‘Fail rule’ spawns ‘rotating’ cohort of vulnerable students

Australian move to deny government subsidies to students who bomb out makes things worse for them, and no better for taxpayers

三月 14, 2023
Volunteers run around prior to a failed attempt to break the World Twister record
Source: Getty

Australia’s “fail rule” may have delivered the worst of all worlds, saving nobody any money while it forces struggling students to sever links with support staff and classmates.

Administrators say the rule, a late inclusion in the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reforms, could have induced thousands of students to switch courses or institutions to avoid losing funding entitlements.

Under JRG, bachelor’s and higher degree students lose access to government subsidies once they have attempted eight subjects in the same course at the same institution, and failed to successfully complete at least half of them. For sub-bachelor’s students, the rule kicks in after they have attempted four subjects.

The provision was intended to prevent academically weak students from incurring “significant debt” while earning “limited or no benefits”, according to an explanatory document. But critics warned that students would simply change courses or institutions to retain eligibility to subsidies.

That now appears to be happening. “Students are not necessarily leaving the sector – they’re just rotating,” said Tracy Harris, dean of Swinburne College. “It is happening at the diploma level [and] without a doubt the same thing would be happening at the university level.”

The rule has applied since the beginning of 2022 and, as head of a pathway college offering sub-bachelor qualifications, Ms Harris was among the first to witness its impacts. Her full-time students take four subjects each term, and some of them had fallen foul of the requirement within months.

Bachelor’s students are now confronting the same impediment after attempting eight subjects last year. The head of domestic admissions at a metropolitan university, who asked not to be named, said about 50 of its students had changed courses or institutions this year to retain their funding entitlements.

He said the “brutal, rushed, simplistic” rule left students with no other option. “It doesn’t allow the university to provide more remedial support. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rural, remote, Aboriginal, first-in-family – any of those groups are going to have difficulties of varying degrees transitioning to university.”

Evidence suggests that these difficulties subside over time. Research by the Grattan Institute thinktank has found that subject fail rates for first-year domestic students are about 4 percentage points higher than in subsequent years.

Ms Harris said transitional problems had been acute following Covid lockdowns, as students emerged from years of social isolation. “They came into a tertiary study environment and couldn’t cope. Or they thought they were doing OK up until week 10, and then the wheels fell off.

“They’ve had a wake-up call so maybe they’d engage better with our student supports, if we had a second chance with them. That would be a better option than just saying ‘You’re out after your first teaching period’, where they then have to get to know a new institution and teachers.”

Writing in Campus Morning Mail, consultant Claire Field said the rule appeared to have created “a hidden, circulating cohort of vulnerable students desperately needing more support and unable to gain it at the institution of their choice”.

With close to 300,000 Australians starting university bachelor’s and sub-bachelor’s courses each year, and failing or dropping out of about 15 per cent of the subjects they attempt, the number of students affected could reach tens of thousands. The rule has been raised in about a dozen submissions to the Universities Accord review of the sector.




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