Australian student satisfaction holds steady despite funding cuts

Theological institutions and other private and niche providers earn the best ratings

April 9, 2019
Happy and sad cardboard faces

Cuts to Australian university teaching grants in 2017 do not appear to have dented students’ appreciation of their courses, with satisfaction ratings virtually unchanged last year.

The 2018 Student Experience Survey has elicited results almost identical to those from 2017, with 79 per cent of undergraduates and 76 per cent of taught postgraduate students rating their overall educational experiences positively.

As in 2017, learning resources attracted the best ratings from both groups while learner engagement was regarded most poorly. Just 60 per cent of undergraduates and 53 per cent of postgraduates gave their learner engagement experiences the thumbs up.

Student satisfaction with teaching quality and learning resources improved by 1 percentage point among both undergraduates and postgraduates, with postgraduates also rating their skills development and learner engagement marginally more highly than in 2017. Commencing students also tended to regard their experiences more highly than their latter year peers.

The results come from a survey of almost 285,000 students from 41 Australian universities and 66 other higher education colleges. It followed the December 2017 freezing of teaching grants in a move universities warned would leave them saddled with almost 10,000 unfunded students, and diminish their capacity to serve regional Australia.

The new report shows that regional students rated their educational experience more highly than their metropolitan counterparts last year, although only marginally.

Education minister Dan Tehan said universities were “flourishing” under his government, and that they “must maintain a strong focus on the student experience”.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the “strong result” was consistent with previous surveys. “Australian universities are always innovating to enhance the quality of their teaching, learning and student support services,” she said.

“It’s also worth noting that the top reasons students cite for considering leaving their course are personal.”

Nineteen per cent of undergraduates said they had considered quitting their studies prematurely, compared to 20 per cent in 2017 and 18 per cent in 2016. As in 2017, the most cited reasons were health or stress, followed by study-life balance, and workload and financial difficulties.

The survey found that students performing poorly were most prone to early departure, with almost half of those reporting grades under 50 having contemplated leaving. People from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds also proved more likely to consider quitting than their well-heeled counterparts.

Private and niche institutions earned the highest undergraduate satisfaction ratings last year, led by the University of Divinity with 92 per cent, and Notre Dame and Bond universities with 89 per cent each. At the other end of the scale, Victoria University’s well-regarded block teaching model did not prevent it attracting Australia’s lowest university satisfaction rating of 72 per cent, followed by the University of Sydney and UNSW Sydney on 74 per cent.

The University of Divinity also elicited the top rating of 89 per cent from postgraduate students, followed by the University of New England with 83 per cent. At the University of Western Australia, just 70 per cent of postgraduates rated their experiences positively.

Non-university colleges proved more variable in their students’ estimation, with satisfaction ranging from 46 to 96 per cent. Four institutions – Adelaide Central School of Art, Moore Theological College, Jazz Music Institute and Campion College Australia – earned positive ratings from 95 per cent or more of their students.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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