Higher education attrition is an issue that has concerned government and institutions for decades, and, indeed, is an issue that continues to cause concern.
Extensive research over the years has consistently shown the drivers of attrition to be both student and institution-based and many recommendations have focussed on institutions increasing support and services for students and holding institutions to account for student outcomes.
Australia’s higher education attrition rates have been relatively stable for over a decade and it is clear many institutions already invest significantly to support their students. However, it is also apparent that some institutions are more successful than others at retaining students and their methods and strategies are of interest to the entire higher education community.
Innovation in higher education and the movement away from a traditional higher education experience to suit current and future labour market needs must be taken into account in current discussions on attrition.
This final report of the Higher Education Standards Panel (the Panel) explains how this examination of retention, completion and success in higher education has come about. It looks at what the higher education sector is saying about the factors that impact on these issues and makes recommendations about how Australia can further build on its success in supporting students to succeed in their higher education studies.
The story so far
In September 2016, following the release of 2015 student data by the Department of Education and Training (the department), media reports suggested 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 Panel argued in its November 2016 report, Improving the Transparency of Higher Education Admissions, that this media coverage was alarmist. Reports misrepresented the scale of the problem, using attrition rates that were unadjusted for the impact of students changing courses or institutions. However, the Panel also considered that it is not appropriate to be complacent about the issue and institutions should seek to reduce the levels of non-completion.
In response to the Panel’s report, the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham asked the Panel to examine Australian higher education completion and attrition to ensure that students have the best chance of successfully completing their enrolled units, courses and qualifications.
In June 2017 the Panel released a discussion paper Improving retention, completion and success in higher education. This paper outlined the 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 by successive governments on how to support students to complete their studies. The reviews consistently reported drivers of attrition to be the learning environment, teaching ability of lecturers, lack of student engagement, high student/staff ratios, lack of student support and personal factors relating to the student, such as financial, emotional, health or other life events. Recommendations from these reviews to reduce attrition included better quality support services, more flexible entry requirements, improved teaching quality and ability, a more supportive institutional environment, monitoring student progress and providing study support where necessary and making institutions’ completion rates transparent.
The Panel’s discussion paper identified that while there have been fluctuations in retention - and variations by institution - the attrition rate for Australian universities in 2014 is fundamentally similar to what it was in 2005, despite some movement during that period . The attrition rate was 15.04 per cent in 2005 and 15.18 per cent in 2014. The discussion paper also highlighted the wide variation between university attrition rates, including data that suggests some institutions are supporting higher-risk students to succeed more successfully than others.
An analysis using statistical regression techniques, published in the discussion paper, showed that student characteristics only explained a small part (22.5 per cent) of the overall variation in student attrition. The statistical evidence suggests that the institution is a more important factor in explaining attrition than the basis of admission, the student’s ATAR, type of attendance, mode of attendance or age. This analysis is available at Appendix A.
Students at non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) have higher attrition rates and lower completion rates compared to Table A and B universities. However, their record is improving. The attrition rate for NUHEPs in 2007 was 35.9 per cent and this has dropped to 26.2 per cent in 2014. The completion gap between universities and NUHEPs has slightly narrowed.
The discussion paper pointed out that while international higher education completion rates must be compared with caution, because of the wide variety of systems across the world, in Australia, 70 per cent of new entrants in 2009 who enrolled in a bachelor degree had completed by 2014. This is around the OECD average of 69 per cent. Earlier data suggested the completion rate of graduates in 2011 in Australia was 82 per cent, above the OECD average of 70 per cent. However, it should be noted the earlier OECD data used a different methodology.
The Panel posed 12 questions to guide discussion on issues relating to retention, completion and success in higher education. These questions looked at whether there should be expectations of completion, in terms of completion rates and the speed of completion, how data collection and the transparency of data could be improved and how students could be supported to make the right choices and then complete their studies once they are enrolled in higher education. The Panel asked about best practice and how this could be shared across the sector, as well as whether there needs to be any further powers provided to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to ensure that institutions comply with the Higher Education Standards Framework in supporting students to succeed.
Forty-three written submissions were made in response to the Panel’s discussion paper from individual institutions and peak bodies (Appendix D). In addition, the Panel conducted face-to-face hearings over two days with stakeholders, including peak bodies in the university, NUHEP, careers and equity sectors, deputy vice-chancellors, student groups, academics and researchers.
There was general support for the Panel’s view that there is not an immediate crisis in higher education attrition, with attrition rates remaining relatively stable over the past 12 years. There was also general agreement, including from Universities Australia, that there is ‘no reason for complacency’. There was acceptance that attrition represented a financial loss to government and students themselves and there should be a sustained effort to improve completion rates.
Many submissions noted the changing economy and workforce and the increasing proportion of students studying part-time and taking time off from study. They highlighted that attrition is often a reflection of balancing work, personal commitments, financial circumstances and study. While course completion should remain a primary focus for institutions, there will never be zero attrition. If standards are to be maintained it is inevitable that some students would still fail their courses. Not all attrition should be viewed negatively - especially if higher education proved not to be the best fit for the student.
Some stakeholders warned against setting arbitrary expectations around rates and speed of completion; noting they are difficult to establish. However, measurement of completion is important.
Aspiration building, early intervention prior to admission through outreach and sound career advice before and after admission to higher education were highlighted as extremely important factors in assisting students making the right choices. The range of work already being undertaken by institutions in terms of student outreach, often funded by the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), was noted and there were many calls for greater investment in career education for primary and high school students, as well as for mature-age people and people already studying within a higher education institution.
There was general acknowledgement that, as a result of the new economy, digitalisation and complex factors leading to attrition, institutions should be continually adjusting curriculum, pedagogy and academic policy design to meet student needs and expectations.
A student-centric institutional culture and well-targeted and well-communicated support services have a positive impact on student retention, completion and success. Many institutions cited examples of their own work in developing a strong student culture and of their successful student support services, though there were only limited examples of attempts to integrate these measures through comprehensive retention strategies. There was broad consensus that more needed to be done across the board for external students and for students suffering mental illness or emotional stress.
Some submissions noted the complexities around evaluating the success of targeted interventions and support services. A number of respondents pointed out that approaches that work for one cohort or institution may not necessarily work for another and what works for one faculty or field of study may not be scalable across the whole sector. However, stakeholders were generally enthusiastic about, and provided a range of suggestions for, new ways to share best practice. Consistency in language around completions and attrition is important to stakeholders. There were many suggestions on how changes to the collection and reporting of data could better reflect the situation of retention, completion and success in higher education. Given how difficult it is to understand the increasingly complex pathways between school, vocational training, higher education and employment, there was almost unanimous support for a common student identifier across tertiary education. Indeed, many respondents called for a common student identifier across all levels of education, including school. Such a scheme has been implemented in New Zealand. Some submissions noted the Government’s proposed introduction of a 7.5 per cent performance-contingent element to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and the metrics that may sit behind this. This policy and any criteria and metrics that might contribute to its implementation are beyond the scope of this review. The Panel’s view In this report, the Panel reaffirms there is no immediate crisis in higher education. Members are nevertheless concerned about the imbalance of attrition rates between a small number of institutions and between external and internal or mixed modes of educational delivery. These issues were highlighted in the discussion paper. The Panel considers that significant improvements in provider approach are possible to maximise students’ chances of successfully completing their studies. The Panel recommends as a first priority that institutions must ensure students who have the capacity to succeed in higher education are given the best chance to complete their studies through the appropriate provision of academic and other support as required by the Higher Education Standards Framework.
This report makes recommendations to improve the guidance available to school students and mature-age people prior to enrolment and the provision of careers advice to students by higher education institutions. It suggests a variety of ways in which institutions could further support students to complete their studies. The Panel makes recommendations specifically in relation to every institution developing its own retention strategy, support for external students and the need for an institutional strategy and implementation plan to assist students with mental illness.
The Panel also encourages the greater development of nested courses – where appropriate and compliant with the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). This means that qualifications such as a diploma, advanced diploma or associate degrees can be incorporated within a bachelor degree, with appropriate exit points. This course design can maximise the opportunity for students who successfully complete part of a course but do not fully complete a bachelor degree to exit with a meaningful and economically useful qualification. It should not be anticipated that each entrant to higher education will leave with a bachelor degree.
The Panel is of the view that more streamlined and widespread sharing of best practice across the higher education sector would continue to build knowledge and capacity in all these areas.
The report suggests clarity of definitions and enhanced transparency in relation to attrition, completion, retention and student success would assist prospective students to improve their decision-making about study progression. It would also benefit institutions and policy-makers. The Panel’s recommendations include publishing attrition data at more disaggregated levels and the introduction of a common student identifier across tertiary education; with a view to working with states and territories to establish a common identifier across all levels of education. For the first time, this would allow a holistic view of an individual’s educational progress and a national picture of successful education pathways to be developed over time.
With this diversity of objectives in mind, the Panel offers 18 recommendations to help ensure students have the best chance of successfully completing their studies and transitioning into the workforce.The Panel's recommendations are
Expectations of completion in the current context
1. As a first priority, institutions should ensure students who have the capacity to succeed in higher education are given the best chance to complete their studies through the appropriate provision of academic and other support services as required of them by the Higher Education Standards Framework.
Supporting students to make the right choices
2. School students and mature-age people need better access to effective career advice. The National Career Education Strategy, due to be released in 2018, should be closely monitored to identify improvements in the area of student career advice, including study options and pathways, and information about the post school learning environment. This strategy should also be expanded to include mature-age students or a separate strategy should be initiated for this cohort.
3. Career advice cannot be left to schools. Every higher education institution should ensure that their students are given the opportunity for career planning and course advice on entry to the institution and as they require it throughout their studies.
4. Where and how student success, completions, retention and attrition data is made accessible to students should form part of considerations by the Department of Education and Training in the establishment of a new online information platform.
Supporting students to complete their studies
5. Every institution should have its own comprehensive student-centred retention strategy, which is regularly evaluated. These strategies could include institutional retention benchmarks and, as appropriate, processes for entry and exit interviews, the integration of data-based risk analytics and targeted support interventions, a suite of support services and a means to re-engage with students who have withdrawn.
6. Institutions should automatically review the enrolment of all students who have not engaged in their studies to an agreed level by the census date.
7. Institutions should pay particular attention to ensuring their support services are meeting the needs of external students who are not regularly attending campus because these students are identified as at risk of not completing their studies.
8. Every institution should have an institution-wide mental health strategy and implementation plan.
9. Institutions should increasingly offer nested courses, which are appropriate and compliant with the Australian Qualifications Framework, to provide students with a greater range of exit options with meaningful qualifications.
Sharing best practice
10. There is already a wide variety of approaches to sharing best practice within the higher education sector. However, these approaches are not always scalable or frequently evaluated. Peak bodies should collaborate to develop streamlined processes to collect and disseminate best practice, with support from the Department of Education and Training. A dedicated website could be established for this purpose.
Clarity of definitions and enhancing transparency
11. The higher education community should work together with the Department of Education and Training to ensure a greater understanding and clarity of definitions in attrition, retention, success and completions data. The Department should continue to measure and publish adjusted attrition, retention, student success and completions data.
12. At present some institutions have a trimester structure of teaching and this can lead to different timings for assessment, graduation and reporting. As a result, students who complete Semester 1 and 2 and enrol in Semester 3 but not Semester 4 are recorded as not completed. Consequently, the definition of attrition should be changed to reflect the trimester teaching structure.
13. The adjusted attrition rate should be the primary measure of attrition published for domestic commencing bachelor students.
14. The Department of Education and Training should further develop and publish the calculation of attrition rates that take into account key student characteristics so as to better reflect institutional differences.
15. The Department of Education and Training should report attrition among non-university higher education providers on a similar basis to its reporting of Table A and B universities.
16. The Department of Education and Training should publish attrition data at more disaggregated levels, for example, by institution, by study area and by student characteristics.
17. The Department of Education and Training should establish a common student identifier to better understand student pathways across tertiary education with a view to working with State and Territory Governments to establish a common student identifier across all levels of schooling.
Accountability and regulation
18. TEQSA already has sufficient powers in relation to provider compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of the identification and tracking of students at risk with support strategies in place, analysis of student performance and evidence on reasons for attrition. TEQSA should continue to take account of every institution’s retention performance in assessing whether these standards are being met.