The latest Selected Higher Education Statistics have revealed an increase in student attrition, or the percentage of students commencing in 2013 who neither completed nor re-enrolled in 2014.
In 2013, the national figure for domestic commencing bachelor students in all higher education providers was 14.79%, compared to 13.43% in 2012. This attrition rate is the highest it has been since 2005, when it was 15.04%.
It is likely that the demand-driven system has had an effect on attrition rates, as the increase in attrition has come at the same time as an increase in enrolments. Also, since the introduction of the demand-driven system, offers to students with ATARS of 60 or below have increased from 9.4% in 2009 to 12.5% in 2014.
But it is worthwhile noting the national attrition rate in 2005 of 15.04% was recorded seven years before the demand-driven system was implemented. There are also significant differences in attrition rates between fields of study, student demographics and between institutions. This deserves further analysis.
There is a fair degree of consensus in regard to a correlation between increasing attrition rates and the introduction of the demand-driven system. However, determining the consequences, both positive and negative, of the increase in attrition rates is more complex.
Each student who does not complete their degree leaves university without a qualification but with a HECS debt. There is also a cost to the nation.
However, in general, these students will benefit from their exposure to higher education and many may return at a later stage. What would assist in following trends would be if the Department of Education and Training were to publish figures each year showing the number of students who returned to study after leaving their studies for more than one year. That would give us a clearer picture of the true nature of attrition within the system.
Although it is not possible to quantify precisely, we know that many more capable students have been able to access higher education as a result of the demand-driven system than were able to previously. Between 2010 and 2014, enrolments among Australian public universities increased by almost 20%.
As of 2014, the removal of caps has allowed an additional student to enter the system for every four positions available at 2010 levels of enrolment. For each student who commenced in 2013 but did not return in 2014, there were many more who will successfully complete. They would not have had the opportunity to do so under the previous, capped, system.
Alternatives for supporting students
There are a number of ways in which students might be better supported without reducing access to higher education, or returning to a capped system. The 2013 review of the demand-driven system proposed extending it to sub-bachelor places, to:
… address student quality concerns about lower ATAR entrants, by increasing their academic preparation before they enter a bachelor‑degree course.
Another alternative pathway is offered by “enabling programs”. These are shorter (usually six months), not-for-degree academic programs designed specifically to prepare students for university studies.
Unlike sub-bachelor (for example diploma) courses they are not a qualification in and of themselves. And also unlike sub-bachelor programs, they are usually provided at no charge to the student. Enabling pathways have very high attrition rates, around 50%.
However, as an Office of Learning and Teaching research project found, this is actually a good thing. It allows students unprepared for university study to find this out before they are financially committed to a three-year bachelor degree. The researchers observed:
This is not only good economics but also serves the goals of equity and social justice, delivering wider benefits to society as a whole.
This is particularly the case for students from particular disadvantaged backgrounds, such as regional and remote students and low-socioeconomic-status students. Previous research into whether or not sub-bachelor (like vocational training) programs are also effective for the students suggests this may not be the case.
Currently, the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education is conducting a national survey into the efficacy of both enabling and sub-bachelor pathways for disadvantaged students.
This involves comparing attrition and success rates for students transitioning via both pathways, as well as surveying the experiences of more than 2500 of these students who are enrolled in university studies. The results will be published later this year.
Better support needs to be offered to students post-enrolment to ensure they successfully complete their studies. The more diverse our student population becomes, and the more diverse their prior educational backgrounds, the more diverse our universities need to be in supporting their educational needs.