Almost since taking office, Education Minister Simon Birmingham has reiterated the Coalition’s commitment to allowing universities to recruit as many students as they wish. It is what the higher education sector has called “the demand driven system”.
Birmingham has, however, emphasised that universities should not admit students who are unlikely to complete their program. University attrition rates have increased from 12.5% in 2009 before the demand driven system was phased in to 14.8% in 2014.
Universities have been increasing enrolments to bolster revenue but some haven’t selected students with enough care and provided them with enough support to ensure they succeed.
According to at least one report, the forthcoming budget on 3 May will include “penalties for institutions with high attrition rates”.
Just how that will be done is not entirely clear since attrition rates depend on numerous factors, only a minority of which can be influenced by institutions.
So what do we know about who is likely to dropout and why? And what can universities do to reduce dropout rates?
Who’s most at risk?
Latest research published in 2015 found that completion rates were lower for Indigenous students, part-time students, external students, students over 25 years, remote students and students from low socio and economic backgrounds.
It also found that students’ dropout rate was increased by being members of multiple risk groups.
If universities were penalised simply for having an unusually high dropout rate their rational response would be to admit only young, full time, metropolitan and non Indigenous students from high socio-economic backgrounds.
So presumably the government will follow its previous practice of adjusting financial penalties and rewards for universities by students’ type of attendance, age, location, socio-economic status, ethnicity, field of study and other characteristics.
All this is deeply unhelpful if the aim is to reduce student attrition and increase completion rates as it focuses attention on students, who are surely the victims of attrition in their lost potential, lost fees, lost earnings and loss of confidence in their learning.
And it ignores the big majority of variance in student attrition which is either not explained by the statistical data that is available or is not due to students’ demographics.
It is far better to concentrate on what governments, institutions, faculties, departments and teachers can do to reduce attrition.
The literature is vast and what works depend very much on each subject, program, institution, attendance type and study mode. But here are four actions which are useful generally.
1. Develop students’ involvement and sense of belonging
One of the most frequently cited factors supporting retention is developing students’ involvement in and sense of belonging to their institution, faculty or department.
Students “belong” to their university in different ways. Some students associate with a specific place on campus where they and their fellow students congregate, such as a common room for economics freshers or a “safe space” for minority students.
Many students develop their institutional belonging from participating in extra curricular activities such as sport, religion, debating and political activism on campus which advocates of so-called “voluntary student unionism” keep trying to close down.
2. Support student transition and interaction
Students are better integrated into their studies if they get a comprehensive orientation and induction into their studies.
A diversity of good teaching-learning methods is central to engaging students. Student success and thus retention is supported by promoting interaction between teachers, students and fellow students.
3. Give early and frequent feedback on progress
Students need a clear understanding of what is expected of them, an early indication of their capacity to meet those expectations, and encouragement and support if they are not meeting learning goals.
Constructive and supportive formative assessment should be administered early in each subject. Students are more likely to persist if they are given frequent feedback on their progress.
4. Improve student funding and support
Disadvantaged students are more likely to drop out because of pressures of finance, family obligations, health or stress and “getting by”.
This suggests completion rates would be increased by the government improving its weak student income support and increasing support for child care, health and other student services.