Some universities better at tackling student drop-out

About one in seven of the nearly one million Australian university students will drop out of their courses during the three or four years they spend as undergraduates.

Remarkably, however, the roughly 15% attrition rate has barely changed over the past decade even though local student numbers have increased by more than a third in that time.

A new report by the Australian Higher Education Standards Panel, Improving Retention, Completion and Success in Higher Education, says the institution a student attends has the largest influence on drop-out rates over all other variables.

That is, whether it is a typical Australian university or a private tertiary or some other type of degree-granting organisation, attrition rates tend to be lowest at the top universities and greatest in private colleges.

The second strongest factor is type of attendance: Part-time students are more likely to withdraw from their studies than those enrolled full-time, while the third most important factor is the ‘mode of attendance’.

Students undertaking their courses online or at a distance from their institution are more likely to drop out before finishing than are those studying on-campus or even enrolled part-time.

“Australia’s higher education attrition rates have been relatively stable for over a decade and it is clear many institutions already invest significantly to support their students,” the report says.

The panel experts make the obvious point that some institutions are more successful than others at retaining students. They add that “their methods and strategies are of interest to the entire higher education community”.

Although the great majority of Australia’s degree-awarding institutions have lower ‘adjusted attrition rates’ than a decade ago, a small number of others have experienced significant rises. When their results were excluded from the calculations, the overall attrition rate fell 0.5%.

“Innovation in higher education and the movement away from a traditional higher education experience to suit current and future labour market needs must be taken into account in current discussions on attrition,” the report states.

It notes that previous reviews have shown the ‘drivers of attrition’ to be the learning environment, teaching ability of lecturers, lack of student engagement, high student-staff ratios, insufficient help for students, and personal factors. These include financial, emotional, health or other life events that affect undergraduates.

The report also notes that recommendations from previous reviews to reduce attrition included better quality support services, more flexible entry requirements, improved teaching quality and ability, and a ‘more supportive institutional environment’.

Other factors involved closer monitoring of student progress and better provision of study support where necessary. Making an institution’s completion rates ‘transparent’ also appeared to have an impact on drop-out rates.

The discussion paper highlights the wide variation between the attrition rates of the different universities. It notes that some institutions are enabling ‘higher-risk students’ to succeed more successfully than others.

“Given the increase in the number and variability in students who have entered Australian higher education since the introduction of the demand driven system, [we] consider that institutions have done a good job in addressing attrition,” the report states.

But it urges every institution to develop its own retention strategy, ensure appropriate support for external students, “address student mental health and, where appropriate, increase their offerings of nested courses”.

“The panel sees great value in every institution developing a student-centred retention strategy, which is evaluated regularly, as a way of focusing management, staff and students towards a coordinated, integrated process for achieving student retention and success,” the report states.

All higher education institutions should have retention benchmarks, which could be incorporated into institution-specific retention strategies. These would take into account their student cohorts and student aspirations.

Online learning not flexible enough

Noting that online learning has become a significant part of university life for increasing numbers of students, the report says online students may not be receiving the ‘flexible and accessible learning’ it was supposed to provide.

“This situation highlights a broader issue, in that many online educators are using policies and protocols that are designed for traditional on-campus students without adequate adaptation for the online learner,” the report says.

“Considerable scope therefore exists for improving online learner satisfaction and retention by more effectively accommodating online student characteristics and needs.”

It also draws attention to the students who drop out, arguing that they have the potential to be re-recruited in subsequent years. Even those who are initially ‘adamant that they will never return to higher education’ can be attracted back.

“Our research has found that, with little institutional effort, around one half of ‘non-completers’ already return to higher education within eight years of their initial withdrawal. It is difficult to prevent many students from withdrawing, but relatively easy to support their re-enrolment.”

The report says this is a missed opportunity and institutions have the capacity to increase their enrolments by ‘engaging’ with students who have dropped out. This re-engagement practice should be part of an institution’s retention strategy.

The panel was also attracted to New Zealand’s National Student Number system whereby a number is assigned to any student enrolled with an education provider from early childhood education through to tertiary studies.

“The National Student Number has been valuable for monitoring and ensuring student enrolment and attendance, ensuring education providers and students receive appropriate resources,” the report says.

This not only means that students’ educational records are accurately maintained but also assists with student participation in online learning.

The report recommends that the federal Department of Education and Training similarly establishes a common student identifier to better understand student pathways across tertiary education.

This could then be extended so that state and territory governments adopt the identifier system across all levels of schooling.


Also, only the rich are allowed student accommodation at all top-tier universities in Australia.

Christopher MacHurambe on the University World News Facebook page