Complimenting another article  on  regional and remote issues in this edition of VDC News (Highlighting VET in regional and remote Australia) are a couple of pieces of work that look, first, at the support services available to tertiary students in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas and then provide a ‘good practice framework’ for this support.

This work sits within a context which has examined the issues related to the work of the Regional Education Expert Advisory Group which has also produced a series of issues papers to address the challenges facing tertiary education in regional, rural and remote areas following the 2019 Napthine Review.

The research

A team drawn from a range of organisations prepared the report. It “explores the range of support services that Australian tertiary providers currently deliver to students from regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas” and provided advice to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) “on ways to ensure the delivery of ongoing best practice support services (see below). The project used a process involving desk research and consultations with a wide range of tertiary sector stakeholders including those from “tertiary regulators, peak bodies, networks and interviews with sixty-seven public and private tertiary education providers. Seventy tertiary students were also consulted through interviews and focus groups.”

As the report notes:

Exploring the support services available to, and needed by, RRR tertiary students is complicated by the diversity of tertiary students and tertiary providers across the country. There is no typical regional student [although “the Napthine Review found that RRR tertiary students are more likely to be female, mature aged, Indigenous, and from low SES backgrounds. They are also more likely than metropolitan students to be juggling competing priorities, including work commitments and caring responsibilities.”] Even when attempts have been made by various researchers to capture different types of students, e.g., those who leave regional areas and those who stay, blind spots remain where research has not included consideration of mature age students, or VET students.

Support services might include such things as academic support, pastoral care, mentoring/buddy programs, accommodation, childcare support, employment assistance and cultural safety.

Key messages include:

  1. there needs to be flexibility and receptiveness to consider individual needs in student services (these might include online platforms and systems) so that RRR students are engaged in support services using technology in interactive and effective ways, and
  2. communication with RRR students is targeted and timed to align with need, and students not attending in person are engaged through ongoing outreach and relationship building
  3. skilled counselling staff need to be available to address the needs of RRR students.
  4. skilled staff are available to assist learning for RRR students, and
  5. in relation to points 1 and 2 above particularly, transition and first year support needs to be provided for these students
  6. housing assistance needs to be provided, and
  7. outreach is made into areas where RRR students reside.

Above all, clear, consistent messaging raises awareness and understanding of required support services. It also requires that ongoing data are collected on RRR students’ needs, use and relevance of services so that “decisions are informed by organisational strategy and evidence-based student needs.” This is to ensure that both “incremental and breakthrough improvements are actively implemented and are informed by data.”

Finally, “research points to the value of enabling programs for supporting the academic needs of RRR students and facilitating student interactions and connections,” and many RRR students want face-to-face experiences.

The Good Practice Framework

The Good Practice Framework “provides guidance for tertiary providers to assist them in supporting RRR students. It is designed to encourage reflection on current practice and knowledge sharing within and between tertiary providers.” It consists of 5 elements. These are:

  1. Culture: support for RRR students is built in and valued within the education provider’s functions involving partnerships with students, leadership, embedding support and responsiveness
  2. Resourcing, that is: products and services are available for RRR students including financial assistance, both wellbeing and academic support and accommodation assistance
  3. Belonging, that is: RRR students feel integrated, affiliated and comfortable to participate in academic and social life through connection and identity, support to settle into study and mentoring, Indigenous perspectives and cultural competence and community outreach and engagement
  4. Engagement: RRR students are aware of support services available and ways to interact and this requires connection and identity, student awareness of support services – including those online, and support for online and distance students and finally,
  5. Knowledge – which is developed and used to improve services for RRR students and includes monitoring needs and responses, prioritising resources and funding with a focus also on ongoing improvement and sharing good practice.

Each of these elements involves a description that helps you as a user of the Good Practice Framework to consider what to think about, and ask the questions ‘how do you’, and ‘could you’ address the particular element. This is accompanied in each case by views from both students and educators as well as a set of ‘stories’ from the field. There is also more detail about this framework in the support services report summarised above.