Does Australia have a spiralling student attrition rate?
Sep 15, 2016 | News | by Kate Jackson
“Drop-out rates in Australian universities have reached their highest level in a decade,” proclaimed the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
On the same day, higher education representative body Universities Australia stated: “Attrition rates have remained steady since 2005. This is a big achievement for Australian universities.”
The low attrition rates of some universities mask the soaring rates of others - giving a picture of national stability which is only partially accurate.
But a figure of up to one in five students dropping out also fails to reflect the picture at the majority of Australian universities.
Latest federal education figures show individual universities record markedly different drop-out rates - and the gap between those that do and don’t manage to retain their students is growing.
Around one in five students dropped out of university in 2014 (the most recent year of data available) but NSW (13 per cent), the ACT (13 per cent), Victoria (14 per cent), SA (15 per cent), WA (15 per cent) and Queensland (16 per cent) experienced much lower attrition rates than Tasmania (38 per cent) and the Northern Territory (26 per cent).
The attrition rates of universities within the same state also varied considerably - in NSW, Charles Sturt, Southern Cross and the University of New England lost between 22 and 25 per cent of their 2014 student cohort, while UNSW recorded a dropout rate below 5 per cent and Sydney University of 6 per cent.
Richard James, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, refutes Universities Australia’s claims that the rapid expansion of student numbers following introduction of a demand-driven system had not affected attrition.
He told The Australian that while high-retention universities were getting better at retaining students, the low-retention universities “have got worse”.
“This is a direct effect of the demand-driven system. The more aggressive recruiters are out there but the value proposition is not quite there for students,” he said.
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the body responsible for regulating the sector, confirmed it had spoken to individual universities about their drop-out rates and will release a report into the causes of attrition in coming weeks.
A lack of academic preparedness is seen as a major driver of attrition - caused in part by the relaxing of entry criteria allowing students with lower academic scores to enter higher education, and by the ineffectiveness of some transition programs for those entering universities through non-ATAR* pathways.
The expansion in online degrees over the past decade is another likely factor in the rise of drop-outs from some courses.
Education minister Simon Birmingham says the sector must take responsibility for the welfare of the students it enrols.
"Student experiences show there's a range of factors that lead to student attrition and it is going to take concerted efforts from educators and policymakers to reduce it," he said.
"Universities and higher education providers in particular must take responsibility for the students they enrol because the attrition rate has hovered around 15 per cent for the last decade."
Senator Birmingham is soon to announce new measures to ensure clarity around university admissions following the conclusion of a review by the Higher Education Standards Panel.
*ATAR refers to the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank awarded to students at the end of Year 12