The Productivity Commission report released on Monday claimed the introduction of demand-driven university places had led to a spike in attrition of students at universities in Australia. That’s simply not true. That misinterpretation of what’s happening at our universities may do significant damage to the work universities are doing to build a more diverse and inclusive Australia.
On the contrary, reliable data from both the Higher Education Standards Panel and the tertiary education regulator TEQSA tell us attrition has remained constant at around 15 per cent. Sally Kift, an internationally renowned scholar researching what happens to students when they arrive at university, is firm. Most students stay. The good news is that more varied student cohorts have entered higher education, a great relief to all of us wanting Australia to reflect the entirety of its population. And truly, I hate that jargon as much as you do, but we can’t have an educated elite which doesn’t look like the population of our country.
Here is what’s wrong. The data the Productivity Commission uses is from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth – youth being the defining characteristic. Once you’re 25, LSAY (and therefore the Productivity Commission) is just not interested. This decision to focus on a very narrow age cohort excludes a number of students. It is also looking at a point in time, so if by age 25, an individual student has not completed the qualification, that’s considered attrition.
Yet the way students study and complete degrees these days is very different to what it used to be. The classrooms in which I teach are no longer filled with school leavers. Nearly a quarter of undergraduates are 25 or older; and nearly one third of first year students are over 20.
The report makes some useful points – universities must do better with Indigenous students, must do better with students from regional Australia, but to say that widened participation has led to more dropouts is inaccurate. If there is a slight decline coming, it has more to do with other factors, including the necessity for students to work while they are at university.
That is the one defining characteristic of university students now. They work. Even those students who used to live at home without a care or bill in the world now contribute to their families. Many even attempt to work full-time while carrying a full-time study load. That is crushingly hard.
It can be confronting, as an academic, to hear a student say they put their paid work ahead of their academic success. And even more confronting to hear them say they are planning to drop out.
Kift is Australia’s leading scholar on the experience of first year students at university. She says students drop out for so many reasons: health and stress, study-life balance, workload difficulties, need to do paid work and financial difficulties. “Students, just like the general population, have complicated lives, which impact on their studies.” But, she says, there is robust evidence showing no spike in attrition, which has been relatively steady over the last decade, including over the years of the demand-driven system.
There is, with this government in power, no point calling for a rebirth of demand-driven funding. The Coalition cares little about the university sector nor has it displayed any great interest in the ideas of diversity and inclusion. It can and will cut funding to the tertiary education sector, which will have a massive impact on both student numbers and university offerings. I also fear, as the Productivity Commission report points out, that with reduced funding will come increased theft of funding for university research from money which should stay to support teaching.
The Grattan Institute’s higher education program director Andrew Norton says acquiring a bachelor‘s degree increases the prospects of getting a better job. There may not be enough professional jobs but qualifications matter, particularly at a time of increased competition in a tight job market. That may not work to convince the government to change its setting on university funding.
Chief executive officer of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson agrees attrition has been consistent over time and concedes there is clearly more work to be done by universities and policy makers to address the significant barriers that remain to successful study.
“Students from low socio-economic backgrounds, rural and Indigenous are really important sources of talent,” she says. Doing better by all those groups is challenging but important work.
But that’s one challenge which won’t be made easier by a funding model which asks higher education to do more with less. Jackson is optimistic about the future. I hope she has more insight than me.
In the meantime, expect universities to do everything they can to hold on to their international students. The good universities will put in place a truckload of measures to improve their English standards and to use the extra funding they provide to do so. UTS has just built a framework for English-language support which begins on day one. I’m pretty sure it won’t just be international students who benefit.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald