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  • Writer's pictureCEEHE

Rural and Higher Education

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.

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.

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