The move to online learning has given rural and regional students the opportunity to return home during COVID-19 restrictions.
- Online learning has given regional students the opportunity to return to their home towns to study during lockdown
- Universities will offer more courses online in the future, increasing flexibility for students wanting to live in the country
- Regional students are under-represented in higher education outcomes
Though moving to Melbourne to study is a rite of passage for many regional Victorian students, there are significant barriers such as the cost of relocating and the distance from support networks.
The 2016 census showed that in Gippsland, in eastern Victoria, 12 per cent of people aged 15 and over had a bachelor’s degree or higher — half the national average.
While some families have been left thousands of dollars out of pocket after paying for non-refundable accommodation fees, some students are relishing the advantages of moving back home for the time being.
And Victorian universities have indicated that online learning will be part of their future strategy.
Heading back to the farm
For Rachel O’Brien, a 20-year-old physiotherapy student at Monash Peninsula, the choice to return home early in the pandemic was easy.
“I’d been in Melbourne for a month or so, and so I was already starting to miss home a little bit … so it just seemed like the obvious decision,” she said.
Ms O’Brien decided to return to her family farm in Heyfield when lockdown began and has studied online for six months.
Returning home has had benefits for Ms O’Brien, such as more space, a greater sense of community, and having a support network at home.
“It’s been really good because normally I’m away at uni during lambing season, but I’ve been able to experience that again this year.”
However, online learning has posed challenges for practical classes and relationships with her classmates.
“There’s less of a sense of camaraderie and I feel a bit distanced from the rest of the cohort, which I think is challenging,” Ms O’Brien said.
Staying in the city
Bronte de Lacy-Vawdon, a 21-year-old Bachelor of Arts student at Australian Catholic University, returned to Walkerville in South Gippsland to be with her dad during Victoria’s first lockdown, but was not comfortable returning home the second time around.
“I felt like it didn’t really matter what your story was, if your licence or your ID said you were from Melbourne you were instantly looked down upon,” Ms de Lacy-Vawdon said.
Not wanting to add any anxiety to an already stressful time, she decided to stay in Melbourne.
Apart from being away from family, for Ms de Lacy-Vawdon the hardest part was being away from the beach.
“It’s really sad — growing up in the country you have that attachment, you have that connection to nature. When I don’t have that, I kind of feel a bit low in energy,” she said.
While Ms de Lacy-Vawdon is stuck in one place at the moment, she hoped that this year’s advances in online learning would allow regional students to travel between their institution and home more freely in future.
Future of online and flexible study alternatives
Online learning may become more available in the short-term future.
Guinever Threlkeld, pro vice-chancellor regional at La Trobe University, said they had received positive feedback from students about online learning this year.
“I think what we’ve learned is that everyone likes flexibility and so we’re trying to deliver our courses with as much flexibility as possible,” Dr Threlkeld said.
This had been adopted into La Trobe’s strategic plan, which was looking to include more online courses to increase their student base.
“We’re calling it study flex, where you might choose to study online, predominantly, but there will be a stream of subjects within your degree that you can choose to study either face-to-face or online,” she said.
Maryann Brown is CEO of YouThrive Victoria, an organisation that supports young rural Victorians through their education.
Dr Brown was concerned that tertiary students were not getting a chance to socialise with their peers — particularly for first-year students who had just started this year.
“A lot of people want to go to university to broaden their world, and to meet different people and have different conversations. And you just don’t do that necessarily in a tute,” she said.
Despite the new possibilities for remote learning, Dr Brown was concerned that it was only a “partial solution” for regional and rural students.