More than one in three Australian undergraduates fails to complete their three and four-year bachelor degrees within six years and at least three in every ten are unlikely ever to graduate, new research shows.
A longitudinal study by federal education department researchers of more than 130,000 students who began their courses in 1993 found that only 63 per cent had graduated by 1999. A report of the study estimates that no more than 70 per cent will eventually finish.
The report says women are more likely to complete their courses than men, and that full-time students and those from metropolitan areas and well-to-do families are most likely to graduate. Students who study full time have significantly higher completion rates (70 per cent) than part-timers (53 per cent), while 44 per cent of external students graduate.
Indigenous students are less successful at university than white Australians, with only 35 per cent of the 1993 cohort completing their degrees by 1999.
Federal education minister Brendan Nelson said the department was looking at what he described as a serious problem that would be a major focus of his attention this year. But he defended the overall success rate, arguing that Australia performed better than many other countries.
The National Union of Students said the results were disappointing and showed the government was making it harder for students to complete their courses because it had failed to fund higher education properly. NUS president Moksha Watts said the overall completion rate highlighted the lack of access that students had to income support, welfare assistance and services.
The vice-chancellors' committee noted that students were more likely to mix study with other parts of their lives, such as work, travel, other forms of training and raising a family. A spokeswoman said students needed flexibility to start and finish their degrees in a way that was meaningful for them.