Young Australians from urban areas are far more likely to attend university than those outside the big cities, according to a team of researchers with the federal education department.
The main cause of the difference is not that city dwellers are more likely to live near a university. The researchers say it has more to do with the attitudes that parents and their offspring in rural and remote regions have about education in general and university studies in particular. Improving the "equality of provision" would narrow the gap only slightly, the researchers argue.
A report of their study says the variation in participation rates seems to result from the way "regional communities relate to the education system".
It states: "It appears that community attitudes to education would need to change fundamentally before university participation in non-metropolitan areas would approach those of metropolitan areas."
Building campuses in country towns is not the best way to raise participation when differences in social attitudes and economic conditions are more important.
The research team set out to see how access to university and the socioeconomic status of students and their families affected participation in higher education. The report notes that across countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, studies have tended to focus on the expansion of higher education, while many of the most familiar inequalities persist unstudied.
In urban areas, variations in participation rates are caused largely by differences in students' aspirations, the report says, but access to a campus and a family's economic resources are also significant.
In rural and remote regions of Australia, however, the key factor appears to be attitudinal rather than how poor or well-off the families of students are.