Huge university expansion but drop-out rate unchanged

The proportion of students dropping out of Australia’s universities is about the same as it was a decade ago – despite a dramatic expansion of access to a larger and more diverse group of students than ever before – according to the peak body Universities Australia.

But there was no reference in the Universities Australia press release to the fact that one in three Australians still fail to complete their university courses. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham released figures earlier this year showing a drop-out rate of 33%.

“We've heard too many stories about students who have changed courses, dropped out because they made the wrong choices about what to study, students who didn't realise there were other entry pathways or who started a course with next to no idea of what they were signing themselves up for,” Birmingham said.

The data showed that students who studied off campus, part-time and who were from low socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to drop out.

In its release, Universities Australia reported that enrolments were stable – if slightly lower than the rate of population growth. Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said this demolished claims by critics of the nation’s higher education system that its growth rate was unsustainable.

“Universities are powerful vehicles to enhance social mobility and equity,” Jackson said. “Australia’s universities have actually achieved something extraordinary – while vastly expanding access, attrition rates remain broadly where they were when a university education was limited to the privileged few.”

According to federal statistics, a total of 1.46 million domestic and international students were enrolled in universities in 2016, an increase of 3.3% on the previous year. Of these, 1.07 million were Australians, a 1.8% rise, and 391,000 were international students, a 7.7% increase.

The fees paid by foreign students, as well as their spending while studying in Australia, were estimated to contribute more than AU$20 billion (about US$15 billion) to the national economy in 2016, up 8% on the previous year.

Jackson said that since the federal government agreed to fund an expansion in university access in 2008, Australia had achieved a 55% growth in enrolments from low socio-economic groups, a 48% rise in regional and rural student numbers, an 89% increase in indigenous enrolments, and 106% growth in numbers of students with a disability.

Many reasons for dropping out

“For students who drop out, the top reasons are health or stress, juggling work-life balance, the need to do paid work, their overall workload, and financial difficulties,” Jackson said.

She said that mature-age, part-time, disadvantaged and online students generally had the greatest challenges in completing their degrees. This was why initiatives such as the government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program were crucial, not only for equity reasons but also to keep attrition rates down.

“When people call for a crackdown on attrition, surely they don’t want to see mums juggling study with a job, or the worker who wants to study online being turned away because they are from groups with traditionally higher attrition rates?” Jackson said.

“People are making complicated – and sometimes deeply personal – decisions to withdraw from study when life gets in the way. We shouldn’t pressure students to stay enrolled if they need to care for a dying parent, for instance, and they should feel welcome to return when the time is right.”

Jackson said universities were working hard to support students to stay enrolled where that was the right choice for them. But often there were reasons beyond anyone’s control why people withdrew from study.

She added that economic modelling showed Australia would need another 3.8 million skilled graduates by 2025. This meant that government needs to continue investing in a strong and high-quality university system that offered all Australians the opportunity to gain the skills they would need in an era of rapid change.

This was precisely why government plans to slash spending on higher education would be wrong for Australia’s future, Jackson said.