AUSTRALIA-NZ: More academic-student contact needed

Universities should increase student interaction with academics because this is critical for the students' retention and graduate prospects, a new survey has found. A report of the survey notes that science students have the highest drop-out rate - a disappointing outcome given the shortage of science graduates in the Australasian workforce.

The results also indicate a mismatch between academics' expectations and student input, as well as the need for students to undertake more 'broadening-type activities' such as internships, work-related learning and so on.

The survey found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds engage and succeed on a par with those from better-off families. The report suggests that to improve labour force outcomes, students need careers information and advice embedded in the curriculum.

The Australasian Survey of Student Engagement is a validated and established collection of data from first and later-year students, from coursework postgraduates and from teaching staff. It collects real-time evidence of behaviour and support.

Instead of focusing on student satisfaction/agreement, the survey provides evidence about what students are actually doing, highlights the most critical aspects of student learning and development, provides a 'learner centred, whole-of-institution' perspective and gives an index of student involvement in study and other relevant activities.

Or so it says in the Quick Facts introduction to the recent Australian Council of Educational Research report Doing more for learning: Enhancing engagement and outcomes.

This is not your common or garden student survey. It is not a happiness/satisfaction survey but rather investigates how people are learning and the key outcomes of study, including dropping out.

Thirty-five universities from Australia and New Zealand have worked collaboratively over the last four years to produce the largest collection of education data ever assembled.

The primary aim is to develop a source of information about student engagement with learning. The organisers hope the data will be used to stimulate evidence-focused conversations that will lead to the enhancement of student engagement and student outcomes.

The collection is based on the US National Survey of Student Engagement which draws information from more than 750 universities in North America.

The Australian survey started in 2007. Before then these areas had not been the focus of wide-scale measurement in Australasia. More than 30,000 responses were secured, including 2,700 from on-shore international students.

From this year, the survey scope is to be expanded by collecting data from a range of non-university higher education providers. The 2009 AUSSE report is available on the University World News website.

* Hamish Coates is a principal research fellow at the Australian Council of Educational Research. Ian R Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News and editor of Australian Universities' Review.