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You are reading: It’s About Time: working towards more equitable understandings of the impact of time for students in higher education

Penny Jane Burke, Anna Bennett, Matthew Bunn, Jacqueline Stevenson and Sue Clegg

The University of Newcastle


Many equity students in higher education are challenged by institutional expectations about ‘time’, with time management impacted by the competing imperatives of study, work, and personal commitments. This research focussed primarily on regional and rural students, advocating an institutional emphasis on students’ engagement with learning, alongside flexible undergraduate programs that are responsive to the complexities of each student’s background.


Students’ experiences of ‘time’ and the dominant perceptions of ‘time management’ impact significantly on the attraction, retention, and performance of students in higher education, although the subject has received little research attention.

Many higher education students, particularly those from equity groups, cite ‘time pressures’ as a major reason for leaving study, but the assumption persists that time is a neutral and linear framework in which all students are equally positioned.

Regional and rural students represent an important equity group in the context of ‘time’. They must often transition from slower paced  contexts into regional centres or cities and find accommodation, transportation, and often employment whilst adjusting to tertiary study.

Objectives and methodology

The research project investigated the impact of institutional expectations associated with time management on the attraction, retention, and performance of students in higher education, and how students from regional and remote areas attempted to effectively manage their time.

The report aimed to develop a platform from which embedded assumptions of time management in higher education can be reconfigured as flexible and responsive to the needs of students, to better support their learning experiences.

Qualitative data was collected from interviews with 47 undergraduate students from three regional universities across Australia and the United Kingdom to build on work conducted in this area. In each case, the student population included significant representation from equity groups including students from regional and rural backgrounds.

The analytical framework drew on interdisciplinary theories from education and sociology, grounded in the critical sociology of higher education.

Key findings and recommendations

Institutional assumptions about time management and an emphasis on assessment deadlines, rather than students’ engagement with learning, did not accommodate the complex demands and expectations that regional and remote students faced. This was reflected in the advice and information made available to students in the development of time management skills, which often operated on assumptions of poor organisation and low motivation, rather than the pressures of meeting a range of demands and commitments.

Students from regional and rural backgrounds faced significant time constraints relating to finding accommodation quickly and/or organising travel. This pressure was compounded when students were required to find, and maintain, paid employment to cover associated costs.

While students’ personal circumstances and available resources often necessitated some online study, there was a strong preference for face-to-face learning. Interviewees reported the benefits of an engagement with teachers, deeper understanding of topics, and a connection with learning.

Conclusions and considerations for policy

Greater understanding and awareness of the particular, and multiple, demands that students from regional and rural backgrounds navigate in relation to time management would support the aim of creating greater equity in higher education.

Given students’ different social circumstances and available resources, it is crucial that higher education has the capacity to address difference rather than assuming all students must be treated the same. Attention to difference (in the context of improving student equity) requires that university staff are able to exercise flexibility on behalf of students.

A balance between structured time (for example, scheduled lectures, seminars, and tutorials) and flexible time (for example online learning and independent study) is important for student equity within, and across, programs of study. Regional and rural students require flexibility, but also the recognition that the inability to attend all classes is not simply an indicator of poor time management or lack of motivation.

Pedagogies that support the development of time management practices should avoid over-emphasising assessment deadlines and under-emphasising processes of learning and developing understanding.

Greater transparency and clarity in communicating with students before they commence their studies about accommodation and travel options would help them anticipate the time needed in the transition to beginning their university study. Additionally, structures could be put into place to support students in navigating the accommodation and/or travel options available (such as negotiating within the private rental market and/or identifying safe travel arrangements). This would ensure students are not vulnerable to commercial practices or unsafe travel arrangements, particularly when they are facing severe time constraints in relation to their regional and remote backgrounds.

Further research could build on this study to explore these issues across a wider range of student groups and institutional and disciplinary contexts. Such research is particularly significant at a time when higher education is looking increasingly to online forms of course provision to reach more students. Time and student equity must be key considerations in such developments, and be explored in ways that examine the relationship between time, space, equity, and social differences.

Read the full report here.

Burke, P. J., Bennett, A., Bunn, M., Stevenson, J. & Clegg, S. (2017). It’s About Time: working towards more equitable understandings of the impact of time for students in higher education. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

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