- monitor student academic performance more closely
- prevent students enrolling in too many subjects
- exclude students who fail more than half their subjects, except in special circumstances.
The problem with the new laws, which include withdrawal of funding for students who fail too many subjects, is they will push universities towards faster, and possibly premature, termination of student enrolments.
Failing is expensive
In 2018, nearly 17% of subjects taken by Commonwealth-supported students were not successfully completed. The students either failed or withdrew after the census date when they incur a HELP debt.
This lack of subject success is expensive. Exact costs are not published, but taken as a proportion of Commonwealth payments the fail-or-withdraw rate translates into nearly A$800 million in HELP debt and almost A$1.2 billion in subsidies to universities.
Some fails are avoidable
Some students fail subjects because, despite their best efforts and those of their teachers, their academic work is not satisfactory. We would worry about academic standards if the pass rate was 100%. But other failed subjects are potentially avoidable.
Sometimes students fail due to academic factors universities can do something about, such as by improving teaching or helping students who are falling behind.
Universities cannot control student life issues such as health, work and family matters. All of these are reasons students give for failing subjects. But universities can judge whether these issues are temporary or manageable. If so, they are not fundamental obstacles to future academic success.
Other students fail because they are not going to class, handing in essays or sitting tests. They have effectively dropped subjects or their course, but have not officially notified their university. The system then automatically registers HELP debts and fails.
When La Trobe University examined its records, it estimated a quarter of all fails were by “ghost students” who did not submit the work needed to pass. If these students can be encouraged to formally withdraw earlier, subject fails and HELP debts will decrease.
The government’s measures to reduce fails
The legislation has several measures intended to limit ghost enrolments and failed subjects.
Students would not be allowed to enrol in more than double the subjects a full-time student normally takes in a year, unless they had a demonstrated capacity to do so. University policies already prevent major subject overloads, as taking on too much increases the risk of failure.
By law, universities must check before enrolment that each prospective student is academically suited to their course. The new law would extend this requirement to the subject level.
How this would work in practice is unclear. With more than eight million subject enrolments a year, checking every one would be a massive exercise.
A 2018 Grattan Institute report I co-authored found that, of the 7% of commencing bachelor-degree students who failed all their first-semester subjects, a quarter continued and also failed all second-semester subjects. Future outcomes like that may signal non-compliance with the academic suitability law.
Finally, the legislation would give the government power to deprive universities of funding for students it deems not “genuine”. Genuineness indicators already used in private higher education institutions include whether students are reasonably engaged in the course, whether they have satisfied course requirements and, if the course is online, how many times they have logged on. These provisions target ghost students.
Consequences for students
As general themes, the ideas in the legislation are not inherently bad. Many reflect standard or common practices in higher education.
The problem is that universities have to balance the risks of further fails and HELP debt against the benefits of giving students a second chance.
If the legislation passes, universities will be nervous about being fined for breaching the academic suitability rule and losing funding for non-genuine students. This creates an incentive to end enrolments, possibly prematurely, after one bad semester.
Students who fail more than half their subjects, after taking at least eight in a bachelor degree, already face exclusion from their course. But the legislation would limit which factors universities can consider in making this decision.
Universities could take into account failures due to reasons beyond a student’s control, such as their own or a family member’s illness. But universities could not consider general difficulties adapting to university life, or other reasons a student could plausibly have controlled.
A different approach
Patterns of subject failure are worth investigating, to protect students put at unacceptably high risk of further fails and debt. But this task should be handled not by the Department of Education, which would implement these laws, but the Tertiary Education Quality and Standard Agency. Many subject fails are linked to the course admission, teaching quality and course retention matters that TEQSA already regulates.
TEQSA operates under a “regulatory necessity, risk and proportionality” principle, which lets it take a nuanced approach. Universities that put failing students at high risk of continued poor performance would have to improve their practices. But universities would still be free to consider the complex trade-offs of each individual case, without inflexible rules driving them to one conclusion.
Students should also be made more aware of the census date’s importance. A small Grattan Institute survey showed many students did not know what the census date was, or thought they did but gave an incorrect answer. A name change that highlights its significance, such as “payment date”, would encourage students to drop subjects sooner to avoid HELP debt and fails.
Although the government has identified a real problem, its heavy-handed regulation would create unnecessary red tape for universities and exclude students who should get a second chance.