Data deficiency plagues Australian retention efforts

While policy incentivises retention, approved leaves of absence are counted as attrition

June 30, 2022
 NSW Blues fans at the State of Origin series at Telstra Stadium in Sydney to illustrate Data deficiency plagues Australian retention efforts
Source: Getty

While Australian higher education policies are increasingly configured to incentivise retention and punish attrition, official data do not distinguish between students who drop out and those who take approved leaves of absence.

Researchers have urged Canberra to measure student success in a more nuanced way, by keeping tabs on the proportion of students who come back from periods of absence.

They say the government should adopt a similar approach to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, which reports the number and proportion of students who return to study after taking a year’s break.

The researchers, who undertook Australia’s first in-depth analysis of course deferrals and mid-study breaks, found their work hampered by deficient data. The Higher Education Information Management System, which is widely used for research as well as administrative purposes, does not capture information about sanctioned leaves of absence.

This exacerbated the challenge the researchers faced as they grappled with a hotchpotch of rules and terminology, with each university defining leave differently and granting it for different periods. “Large numbers of students on approved leave are classified as attrition each year,” the researchers report.

“Further work is required to document course and institutional mobility at more granular levels. Such work will be increasingly important as retention becomes a tenet of performance-based funding.”

Grants worth tens of millions of dollars are potentially at stake, with attrition helping to determine shares of performance-based funding. The stakes are arguably higher at the individual level, because students who do not successfully complete half their subjects can lose access to government teaching subsidies under the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reforms.

The students can regain access to subsidies if they change courses or institutions. But Andrew Harvey, who led the study as director of La Trobe University’s Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research, said these sorts of changes were not monitored properly at either the institutional or government level.

“We can track how many students at an institution level move to other institutions, but that’s it,” said Professor Harvey, now professor of education at Griffith University. “You don’t really know where your students are going or which ones are transferring institutions.

“Performance-based funding and other legislative instruments are putting pressure on universities to increase their retention. But we’re almost flying blind. We really don’t know why students leave and therefore how to try and get them back.”

The JRG rules have helped boost universities’ awareness of their students’ movements. La Trobe deputy vice-chancellor Jessica Vanderlelie said her university had developed interventions to identify “ghost students” early on, rather than waiting for them to be tagged as “non-participating enrolments” at the end of the semester.

“We can identify them based on a series of engagement measures,” Professor Vanderlelie told an Innovative Research Universities forum on JRG’s impacts. “Have they logged into the learning management system? Are they checking their emails? [We] connect with every student that’s identified as a potential non-participating enrolment [through] emails, SMS and phone calls.”

The programme identified hundreds of students who had “no intention of studying with us”, but had not got around to cancelling their enrolments, she said.

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