Claims by critics in the Australian media that universities are facing a crisis of rising student drop-out rates because of poor admission standards, students unprepared for higher education, and increasing enrolments have been rejected by a new report. The government-commission report describes the claims as “unnecessarily alarmist and not borne out by the facts”.
In its report*, the Higher Education Standards Panel rejects claims that increasing student attrition rates are due to low admission standards, ill-prepared students, and are a direct result of Australia’s “demand driven” system.
Introduced by the former Labor government, the system encourages universities to enrol students who would typically never undertake university studies, notably those from low socio-economic families, migrants and indigenous communities.
The government promised it would cover the cost of increased enrolments and the past 10 years have seen dramatic rises in student numbers. Domestic student enrolments jumped from less than 700,000 in 2007 to almost 950,000 last year, a 38% increase. In the same period, foreign student enrolments rose from 215,500 to 303,000, or nearly 41%.
The standards panel reports that the attrition rate for Australian universities in 2014 was similar to the rate in 2005. Nevertheless, it says: “It could be argued that too many students take too long to complete their degrees or, conversely, that many students who look as though they have given up their studies later return to finish them. Certainly, many students who leave their studies in their first year return to higher education and complete their studies within nine years.”
The report says a key turning point in improving student completions was when students began paying a greater contribution to the cost of their courses, although with support from income contingent loans: “In this century there have been fluctuations in retention – and significant variations by institution – but no clear worsening of the overall situation.”
Recent research has found the most likely factors contributing to student attrition are part-time attendance, followed by age and academic preparation, it says, adding that these predictors, however, “are relatively weak”.
Research by academics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University found much of student attrition was either unpredictable or inevitable. Common reasons cited by students for withdrawing were personal, including physical or mental health issues, financial pressures and other reasons often beyond institutional control.
“This may help to explain the relative inelasticity of national attrition data over time. For this reason, higher education providers necessarily operate on the basis that not all students will complete their degrees and subsequently there will never be nil attrition.”
Last year, the Deputy Chief Executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, wrote that some critics assumed the rise in student numbers was to blame for higher attrition rates. But Jackson said if this were true “the universities enrolling the biggest numbers would also have the biggest drop-out rates, and they don’t”.
“What the data actually tells us is that the universities with the highest proportion of mature-age and part-time students have the highest attrition rates. And that makes sense. These students are much more likely to be juggling university study with jobs, children or caring for elderly parents,” she said.
“One thing that is sure is that a 15% attrition rate is relatively stable – it is 15% now like it was 15% about a decade ago. Given this has coincided with a huge influx of new students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, keeping attrition rates pretty stable is a major achievement. But if we are to get the rates down, we need to dig into the causes, ask who is leaving university before completing their degree and why?”
The standards panel report says media coverage of Australian higher education attrition was “unnecessarily alarmist” and had misrepresented the scale of the problem, using raw attrition rates that were unadjusted for the impact of students changing courses or institutions.
“Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to be complacent about the issue. Institutions should seek to reduce the level of non-completion ... That is why [the panel] recommended further consideration should be given to assessing the factors and approaches that contribute to student success, completion and attrition rates in higher education.
“If we wish to maximise the economic benefits of public investment in higher education, the government and the public also need to be assured that everything possible is being done to ensure students have the best chance of successfully completing their enrolled units, courses and qualifications.”
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the panel’s report was further evidence that claims about university attrition rates had been overblown. She said universities were “always looking at how best to support students to stay on and complete a degree”.
“We will work with the panel to explore how we can be even more effective. But it’s also important to note that the factors that lead most students to consider leaving their studies are often beyond the control of a university. This highlights the problem with attempting to tie funding to metrics like attrition rates. You’d potentially penalise the universities that serve students who have the greatest challenges to complete a degree.”
Federal Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham asked the standards panel late last year to examine the factors driving completion and attrition rates. Its final report on attrition will be sent to government later this year.
* Improving retention, completion and success in higher education, Higher Education Standards Panel Discussion Paper, June 2017.
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