We need to change our thinking on university ‘drop-outs’

The federal government released its latest figures on completion rates at Australian universities earlier this year. It shows that students who study off campus, are on a part-time course, are older, Indigenous, from disadvantaged backgrounds or regional areas of Australia are less likely to complete their university course.

Many journalists rushed to decry the “fact” that these “drop-out” rates in some universities are shocking. But, in addition to misunderstanding and therefore misrepresenting the data, the assumptions underpinning how completion rates are calculated are woefully out of date.

Who is the average student?

The current Australian student cohort is different from the one that many readers might imagine – and from the one that existed when mechanisms to measure attrition were created.

While a large number of students (670,000) are in the 18-22 years age bracket, latest available figures from 2015 show there were over 181,000 students aged 30-39; almost 90,000 aged 40-49; over 36,000 aged 50-59; and almost 10,000 aged 60 and over.

As indicated by government statistics on mode of attendance, a growing number of university students have never actually set foot on a campus, having undertaken online and other external modes of study.

These same figures show an increasing number study part-time. Many start, stop and start university study over a very long time. Some take almost a decade to complete a three-year degree.

How should this change how we measure drop-out rates?

Despite the world having shifted and student bodies having changed significantly, we persist in measuring drop-out rates as if the whole Australian university sector is the same as it was last century. Back then, students were more commonly 18 years old, middle-class, child-free, unencumbered school-leavers who often had financial support from their family to attend university.

So how do we currently measure drop-out rates? Based on reports from individual higher education providers, the government annually counts the number of commencing students in year one at census date, then counts them again a year later, subtracting those who have graduated – and that calculation determines our attrition rates.

We do a second calculation that adjusts for students who move programs or universities but who are still in study.

Many assume that the people who aren’t there a year later have dropped out. Indeed, they may have. They may have done so permanently. But they may also have left temporarily, to come back to that program and institution, or others, at a later date.

That is certainly what students from working-class backgrounds who study at regional universities do.

A soon-to-be-released national study of these students found significant evidence that regional students dip in and out of study. On average, they take longer than metropolitan and higher socio-economic status students to complete their programs of study.

Calculating attrition rates in the way we currently do ignores those students who may have formally or informally withdrawn from university, but who may later return to study, as many working-class regional students do.

Why do students drop out of study?

This latest research shows that these students often have complex lives and competing priorities.

Many are parents and many have other caring responsibilities. They must balance academic study with these caring and related responsibilities, which often include the need for paid employment while studying.

Many are also the first in their family to attend university. This means they lack familiarity with the peculiarities of university life and expectations of them as students. It also means they are unlikely to receive financial support from their family.

While better academic support may help some students in some cases, the answer is not that simple.

Many of these students experience significant financial pressure. The costs of study materials, long-distance regional travel to university campuses on top of the usual expenses of living – including sometimes supporting a family, often while on a reduced income – mean they may have to make difficult choices about their priorities, choices that other more traditional students do not ever have to make.

The research shows that some students step out of study because they get a job that meets immediate short-term needs, such as paying for accommodation and food.

They often return to study later when the immediate needs are met. Rather than the full-time study load a traditional student would take, these students often take on a part-time load, sometimes the minimum load of one subject a semester. This is because that is all they can manage on top of their family, caring and/or employment responsibilities.

It is often not possible, nor desirable from a personal point of view, for these students to study full time, nor to complete their undergraduate program in a single time period, or within the minimum completion time.

Our thinking needs to change

The assumptions and mechanisms for measuring and monitoring attrition of students need to take into account the realities of all students’ experiences and responsibilities, and the choices they have to make about study in the context of their complex lives and competing priorities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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My ‘consuming passion for educational equity’ and a big chilled glass of water

The following is an interview conducted by Patrick Avenell and published in Campus Review (CR) on November 22, 2016.


CR: Where are you based and what do you do?

MD: I am a professor of learning and enhancement and deputy vice-chancellor, learning and quality, at Federation University. In the latter role, I provide executive leadership for the Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice, Library Services, the Registrar’s Directorate, policy development and management, quality assurance and enhancement, Women in Leadership, The Student Retention and Success strategic initiative, and transformation of the university’s teaching and learning through the implementation of the Blended, On-Line and Digital (BOLD) learning strategy, which I conceptualised and designed.

What is your educational background?

I am a psychologist and former teacher, with qualifications in both psychology and education. My PhD combined both. More recently, I have studied governance and am in the process of enrolling in an MBA.

Why did you choose this path of study?

I am interested in having a positive impact on people, particularly, but not only, those who are disadvantaged by the circumstances of their birth or in some other way. I started out in psychology but ultimately moved into education because I believe it is a panacea of sorts in terms of human capital development and solving the wicked problems of the world. I have become interested in governance, management and leadership in the past five years and am now rounding out my previous study and executive experience with top-up study.

You are hosting a pop-up panel at the National Press Club about student equity – can you please provide an overview of this topic?

This pop-up panel is part of a timely and important forum designed and hosted by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE).

The panel is one of a number that will be held on the day, which is an opportunity to discuss critical aspects of student equity in higher education in Australia. The idea is to contribute to the shaping of future directions with the vision of facilitating an innovative future through equity that informs policy and practice. It is hoped that the initiative will provide greater clarity on the trends and issues that drive equity in higher education and provide ideas that can shape the future of equity to benefit people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

My particular focus will be on students from regional and remote areas. A lower proportion of students complete Year 12 in regional communities, compared with students nationally. I’m concerned, as are many others, that the proportion of regional and remote university students in the overall student population fell between 2011 and 2015.  The challenges for regional and remote students are significant: they are often from low socioeconomic-status backgrounds with no familial experience of higher education on which to draw. They have extra cost-of-living burdens, and many experience the psychological dislocation of leaving home. Despite these challenges, however, most regional and remote university students succeed in their studies. It’s important to ascertain what helps or what works in terms of student success and for us to continue to do all we can as a sector and a nation to facilitate this success.

The panel is being convened at the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday, November 28, 2016.

Why is this important to you?

As Australia moves from a reliance on mining to a future where ideas and knowledge are key to our prosperity, it is critical to innovate in ways that are inclusive and do not leave particular groups of people behind. One-third of Australia’s population lives in regional areas, yet they are sometimes forgotten in national policy discussions and decision-making, which can be very metro-centric. If we are not inclusive in developing the future of Australia, including in higher education, we risk the limited thinking that follows when there is a lack of diversity of views being considered. We also risk similar movements to those we have seen in Brexit and in Donald Trump’s ascendency, which may be seen as helpful by the disenfranchised, but which many of us fear will leave those who voted for these changes even worse off than they were previously. 

What’s next in your academic career?

I want to continue to work in roles that allow me to contribute to the national and international conversation about how to lift the tide to the benefit of all, not just the benefit of the already privileged. I am able to do this through my own research and institutional leadership at FedUni, as well as through engagement with state and federal governments, the NCSEHE and other national and international bodies with which I have the privilege to work.

What book are you reading at the moment?

I have just started Hannah Kent’s The Good People, which is set in 19th-century Ireland. I was born in Ireland and spent the early part of my life there so, like all migrants, I am excited to read a book set in my other home.

What are your favourite films?

The Big Chill is the only film I would put on this list. Of course, I’ve seen lots of good films – too many to mention – but this one is a cut above, in my view.

What was your first concert? And what was your most recent?

My first concert was Cheap Trick in Canberra, a very long time ago. My most recent was last month and it was Paul Kelly’s Ancient Rain – Irish poetry and prose put to Kelly’s unique music. It was stunning.

What’s the best holiday you’ve been on?

I’ve had two. In both cases, my partner and children and I met extended family. The first time in Malaysia and the second time in Sri Lanka, for a couple of weeks each time. We all stayed in the same accommodation and three generations of family members, in-laws and cousins, who normally live on opposite sides of the world, just hung out eating, talking and living together. Magic.

What’s your favourite food and drink?

Anything gluten free that does not include red meat. And water.


OK, champagne and water.

What’s your ultimate Sunday Funday activity?

Friends over for lunch at our world’s largest dining table, which our dear friend made especially for us.


This article was first published in Campus Review on 22/11/16.

Posted in Introductions, Leadership, Social and cultural capital, Students from poor backgrounds, The future of higher education | Comments Off on My ‘consuming passion for educational equity’ and a big chilled glass of water