Claims of student retention crisis in Australia ‘overblown’

Study finds dropout rate has remained static over course of decade

June 23, 2017
Source: istock

Any claims that Australian universities are facing a student dropout “crisis” are unfounded and “unnecessarily alarmist,” an expert panel has said.

The Higher Education Standards Panel, commissioned to look at the issue by education minister Simon Birmingham, said that recent media coverage of attrition rates had painted an overly gloomy picture of Australia’s higher education sector.

Overall, 15 per cent of students at Australian universities did not complete their course in 2015, roughly the same proportion as in 2005, says the paper, “Improving retention, completion and success in higher education”.

The study, published on 14 June, rejects claims that this non-completion rate was caused by lower admission standards linked to the rise in student numbers in recent years. 

“Common reasons cited for withdrawal are personal, including physical or mental health issues, financial pressures and other reasons often beyond institutional control,” the paper notes.

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said that the paper was further evidence that claims about university attrition rates were “overblown”. 

“It concludes yet again that students with the highest attrition rates are those most likely to be juggling university with jobs or caring for their families,” said Ms Robinson, who added this was “particularly true for students who are mature, part-time or studying online.”

The Australian government is considering linking a portion of public funding to institutional performance on retention, but Ms Robinson said that it was “important to note that the factors that lead most students to consider leaving their studies are often beyond the control of a university".

“This highlights the problem with attempting to tie funding to metrics such as attrition rates – you’d potentially penalise the universities that serve students who have the greatest challenges to complete a degree,” she said.

The fact that attrition rates had not risen since 2005 was “a real accomplishment…given the uncapping of student places, [in which] we have seen a huge increase in the number of university students, and rapid growth in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” added Ms Robinson.

The discussion paper suggests collecting better data to understand the factors driving attrition in more detail. 

“It’s by understanding even more about the students most at risk of attrition that we will continue to build on a very strong track record here in Australia," the paper says.

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