Universities that lower their entry requirements to fill undergraduate places risk increased dropout rates unless they provide additional support for students.
That is according to researchers who have watched Australia’s experience of lifting student number controls in 2012, which resulted in a number of institutions taking the opportunity to expand their intake significantly.
With student number controls being lifted in England for 2015-16 and the size of the applicant pool not expanding significantly, many observers predict that some universities with lower entry thresholds will look to enrol students who would not previously have entered higher education.
Data released recently by Australia’s Department of Education and Training show that the annual nationwide dropout rate rose in 2013 to 14.8 per cent, the highest level since 2005. Graduate employment prospects have also declined.
Andrew Norton, the higher education programme director at Australia’s Grattan Institute thinktank, said that “only around half” of the weaker academic applicants who had been taken on since the introduction of the demand-driven system in Australia were likely to complete a qualification.
He would be “surprised”, he said, if English universities did not take the opportunity to recruit students who previously would not have received a place.
Of Australia’s experience, Mr Norton said: “Inevitably, more students meant taking applicants with weaker school results, as well as more mature age students. We don’t know a lot about the academic background of these students, but they are more likely to study off-campus and part-time, two factors known to be associated with higher attrition.”
He said that Australian universities had been using more sophisticated data analysis to identify at-risk students more quickly, but these measures “have not stopped an overall upward trend in attrition”.
The key, he continued, might be to enrol weaker students on preparatory courses or diplomas before they can progress to a bachelor’s degree.
Hamish Coates, chair of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said that traditional entry standards were designed to control entry to a limited number of university places and that a demand-driven system called for new metrics that indicated whether students had the ability to succeed.
But, he stressed, if universities took students on, they should be “held to account” on their work to help those learners succeed.
“If they are opening their numbers up and getting non-traditional students in, it is completely immoral to admit students set up for failure,” Professor Coates said. “We need to provide more support for students and new forms of regulation to ensure institutions help students to succeed.”
The lifting of the numbers cap and the admission of more non-traditional students required universities to do more than just reassess their student support systems, Professor Coates added.
Institutions in a demand-led system also needed to review their teaching, he argued, because traditional methods of relying on academics to develop and deliver a course and to undertake assessment were likely to become unsustainable if student numbers grow significantly.
Professor Coates said that institutions should make greater use of technology to deliver the curriculum and to administer assessments, as well as to identify students who may be struggling.
“We can put a man on the moon, so we can teach a student to do maths through the use of technology and the use of highly trained academics,” he added.