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You are reading: NCSEHE Student Equity Snapshots Forum — Dr Janine Delahunty

On footprints, the university experience and why we need to listen to regional students

The NCSEHE is hosting a series of lightning talks and online discussions presented by the 2019/20 Equity Fellows on 26–30 October 2020.

Since 2016, the NCSEHE has supported 12 Equity Fellows to conduct targeted research projects, advancing student equity research, policy and practice. The 2019/20 cohort have each undertaken major year-long projects, variously focusing on regional and remote students, students with disability, mature age students, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Participants at this year’s Student Equity Snapshots Forum have gained unique insight into current student equity issues, delivered by the six Fellows, followed by live online discussions related to their projects.

In this lightning talk, Dr Janine Delahunty (University of Wollongong) shares a snapshot of her NCSEHE Equity Fellowship, exploring how regional people navigate into and through higher education.

Deciding to go to university for regional people is often a complex process of considerations, that go far beyond which degree pathway to take. But what are these considerations, and how do we know what students are contending with once they begin their studies, unless we ask? Unless we take heed?

Janine is joined for Q and A by guest facilitator Dr Cathy Stone (University of Newcastle Australia).

Lightning talk recording

Full transcript (including Q and A)


#NCSEHE_Snaphots publication

Lightning talk transcript

First of all, I want to acknowledge that I am on Yuin country, a beautiful part of south-east New South Wales, and where I am privileged to live and work. I’m grateful for the enduring knowledge embedded in Country and to the Aboriginal custodians, Elders and knowledge holders.

What a year we’ve had so far!! So many changes and disruptions to just about EVERY aspect of our lives…

While some of these have certainly been a struggle—and without downplaying the impact of this pandemic—I’ve found that the experience has challenged me—in a good way—and helped me appreciate some things that I’ve often taken for granted. And I know I’m not alone in this, if Twitter or Facebook are anything to go by. So, some things which may have caught my passing attention before, have now captured my imagination!!

So, I’d like to take you to one of my favourite places, where I’ve found myself much more often than usual and a place where I can walk, and slow down a bit to think and reflect on lots of things.

Let’s imagine that… Here we are, at my local beach… And here’s one of the many photos I’ve taken. I’ll call it ‘FOOTPRINTS in the sand’. Under normal circumstances, I might think of footprints as interesting but unremarkable… but what captured my imagination was when I started to think about the people who made them.

Let’s indulge a little… when we look at footprints it’s pretty easy to make some educated guesses… So, we can see which way they were heading; we can see how big (or small) their feet were; we can know if they were barefoot or wearing shoes; even by the length of the stride, we could guess their height; or if you happen to walk in each step, you can see how your stride matches to theirs.

I won’t go on, because I think you ‘get’ the picture.

But this is what got me thinking… that there’s quite a lot of information in those prints.

And when I reflected a bit more I started to think that FOOTPRINTS are perhaps a little bit like STATISTICS. By this I mean that there’s only so much that we can know from the footprints themselves, but SO MUCH THAT WE CAN NOT KNOW.

Some of the things footprints can’t tell us are:

  • Where were these people from? OR
  • How long they stayed?
  • Who were they with?
  • How were they feeling? Did they LOVE it, or not?
  • Would they ever come back?

So it struck me that for all the ‘evidence’ in front of me, I knew barely anything about the others who’d been there too. In a similar way, for my Fellowship which focuses on the issue of regional student attrition, the stats were NOT GOING TELL ME ENOUGH on their own. I could certainly get the big-picture issues, for example:

Did you know that regional enrolments have increased by 50 per cent, but that only 23 per cent of regional people have a degree? This compares to almost 45 per cent of people in major cities (ABS, 2018).

So, you can see that these stats are really important to know and, like footprints, they can be fascinating, but they just don’t GO DEEP ENOUGH to really understand WHY IS THIS SO? But before you can offer any ‘solutions’ you need to find out what it is that gets in the way (Brown, 2010). The best way I could fill in some of this detail was by going to regional people themselves to find out from them about their EXPERIENCES of being at university. And THAT is my project in a nutshell.

Now I’m going to take you through some of the things I’ve found — this is based on surveys and interviews with 80 regional students.

These students were studying across 13 different universities or campuses. Most of them were over 21, but more than half were older than 30.

Most were female and many were studying full-time. And just over half were doing their degrees online, but at the time I collected this data, many more were adjusting to online because of COVID. This gives useful information about their ‘student’ selves. But I want to know more

This is where equity-related factors and other life responsibilities add a bit more depth. And this is also where it starts to get really interesting…

Students could select any combination of categories that were reflective of their own circumstances. Here the choices are set out quite clearly, so at a glance we can see that many come from working class backgrounds, are first in their family or mature age. They also had many different responsibilities on top of their study. But what is significant here, is that most students selected more than one category.

So, we’re starting to build up a better picture, but to me, this is still a bit ‘footprinty’! When you belong to multiple equity factors it can feel like you’re on an unequal playing field.  So now, I’m going to show how I visualised equity factors in a way that alludes to this.

This chord diagram shows an element of ‘messiness’ where the ribbons intersect and the thickness of each ribbon makes the weighted relationships across and between the equity factors more visible.

To me, this gives a better sense of the complexity of being regional AS WELL AS belonging to multiple equity factors. It also allows us to imagine the compounding effect that intersecting equity factors may have over time. When I was going through the data, one of the surprising things for me, was that almost all of the students [96 per cent in fact] stayed in their regional area. The benefits of staying regional were often talked about in RELATIONAL terms — such as, the sense of community, the strong support networks, a willingness to help each other out, and that everyone knows everyone else (although sometimes this was seen as not such a positive). What was less surprising, was that once they have their degree, many students intend to GIVE BACK to the regional communities that have given them so much.

Let’s turn our attention now to what students have said. Choosing to STAY often meant choosing to study online. While the flexibility aspects of online are a bonus, poor internet can be really frustrating and time-consuming.

Only a regional person would understand that sometimes you have to “sit up on a hill to get better internet”.

Here is what one of the students reflected. She’s mature age, and studying her accounting degree online and doing this part-time. As well as that, she has school-aged children, works part-time and has community responsibilities

She says that you’ve got to understand that: everything takes longer … [she says that] There is no instantaneous in the country. Even the simplest thing like having the video on … can mean the difference of being able to attend or not [this is] due to internet speed.

Staying can also mean having to travel long distances with no public transport options — this is another reality that regional people are often resigned to … BUT a seven-hour round trip for a tutorial each week when you work full-time and have three school-aged children makes life even more complex.

Or, when your ‘mandatory’ placement is nine hours from home and you have no family close by to look after your children. On top of that you have to bear ALL the costs of travel and accommodation PLUS take ‘recreational’ leave from work… These are BIG ASKS.

Even so, the advice these students would give to other regional people thinking about uni is to Do it!’, but there are also a range of emotions that go hand-in-hand with the experience. This is what some of them said:

It’s like “a rollercoaster experience; moments of pride and elation, and that special feeling of ‘wow I’ve got this’, mixed with high levels of stress”.

Or that it’s “Difficult to juggle all the responsibilities without family support… especially as a single mum”.

Or, It sometimes feels lonely being an online student … it’s hard to know where you fit with other students”.

Or, “I wouldn’t change it for the world! I have loved every moment … [although it’s been] positive but challenging“.

So, why do we need to listen to regional students? Because we need to know more than what ‘footprints in the sand’ can tell us. And unless we ask, we can-not actually know what the realities are for regional students

Regional people are often noted for their resilience and determination, and for being highly motivated, but they also can be juggling many other things — things that can be compounding and can interfere with achieving their educational goals.

So, as universities, the best thing we can to do is to…

S H U T   U P …. and …. L I S T E N …. so that we can respond to what regional people themselves are telling us. Because, when you think about it, putting our time and resources into developing support based on knowing ‘barely anything’ about students’ lived realities, benefits no-one.

If we can simply … SHUT UP to LISTEN … and, of course, take HEED … this will provide a more deliberate move towards making higher education more equitable than it currently is for regional students.

Thank you for listening.

Lightning talk slides (accessible)

Full webinar recording pending.