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You are reading: Investigating transitions to university from regional South Australian high schools

Sharron King1, Cathy Stone2, Chris Ronan1

Executive summary

This research sought to identify why high-achieving students (i.e., those in years 11 and 12 in an ATAR stream) from regional South Australia (SA) are transitioning from school to university at lower rates than students in metropolitan areas. Additionally, the project aimed to build an interstate comparison between previous NCSEHE research conducted in NSW on the same issue (Quin, Stone, & Trinidad, 2017).

Compared with students at metropolitan high schools, students at regional and remote high schools are less likely to complete high school, less likely to apply to university, less likely to accept a university offer and, for those who do take up a university offer, they are twice as likely to defer it and less likely to complete their degree (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019, p. 14). Additionally, regional students from high socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds are more likely than those from low SES backgrounds to take up their deferred university positions the following year (Polesel, 2009).

Both the NSW study and other research into the participation and achievement of regional students have revealed a number of barriers impacting the post-school choices and decisions of regional students, including those on an ATAR pathway who are academically capable of achieving a place at university. These can be summarised as:

  • Geographical distance to a university.
  • Difficulties involved in the prospect of leaving home, family and community.
  • Family and community expectations and norms to stay and work locally.
  • The significant costs of attending university, particularly when living-away-from-home.
  • Difficulty making decisions about career plans, pathways and courses2, frequently leading to a postponement of this decision by taking a ‘gap year’.
  • Insufficient accurate and timely information and advice about careers, courses, pathways; also about what university is like, how much it will cost and what financial assistance is available.
  • Lack of role models of people who have been to university, amongst family, friends and community.

The project

This research set out to explore if these and other factors may be impacting on the decisions of SA regional high school students to attend university.

The main research question for this study was:

Why are significant numbers of high-achieving school students in identified areas of regional SA choosing not to transition to university directly from school?

Subsidiary questions were as follows:

  • What do academically capable SA regional students see as the major barriers preventing them from going to university?
  • What impact do student housing and accommodation arrangements have on regional SA student transitions?
  • What are the major influences on a student’s decision to transition or otherwise to university?
  • What other post-school options are being chosen by regional SA students with ATARs above 60?
  • What impact does online learning and regional information technology infrastructure have on regional student transitions?
  • How does the unique geography of SA impact the transition of regional students to university?


These questions were explored through surveys and focus group discussions with Year 11 and 12 students, along with staff interviews with teachers, principals, career advisors and other school educators. In total 14 schools in regional SA participated in the survey. Of these, eight schools participated in focus groups and nine schools participated in school educator interviews. A total of 198 students participated in the survey while 124 students participated in focus group discussions, and interviews were held with 23 school educators.

Key Findings

The findings from this research show both similarities to and differences from the findings of the NSW study, as well as supporting many of the findings from other research into factors impacting regional school transitions to higher education (HE).

Similar to the NSW findings:

  • Cost and finances played a significant role for the majority of students in decisions about whether to go to university, with particular concerns about relocation and accommodation/living costs.
  • There was a lack of knowledge about financial support options such as scholarships and government benefits, amongst both students and school educators. These regional students were concerned about leaving their local area, their family, friends and local employment, in order to attend university. Concerns ranged from loneliness, to expense, to fears about living in college or where else they may live, to finding their way around – hence, deciding whether to leave or stay was a complex and difficult decision.
  • The popularity of taking a gap year was similarly high, with many students undecided not only about whether to go to university but also what course or type of future career they wanted.
  • Access to adequate career advice and information was lacking; both in terms of what was available at their school, as well as in terms of the type of advice and information from the universities themselves.
  • The regional students in an ATAR stream largely had aspirations towards university.
  • Parental aspirations were also high, with the majority of students reporting that their parents were supportive of their aspirations.

However, unlike the NSW study:

  • There was a widely-held perception amongst both students and school educators that ‘local’ is not as good as ‘city’ when it comes to the quality of the university experience and ultimate qualification. However, this difference is also consistent with the difference in the types of campuses available in SA versus NSW, as outlined in Section Two.
  • University outreach visits were not seen as helpful by either students or school educators, with both groups regarding them largely as marketing exercises for the universities rather than of practical help to students.
  • Visits to cities and university campuses were arranged by many of the schools, with both students and staff finding these much more helpful.
  • Boys appeared to be under more pressure than girls to ‘stay local’, through undertaking a trade, finding local employment, or working on a family farm, rather than go to university; additionally, the lack of course/subject availability at local campuses was perceived as an obstacle to pursuing a course of study locally, particularly for boys.
  • Fewer than ten per cent of fathers had been to university (compared with 25 per cent of mothers), which may impact on parents’ university aspirations for boys, also on boys’ aspirations for themselves.
  • The greater geographical isolation of SA regional students results in fewer opportunities for transition to university for these students.

These findings also closely reflect and support the other recent research outlined in the literature review. Lack of access to a university in or near their home created significant challenges, financially, emotionally and psychologically, with boys appearing to be particularly under pressure. Cost was a determining factor, particularly for lower-income families, with a significant part of the cost of university related to moving away from home, housing and accommodation arrangements.

The importance of “quality career advice” is also evident in the findings, along with appropriate and targeted university outreach that includes school visits to cities and universities.

Read the full report, Investigating transitions to university from regional South Australian high schools.

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1University of South Australia

2The University of Newcastle & NCSEHE, Curtin University

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