to study and, years later, summon the courage to step across the threshold of a regional campus,” Dr Schmidt said.
“Our study will also develop policy and practice recommendations to ensure people who study locally are not abandoned in the resource constrained post-COVID-19 environment and to strengthen sustainability for the provision of regional university education.
“I am very fortunate to work at the Cradle Coast Campus with so many wonderful colleagues and students. My passion for this research is inspired by the amazing students I have taught over the years and their stories of resilience and a desire to transform lives through tertiary study.
“It is timely that we develop greater understanding of the role regional campuses play in higher education equity in Australia to ensure we can support the aspirations of our regional students.”