More regional Australians1 are going to university when they finish school, and they are increasingly moving to the city to study.

Fewer than a third of regional students commencing university in 2005 made the move to a city. By 2010, that number had risen to half, and by 2015 it was 57 per cent.

Regional students with high ATARs move to the city at higher rates

High-achieving regional students tend to move to the city to study. More than two-thirds of students with an ATAR of 90 or higher made the move between 2005 and 2015, compared to only one-third of students with an ATAR between 60 and 70.

This trend could reflect the fact that the large city-based universities offer a greater choice of courses, including more courses with high-ATAR cut-offs.

Proximity is also a factor. Grattan Institute research found only about half of regional students who moved to the city had a university campus within an hour’s drive of their home postcode. For the other half – if they decide to study on-campus instead of online – there is no choice but to move.

Regional students who move are unlikely to return

The recently-released 2006-2016 Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset (ACLD) allows us to look at young regional school students in 2006;2 see if and where they were studying university in 2011; and examine where they ended up five years later in 2016.3

Of the regional students who moved to the city for university in 2011, fewer than one-in-five were living in regional areas in 2016. The story was reversed for students who stayed in regional areas to study: three-quarters were living in regional areas five years later.4


1. This analysis uses ABS Remoteness Areas to classify areas as ‘city’ (‘Major Cities’) or ‘regional’ (including ‘Inner Regional’, ‘Outer Regional’, ‘Remote’ and ‘Very Remote’).

2. This analysis looks at young people only. Looking at mature-age students (who start university at age 25 or older) would require more information about where they grew up, which is not currently available in the Census.

3. The analysis using the ACLD – especially because of its age-ranges – will mis-classify some people. For example, 17 and 18-year-old school students from regional areas in 2006 will be classified as ‘regional school students’, but if they finish Year 12, start university and graduate within three years, in or before 2010, they would be classified as ‘not studying in 2011’ in our analysis. Unfortunately, a more precise filtering of the ACLD dataset is not possible. Similarly, our analysis ignores whether a student completed a degree. A regional person who moves to the city to study in 2011, but drops out without completing their degree, will be considered alongside those who did complete as simply ‘having studied’. And the examination of occupational status in 2016 may be biased because drop-out rates are higher in regional areas.

4. Research by Nous for the Regional Universities Network (RUN) found that 70 per cent of graduates from RUN universities were working in regional areas. Their analysis used the Graduate Outcomes Survey from 2013 to 2016, a wider definition of ‘regional’— any area outside Greater Capital Cities – than this analysis. The results are, however, consistent with this analysis.