20 June 2017


The Higher Education Standards Panel Discussion Paper 'Improving retention, completion and success in higher education' questions media alarmism (shared by at least one university) regarding student attrition.

The discussion paper comments
 In November 2016 the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham asked the Higher Education Standards Panel (the Panel) to examine:
• the trends and factors driving completions and attrition 
• the adequacy of existing data on completions and attrition and improvements that can enhance transparency and institutional accountability  
• strategies institutions can pursue to support student success and course completion in higher education 
• ways in which the identification of students at risk of non-completion, and the adoption of evidence-based support strategies to maximise their opportunity to succeed, can be systematically embedded in provider practice.
There have been claims that there is a crisis in attrition rates in Australian higher education. In September 2016, following the release of 2015 student data by the Department of Education and Training (the department), media reports stated that high attrition rates are symptomatic of poor admission standards; the lower a student’s Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) the greater the risk of non-completion; and as a result of the demand driven system, higher student numbers are leading to greater numbers of student drop-outs. 
The facts do not support these assertions.
There is a long history of concern about higher education student attrition and the factors driving it. Since the 1950s, when the Australian Government claimed a role in higher education funding, there have been numerous reviews and various recommendations into how to support students in the completion of their degrees. It appears the key turning point in improving student completions was when students began paying a greater contribution of the cost of their course, although with support from income contingent loans.
In this century there have been fluctuations in retention - and significant variations by institution -but no clear worsening of the overall situation. The attrition rate for Australian universities in 2014 is similar to what it was in 2005, despite some movement during that period . The attrition rate fell from 15.04 per cent in 2005 down to a low of 12.48 per cent in 2009, before rising over the remainder of the period to 15.18 per cent in 2014.
Attrition rates for non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) are complex to measure and difficult to compare to university attrition rates. It is clear that students at NUHEPs have higher attrition rates and lower completion rates compared to Table A and B universities. However, their record is improving. The normal attrition rate for NUHEPs in 2007 was 35.90 per cent and this has dropped to 26.20 per cent in 2014. The completion gap between universities and NUHEPs has slightly narrowed.
It could be argued that too many students take too long to complete their degrees or, conversely, that many students who look as though they have given up their studies later return to finish them. Certainly, many students who leave their studies in their first year return to higher education and complete their studies within nine years . Recent research by La Trobe University verified this and found a large number of students return to an institution after only one year of absence . Nevertheless, first year attrition is very highly correlated with overall nine year completion rates. Thus it remains a useful leading indicator both of provider and student cohort performance.
It could be argued that, as increasingly happens in the vocational education sector, students may be satisfied that the courses they have undertaken give them what employers need and that it is not necessarily important that they fail to achieve certification. With respect to degrees this is not persuasive. Completion is important because only when students complete their qualifications is the learning truly portable. Without certification students and the economy as a whole are unlikely to realise the full potential impact on lifetime earnings and productivity gains that higher education offers. The nature of the investment by individuals and taxpayers alike is diminished.
So what factors influence the likelihood of student success? Recent research has found the most likely factors contributing to student attrition are part-time attendance, followed by age and academic preparation, as measured by a person’s ATAR. However, these predictors are relatively weak. The La Trobe University study found much of student attrition is either unpredictable or inevitable. Common reasons cited for withdrawal are personal, including physical or mental health issues, financial pressures and other reasons often beyond institutional control. This may help to explain the relative inelasticity of national attrition data over time.
For this reason, higher education providers necessarily operate on the basis that not all students will complete their degrees and subsequently there will never be nil attrition.
In 2016, Deputy Chief Executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson wrote:
Some have assumed that growing student numbers have been to blame for growing attrition rates, and you can see this is an easy assumption to make. But if this were true, the universities that were enrolling the biggest numbers would also have the biggest drop out rates, and they don’t.
What the data actually tells us is that the universities with the highest proportion of mature age and part-time students have the highest attrition rates. And that makes sense. These students are much more likely to be juggling university study with jobs, children or caring for elderly parents.
One thing that is sure is that 15 per cent attrition rate is relatively stable — it is 15 per cent now like it was 15 per cent about a decade ago. Given this has coincided with a huge influx of new students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, keeping attrition rates pretty stable is a major achievement.
But if we are to get the rates down, we need to dig into the causes, ask who is leaving university before completing their degree and why? 
The Panel stands by the view expressed in its November 2016 report, Improving the Transparency of Higher Education Admissions, that media coverage of Australian higher education attrition in September 2016 was ‘unnecessarily alarmist’. Reports misrepresented the scale of the problem, using raw attrition rates that were unadjusted for the impact of students changing courses or institutions. Nevertheless it is not appropriate to be complacent about the issue. Institutions should seek to reduce the level of non-completion. That is why the Panel, in its earlier report, recommended that further consideration should be given to assessing the factors and approaches that contribute to student success, completion and attrition rates in higher education. The Panel sees it important to interrogate the reason for attrition because it represents a lowering of the return on investment in education both for the individual student and government.
The Panel fully supports the Government’s response to our earlier report:
Enrolment is only the first step in the journey to a qualification and productive employment. If we wish to maximise the economic benefits of public investment in higher education, the Government and the public also need to be assured that everything possible is being done to ensure students have the best chance of successfully completing their enrolled units, courses and qualifications .
As indicated above, however, issues of retention, completion and success are not new. There have been countless reports and reviews conducted by government, research agencies, individual institutions and academics. Many providers have processes and strategies in place to assist students to complete their qualifications. These can include detailed and resource intensive interventions designed to identify students at risk of attrition or non-completion and provide the support necessary to assess their risks. Retention – the flipside of attrition – is a key element of those strategies.
The first part of this discussion paper provides a snapshot of the extensive work to date on retention, completion and success. It outlines some recent changes announced as part of the 2017-18 Budget, which have the potential to improve completion rates and reduce attrition rates, and it provides an analysis of the relevant trends and data. The second part of the paper examines how higher education providers and government are supporting students to make the right choices about their higher education and how students are being supported to remain in higher education once enrolled.
The paper reflects on the views of stakeholders who provided the Panel with feedback on retention, completion and success through their submissions to the 2016 work on admissions transparency, as well as the experience of a number of providers the department met with in the course of developing this paper.
The Panel is using this paper to pose a number of questions and flag new ideas for further discussion with Australia’s higher education community. Written submissions are invited and the Panel will be conducting targeted hearings to understand, first-hand, stakeholders’ thoughts on issues relating to student retention, completion and success.   
Questions to guide discussion
Setting expectations of completion
1. What should be the sector’s expectations of completion rates (or speed of completion)? 
Enhancing transparency 
2. What changes to data collection are necessary to enhance transparency and accountability in relation to student retention, completion and success? 
3. How could Government websites, such as QILT and Study Assist, be improved to assist students to make the right choices? For instance, how could student success, completions, retention and attrition data be made more accessible? Would a predictor for prospective students, such as a completions calculator, be useful and where would it best be situated? 
4. Can we enhance the tracking of students in tertiary education including movements between higher and vocational education (perhaps by linking the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number and the VET sector Unique Student Identifier)? 
Supporting students to make the right choices 
5. What strategies would further strengthen outreach and careers advice to assist students making decisions about higher education? (A list of strategies that have been suggested in this paper are at p66) Supporting students to complete their studies 6. What identification, intervention and support strategies are most effective in improving student completion? (A list of strategies that have been suggested in this paper are at p66). How could support strategies be better promoted and more utilised by those students who most need them? 
7. What more could be done to encourage institutions to offer intermediate qualifications? Should universities or NUHEPs recognise partial completion of a degree through the award of a diploma, perhaps by using ‘nested’ degree courses? How much impact would there be on institutions who chose to offer such courses? 
Disseminating best practice 
8. What new and innovative approaches do evaluations suggest are improving student completion at individual higher education providers? 
9. What can we learn about enhancing student success from the international experience?   
10. What are the most effective ways for providers to share best practice? 
11. How can successful completion strategies be embedded into provider practice? 
12. What strategies should TEQSA employ to ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework which requires higher education providers to offer the level of support necessary to ensure student success? Does TEQSA require further powers in this regard?
The Panel offers the following suggestions, acknowledging the weakness of empirical evidence about  interventions that  a positive impact on student retention, completion and success.
Prior to entry
• Raise the aspirations of prospective students through outreach and early intervention • Provide informed career advice from as early as primary school • Ensure consistent, comparable information allows prospective students to make informed decisions 
Institutional culture 
• A healthy university culture that embraces diversity and flexibility • A supportive university learning environment that puts the student first • A culture that reinforces the importance of student success • A strategic plan that includes retention targets • An institutional retention strategy which includes procedures for the re-engagement of students who have withdrawn from higher education • A clear student voice 
Teaching and learning 
• More senior academic staff • High teacher quality and teacher ability • A focus on effective learning and teaching strategies • An early assessment task prior to the student withdrawal census date • Sharing best practice across the sector • A willingness to offer nested courses 
Support services 
• Use data generated at enrolment and through learning analytics to make effective interventions to support at risk students • High quality student support services (personal, financial, academic) • Targeted and well communicated student support strategies • Online support services • Peer mentoring Accountability • Collect exit data on why students have withdrawn from study • Hold institutions to account for entry standards and student outcomes.