Student deferrals need more nuanced responses, says study

Australian research highlights need for more than a front-end focus on boosting diversity

June 17, 2022
Frayed rope near to break
Source: iStock

While universities tend to focus their diversity efforts at the admissions stage, research suggests that retaining non-traditional students can be as fraught as attracting them in the first place.

An Australian study has found that people who defer or discontinue their studies are often lost to higher education forever, with “equity” students at particular risk. Nine per cent of domestic undergraduates defer their degrees from the outset, with more than one-third of these people never commencing.

Another 22 per cent stop studying midstream, with almost three-quarters of them failing to return. Indigenous and low socio-economic status (SES) students are among the most likely to leave and the least likely to come back.

This affects not only the students but also their universities, which are battling financial pressures and low domestic demand. Low retention rates risk damaging their reputations and reducing their shares of performance-based funding.

Universities are boosting their efforts to keep students engaged, but the study found that they needed to adopt more “personalised” approaches – for example, with students who had deferred after failing to secure entry into their preferred courses.

“In such cases, it is in the interests of both the student and the university to explore alternative courses, pathways and options for engagement,” the researchers reported.

Frustrated study preferences are just one of the factors contributing to complex patterns of deferral and leave-taking. Regionally based undergraduates, for instance, are almost two and a half times as likely as their urban counterparts to defer after enrolling.

But they also prove about one-third more likely to commence their studies, suggesting that they deferred for “strategic” reasons such as saving money or qualifying for income support.

And while low-SES students are more likely to take leave than their wealthier peers, they prove significantly less likely to defer at the start – a finding in conflict with previous studies.

Lead author Andrew Harvey, director of the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research at La Trobe University, said low educational attainment, rather than socio-economic background, was driving deferrals. “Low SES gets conflated with low educational attainment…because of the way the schooling system streams and tracks everything. It’s a really common myth.”

Professor Harvey said a “main takeout” of the study was the need to better understand deferral and leave-taking, so that universities could respond more effectively. “We don’t have a good sense of why people leave and what might attract them back. Consequently, we have attrition rates that are worse than they should be.”

He said people often deferred or left for financial or health reasons “that universities can’t do much about. But we can do a lot more about getting them back.”

This particularly applied to Indigenous students, who were substantially less likely than their non-Indigenous peers to defer, but almost twice as likely to leave midway through their studies – and, having left, one-third less likely to return.

Professor Harvey said universities could not be blamed for high deferral rates. But mid-degree leave was a different matter, with students having experienced enough higher education to judge whether they belonged.

“To what extent is that playing out? It’s something we have never really quantified in Australia, but we know there’s lots of bias and discrimination on campus, as there is in society,” he said.

“This is not about achievement. It’s not about class. This is Indigenous students showing extraordinarily high rates of leave, and not returning from that leave.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs