Rurality and access to higher education: an international symposium

31 March 2021, 10.00 AM - 31 March 2021, 5.00 PM

Hosted by the Centre for Higher Education Transformations, University of Bristol. An SRHE South West Network for Higher Education event.

This is an online symposium (free of charge), please register to receive details of how to attend. Early booking advised.

Hosted by the Centre for Higher Education Transformations, University of Bristol. An SRHE South West Network for Higher Education event.

Online, free of charge and open to the public.

Update: The final programme is now available. Please see the full programme including the final panel session and speaker biographies below. You can also download the programme and speaker biographies here: ‌ ‌Final Programme - Rurality and access to higher education (PDF, 622kB)

Global inequalities are increasingly manifested spatially and the ever widening disparities between urban and rural populations have been further increased by the massive changes in educational provision and need for digital infrastructure brought on through the COVID 19 pandemic, particularly for low income countries and those in the global South. This one-day symposium will focus on rurality and access to higher education across a wide range of global South and global North contexts, demonstrating that the complexities are not confined to particular countries. Globally, there is a significant amount of research on equity of access but surprisingly little on the mediating effects of rurality on higher education. As UNESCO (2020) highlighted recently, students from rural communities remain under-represented and to some extent, a forgotten group in higher education. The recent Special Issue of the journal Compare ‘Rurality and Access to Higher Education’ foregrounds these issues (Trahar, Timmis, Lucas and Naidoo 2020). Exploring the experiences and challenges for students from rural backgrounds in accessing higher education across multiple contexts in this symposium is therefore very timely.

Our speakers:

Phoebe Kirkup, UNESCO

Maia Chankseliani, University of Oxford, UK

Sophia Gorgodze, Ilia State University, Georgia

Kairat Kurakbayev, Teachers College, Columbia University, USA

Catherine Montgomery, University of Durham, UK

Juan de Dios Oyarzún, P. Universidad Católica de Valparaiso, Chile

Per-Åke Rosvall, Umeå University, Sweden

Thea de Wet, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Kibbie Naidoo, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Patricia Muhuro, University of Fort Hare, South Africa

Emmanuel Mgqwashu, North-West University, South Africa

Lisa Lucas, University of Bristol, UK

Sue Timmis, University of Bristol, UK

Sheila Trahar, University of Bristol, UK

The symposium will appeal to researchers, policymakers and practitioners. It will be divided into 5 sessions, each with two speakers followed by questions, with short breaks between each one. The final session will be a panel discussion so there will be ample opportunities for dialogue. A full programme with speaker titles will be made available in due course to those who register.

Topics to be covered in the symposium include prior experiences in rural communities, for example, schooling, guidance, resources, identities, aspirations and expectations. How students negotiate the transition to university as well as experiences once there, including teaching, learning and curricula will also be highlighted. Deficit positionings, misrecognition and the ideological control effected by higher education and other social structures and systems are explored across contexts. The symposium will also examine the changes that are needed in higher education including increasing outreach, access and infrastructure, managing transitions, affording students (and teachers) more agency and developing inclusive curricula that reflect the life experiences, cultural values and skills of those from rural areas. 

To register for this symposium (which is free of charge), please use the link below. Early booking advised.




Programme is scheduled for 10.00 – 17.00 BST. BST (British Summer Time) starts on 28th March. One hour ahead of Co-ordinated Universal Time. There are breaks throughout the day.


10.00 – 10.15: Session 1

Introduction and overview -  Lisa Lucas and Sue Timmis, University of Bristol, UK

10.15 – 10.55:

“Leaving no one behind” – Critical reflections on inclusion in higher education 

Speaker: Phoebe Kirkup, UNESCO


10.55 – 11.05: 10 minute break


11.05 – 12.05: Session 2

Exploring rurality and ethnicity in globalised higher education: ideologies, intersections and narratives in doctoral research theses

Speaker: Catherine Montgomery, University of Durham, UK

Transitions from rural contexts to and through Higher Education in South Africa: negotiating misrecognition 

Speakers: Emmanuel Mgqwashu, North West University, SA, Thea de Wet, University of Johannesburg, SA


12.05 - 12.30: 25 minute break


12.30  - 13.30: Session 3

Counselling to stay or to leave? - Comparing career counselling and transitions of young people in rural and urban areas in Sweden.

Speaker: Per-Åke Rosvall, Umeå University, Sweden

‘You have to change, the curriculum stays the same’: rurality and curricular justice in South African Higher Education

Speakers: Kibbie Naidoo, University of Johannesburg, SA, Patricia Muhuro,  University of Fort Hare, SA


13.30 – 14.30: 60 minute break


14.30 – 15.30: Session 4

Rural disadvantage in the context of centralised university admissions: a multiple case study of Georgia and Kazakhstan

Speakers: Maia Chankseliani, University of Oxford, Sophia Gorgodze, Ilia State University, Georgia, Kairat Kurakbayev, Columbia University, USA

Uncertain futures in forgotten places: a study on education policies and students' subjectivities in rural contexts in Chile

Speaker: Juan de Dios Oyarzún,  P. Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile


15.30 – 16.00: 30 minute break


16.00 – 16.50 : Session 5

Panel discussion (Chair - Catherine Montgomery)

Speakers: Juan de Dios Oyarzun,  Per-Åke Rosvall, Thea de Wet, Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Sheila Trahar


Panel will initially speak on the following:

How are the challenges of access to higher education from rural areas intersecting with broader global issues?

There will be ample time for questions from the audience following this.


16.50 - 17.00  - Closing remarks -  Sue Timmis, University of Bristol, UK


Speaker Biographies

Phoebe Kirkup works in UNESCO’s Higher Education Section, primarily as a part of the secretariat for the Global Independent Expert Group on the Universities and the 2030 Agenda (EGU2030). She is also part of the coordination team for UNESCO’s III World Conference on Higher Education to be hosted in October 2021.

Catherine Montgomery is Professor in the School of Education and Deputy Executive Dean (Global) for the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health at the University of Durham. Research focuses on internationalisation of higher education with a particular interest in transnational higher education in China and East Asia. Recent work includes mobilities and immobilities and the internationalisation of curriculum and knowledge, flows of international students within the changing landscapes of global higher education.

Maia Chankseliani is Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford. Her research on tertiary education - higher education, university-based research, and VET/apprenticeships – focuses on societal, institutional, and policy forces that shape tertiary education and the potential of tertiary education and research for transforming societies.

Sophia Gorgodze is Associate Professor at Ilia University, Georgia. Currently she serves as Director of National Assessment and Examinations Center. She holds PhD in Education from Ilia University and MA degree in International Education Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include decision-making in education and decentralization of education systems.

Kairat Kurakbayev is a PhD student and a doctoral fellow in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. Prior to doing his doctorate in Columbia University, Kairat served as Director of the Research Institute at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education, Kazakhstan.

Juan de Dios Oyarzún, sociologist and PhD in Education Policy Studies (UCL-IOE), currently works at the School of Education, from the P. Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Chile). He does research in Educational Policy and Sociology of Education from critical theoretical perspectives. His current research is related to the production of knowledge in the educational field, and its impact on students and teachers’ subjectivities.

Per-Åke Rosvall, Department of Applied Educational Sciences, Umeå University Sweden. His latest work includes discussions on locality and the prevention of early school leaving in the Swedish highly decentralised education system and young people’s career choices in rural contexts in relation to social codes, migration and resources.

Thea de Wet is Professor of Anthropology and Senior Director of Academic Development and Support at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her research is focused on health, education, and livelihoods. She co-led (with Sue Timmis) the recently completed SARiHE project on rurality and transitions to higher education in South Africa.

Kibbie Naidoo is Director of the Centre for Academic Staff Development at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the Programme Convenor for the Teaching Advancement at University Fellowship Programme and the South African Universities Learning and Teaching Forum. Her research interests include rurality, curriculum development and social justice in higher education.  

Emmanuel Mfanafuthi Mgqwashu is Associate Professor and Director for Faculty Teaching and Support Directorate, Center for Teaching and Learning at North West University, South Africa.  He is a National Research Foundation (NRF) Rated researcher. Fields of expertise are Higher Education Studies, Language Education, Literacies Development and Literary Studies.

Patricia Muhuro is Co-ordinator of Post Graduate Diploma in Higher Education and Training and Senior Consultant : Teaching and Learning. Research interests include academic development, staff and students in rural based institutions, ICT for education in resource constrained contexts.

Lisa Lucas is Associate Professor in Higher Education at the School of Education, University of Bristol, UK. She is Co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET). Her research involves an international perspective on changing systems and policy on higher education, social justice and equity in higher education.

Sue Timmis is Associate Professor in Education at the School of Education, University of Bristol, UK. She has researched and published widely on students’ lived experiences of higher education, particularly in relation to inequalities, decoloniality, digital cultures, pedagogies and social justice. She co-led (with Thea de Wet) the SARiHE project on rurality and transitions to higher education in South Africa from 2016 -2019.  

Sheila Trahar is Professor Emerita of International Higher Education, University of Bristol, UK. She has published widely on internationalisation and social justice in higher education, which have long been the focus of her intellectual scholarship. Her work is innovative in the field for its use of narrative inquiry and autoethnography.


Contact information

For more information or queries, please contact Dr Sue Timmis, Associate Professor in Education, University of Bristol:

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