‘Benefits exceed costs’ for many Australian university dropouts

But Grattan Institute report urges government, institutions to steer those unlikely to finish towards cost-saving early exit

April 29, 2018
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University dropouts in Australia are surprisingly upbeat about their experiences, with more than half claiming to have benefited from their incomplete studies, although almost two-thirds say that they would be better off if they had finished.

Many emerge burdened with “debt and regret”, with about two in five saying that they would not do it again and one in five stating that they got nothing out of it, while one in eight say that completing would have left them worse off.

The findings are detailed in a report by the Grattan Institute thinktank that says that the Australian government should advise people about the risks of non-completion – and how to avoid it – on its Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website.

The report also says that universities can do more to identify students likely to fail and to shepherd them out before they squander too much time and money.

The research was based on eight years of Education Department data, primarily involving a student identifier number used for tax purposes, and Grattan’s survey of more than 700 university dropouts.

Universities should also apprise would-be students of the risks, the report advises. And universities should ensure that current students have “a credible plan for catching up” if they are not taking enough subjects to finish their degrees in timely fashion, it argues.

If that does not solve the problem, the report says, the government should consider obliging students to recommit to their studies by confirming their enrolments – ideally before the “census date” when they start accruing debts.

Andrew Norton, lead author on the report, conceded that this would be a major administrative exercise for universities and that some students could “accidentally disenroll themselves”. He said that it would be best to focus attention on those who were clearly at risk of dropping out “rather than involving every student”.

The study found that identifying vulnerable students was surprisingly easy, with those engaged in part-time study most likely to drop out. The vast majority of students at high risk – those as likely to leave as to finish – attempted fewer than five subjects in their first year.

Of the 18 per cent of commencing bachelor students who studied part-time, two in five did not make it past the first year. People who had failed previous degrees were also twice as likely to drop out as those who had succeeded in earlier attempts at tertiary study, and school-leavers ranked outside the top 40 per cent of academic performance were more than twice as likely to leave as those in the top 10 per cent.

Studying online, however, made little difference to people’s propensity to drop out. Mr Norton said that this was one of the study’s most surprising findings, given that Education Department analyses had found online study to be a key predictor of non-completion.

This finding, he suggested, was a result less of the mode of study and more a reflection of the fact that many online students were part-time and mature aged.

Mr Norton said that students’ unexpectedly positive survey responses on dropping out had triggered a “change in direction” in the study, and that policymakers should take a more nuanced view of attrition.

“A large number said that they’d do the whole thing again despite knowing how things would turn out,” he said. “It really suggests that the benefits exceeded the costs for many people.

“The key thing is not necessarily to stop people giving university a try. But if it’s not working out, they should leave as soon as they can.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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