Dr Anne Croker, Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle Department of Rural Health and Project Officer in CEEHE.

Rural and higher education,

two conceptually complex terms:

But why does this matter and what do they mean?

Rural in relation to higher education is an important aspect of widening participation, from the stance that all Australians deserve 'fair and equal access to high quality tertiary education, regardless of location or personal circumstances' (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).

However, both higher education and rural are complex concepts.

The complexity of higher education is evident from different levels of understanding for different purposes. On a surface level this understanding can, for example, clarify side-points during informal conversations, such as:

“Higher education? Are we talking about just universities?”

“Not only universities, other institutions as well. Somewhere you get qualifications such as diplomas and degrees.”

“So where does tertiary education fit?”

I do find this confusing, but it says in this document that tertiary education is defined as both higher education and vocational education and training.

Important for social justice, however, are deeper understandings of higher education as a place of exclusion through ‘interconnecting structures, systems, practices, discourses and cultures of higher education that are complicit in the social, economic and cultural reproduction and exclusions in and through higher education' (Burke, Crozier & Misiaszek, 2017). Such deep understandings are an important starting point for widening participation strategies aimed at students from rural areas. Such strategies respond to the following issues highlighted in a recent Government report: ‘individuals who grow up in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas are around 40 per cent less likely to gain a higher-level tertiary education qualification and less than half as likely to gain a bachelor and above qualification by the time they are 35 years old, compared to individuals from metropolitan areas' (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).

However, the notion of rural areas also raises questions:

Rural? What is meant by rural?

What does that mean for people in those areas?

The complexity of the term rural arises from its socially constructed nature: '… rural has never been, nor will ever be a fixed concept' (Hallnäs, 2017). Rural, with its Latin origin ru meaning open country, has been used differently over time and is used differently by different people in current times. For example, alongside current negative media headlines highlighting geographic disadvantage there are idyllic portrayals reflecting increased interest in moving to country and coastal regional areas following COVID19 lockdown. As well, the term rural in policy documents can disappear into the acronym of RRR. To recognise the complexity of the term rural, I am purposively putting single quote marks around it so it becomes ‘rural’. These quote marks highlight that I am using the word in a special way. I want to encourage people to hesitate when they encounter this term and consider:

What does ‘rural’ as a term mean to me? When do I use this term?

When do I see the term ‘rural’ being used? Who is using this term and why?

For me, the term ‘rural’ is laden with values, interests and at times confusion. Importantly the term does not reflect my embodied sense of self or place. My answer to the question “Where are you from?” is the name of the town I grew up in and currently live (or in relation to the nearest city the questioner would recognise). Furthermore, some of us grew up in a time before we were given our ‘rural’ label. If we lived inland we might have said that we were from the country or the bush, or that we were ‘townies’ or lived ‘out of ‘town’ on ‘on a property’. Those living 'on the coast' may have equally nuanced terms. This confusion of ‘rural’ identity is compounded by classifications being externally imposed rather than representing the local language.

Empirico-analytical conceptualisations of ‘rural’ are evident within policy classifications denoting socio-spatial characteristics based on census variables such as employment, population, housing conditions and remoteness. These classifications are often the basis of funding to address equity issues. However, they are not necessarily meaningful to people within the areas they classify and risk reinforcing deficit stereotypes.

Importantly widening participation conceptualisations provide scope to interrogate deficit framings of ‘rural’ and implications of misrecognising and misrepresenting ‘rural’. Paradoxically misrecognition of ‘rural’ in higher education may increase rural disadvantage by increasing the divide between ‘rural’ and ‘metropolitan’ and the ‘othering’ of students and educators from and within higher education.

Thus, I introduce the notion of ‘rural’ as a place-marker. ‘Rural’ can act as a place-marker for particular places or for different values, interests and understandings. This raises issues for further exploration in relation to ‘rural’ and ‘higher education’:

What would it look like if we minimised our use of the word 'rural'?

What about if instead we had to articulate what we meant by this place-marker?

Would this make it easier to bring taken-for-granted assumptions into focus?

Would it make it easier to explore the implications of widening participation in higher education?



Burke, P. J., Crozier, G., & Misiaszek, L. I. (2017). Changing pedagogical spaces in higher education: Diversity, inequalities and misrecognition. London: Routledge.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy.

Hallnäs D. (2017). The rural - knowing where we are by retracing our steps. Faculty of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

Further Reading:

Ronan, C. (2021). Shifting rural identities: The long-term impact of widening participation on rural student identity. In Burke, PJ., Bunn, M., Lumb. M. (Eds). An invitation to reconceptualise Widening Participation through praxis.


We acknowledge and respect the Gomeroi and Awabakal Peoples, traditional custodians of the lands on which we work.


Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Dr Matt Lumb, CEEHE Associate Director

I recently received an email promoting jobs with a government department and was intrigued by the corporate language in use and so clicked through to check it out. The roles in question will, among other things: facilitate activities where employers can communicate what they need in terms of skills and experience from young people entering their industry. Nowhere was it mentioned that these roles will facilitate activities whereby young people can communicate what they need from employers/industry. For example, I don’t want to assume or to speak for other folks, but I can imagine that stable, safe, meaningful employment might come up in that communication?

This advert also got me thinking about a recent case in NSW where an education-industry partnership was established; with only a vague intention, to build better links between local education providers and local industries. An aspect of this initiative became a relationship between a public high school and a nearby company of national scale which had a maintenance facility nearby; a facet of the partnership promoted as being great for young people in terms of access to work experience, internships, apprenticeships, even jobs. Folks were excited. Site visits ensued. New qualifications were pursued. Learning for a group of students at the school was guided into themes that met the needs of this industrial complex. Media reports were printed. Education-industry partnerships worked! Everyone wins! Young people it seems could be coerced via their school curriculum into accepting pathways to low skill ‘new-collar’ precarious employment!

Then COVID-19 arrived. The industry within which this company operated collapsed overnight, and a decision was made in distant head offices to close the maintenance centre immediately and indefinitely. Hundreds of jobs went. So did the opportunities for work experience, internships, apprenticeships, and employment. I am guessing that the education-industry ‘partnership’ was not a primary boardroom consideration when these decisions were made. We see here some of the emptiness in the call to better alignment between industry needs and formal education systems in our current climate. Aligning, for example, a school, TAFE or university curriculum around a local industry needs does not always take into account the risks that a business operation will make brutal and swift shifts to protect the interests of their stakeholders. Whilst the long terms interests of community members might be a consideration, it is unlikely to be the primary concern.

This case points to a broader set of shifts in the way formal education is understood and positioned. Increasingly, the notion of employability has patterned the purpose of participation in education, including higher education. The instrumental pursuit of a career seems to have become a taken-for-granted reason for university study, particularly as the share of the cost borne by students grows. Employability has become an urgent way in which higher education institutions are expected to provide a particular form of value to the imagined student. Note that we are not talking here about being employed. Just employable. Standing ready? This focus on employability works to hold in place a ‘naturalness’ of the purpose of higher education, one that allows for ‘employable’ ways of being as the benchmark of success. This creates fertile conditions for stigmatising those who are ‘unsuccessful’ in leveraging ‘their’ participation in higher education towards industry interests, with worrying implications for projects of equity.

Students in education are commonly imagined as something like containers, filled to different levels with acceptable forms of ‘aspiration’, ‘resilience’, even ‘education’. This framing of the student embeds certain ways of being a student as the most legitimate ways, limiting or even shutting out completely ways of being that sit outside this frame. This perspective also assumes and embeds rectifying deficit as the primary concern, as it does not readily acknowledge or value what students are bringing with them for example into higher education. Many educators resist this framing yet it is challenging work when the surrounding social structures and logics constantly recoup this narrow, deficit-fuelled framing, guiding expectations and practices.

In an upcoming book chapter, Dr Matt Bunn and I question the contemporary consequences of this notion in Australia. We do so by paying attention to how students are coerced into adopting the conditions described above as a limit on their current and future ways of being. Notions of job or career ‘readiness’ are increasingly the focus of recruitment to universities, arguably in response to industries having cut their investment in training and support of workers and with the responsibility for employment shifting from society to individuals. It is a concern to us that unemployment or the rapidly growing under-employment is seen as the individual’s problem, with no recognition of broader socio-economic conditions. In this way, worklessness is presented as a sort of shortcoming at the level of the individual, despite vast evidence that there is not enough paid work around, and that education systems are complicit in the production of these social inequalities.

Our chapter also explores how there is limited opportunity to debate why this framing of education and the labour market holds such influence. In the absence of this debate there exists the influential output of relatively new organisations seemingly motivated to continually re-embed notions of employability that are primarily of value to sections of industry rather than students.


This post draws on the forthcoming chapter 'Dominant higher education imaginaries' in Reimagining the higher education student: constructing and contesting identities (2021, Brooks, R. & O'Shea, S. (eds.), 2021).


More suggested reading: Moreau, M-P., & Leathwood, C. (2006). Graduates’ employment and the discourse of employability: A critical analysis. Journal of Education and Work 19: 4, 305–324.


We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.


Dr Matthew Bunn, CEEHE Research Fellow

As a sociologist, I have often heard the criticism of not being very practical. In many ways it is a very impatient critique – practical is something that can be applied almost instantly. It is fast, urgent, like patching a leaking roof during a storm. Continuing this analogy, I guess it would be unhelpful if I stood back and observed ‘the roof leaks because it needs to be rebuilt’ or ‘the structure of the roof is leading to some parts of the roof unequally bearing the burden, thus weakening quickly’, or even ‘rich ethically devoid developers built your house and cut corners, and there is no accountability for this lack of roofing integrity’. You patch the hole, and stop the immediate problem.

Labouring the analogy even further, however, it can’t be raining all the time. There must surely come a moment when greater care and planning can be taken to fix the roof properly. If it is raining all the time, living with the leak for a while might just have to happen to figure out the root problems and solve it in lasting ways.

Being ‘practical’ always seems to bear resonance with the status quo. Sure, you might have good ideas but no one would go for it. In our society we debate ideas and this often leads to substantial shifts in the way people perceive, and act. Maybe not immediately, but over time. The ideas that we go to work with are the ones that limit and open the world and the possibilities of action. Recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and debates about the 26th of January and combating misogyny and gendered violence are important examples. They are moments where fighting with ideas turns the tide, and ‘impractical’ things start to look much more possible.

The collection of ideas that underpin practice are no less ‘practical’. They are the things that inform the way that we understand, the things that we see and the things that are made invisible; the things that ‘make sense’ can quickly become nonsense, and vice versa. The fact is, there isn’t a ‘normative’ (i.e. practical) way of seeing things etched into the foundations of our societies. Rather, there is a struggle over what is normative. Normative is always about to happen, but only becomes normative in its contestation. It is in the moments of trying to convince someone that what is normative is normative. Equity work in higher education is a key area where this struggle resides. Ideas about equity and social justice, the ambition to produce parity of participation, these are things that have been built slowly, and far from a teleology, are in an endless process of contestation. Things shift one way, and back the other.

For me, a particular problem is the use of categories like low socioeconomic status and this is a useful example. This is a term frequently used to imply differences in earning, and access to material goods and assets. Yet what it does, in its ‘practical’ measurement, is bury the direct relationships between privilege and deprivation – that in a competitive struggle over scarce goods, some people have faired much much better, and have done so precisely because other people have been deprived. It means giving some people better access to higher education will deny such access to others.

If you take one of these positions on as a way to understand the world the way practice works changes. The things that appear practical become substantially different. A critical imaginary emphasises something bigger than the individual. It means that space is always open for a new explanation, but that fundamentally inequality is not caused by the marginalised, and that this opens new motivations and understandings to bring to practice.

A critical imaginary can mean that change seems difficult, and at times impossible. But this is sometimes a healthy thing: it means that we have to sit with the problem, of not expecting that our own individual power is enough to change the world. A sober, equanimous understanding of individual limits is not really in vogue in late capitalism, but modest intentions can make for monumental shifts: spending time on understanding, or at least improving our understandings can make big changes. A course of action isn’t practical if it is premature. And at the very least, ‘patient praxis’ as Matt Lumb and I have put it, might provide the basis to challenge some of the things that we take on as ‘practical’ measures, even though they sit uncomfortably – even if it is hard to place why. In the end, being prematurely ‘practical’ is not practical enough to provide answers to the problems of inequality that equity work in higher education confronts.


We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.