For a start, the ‘one in five drop out’ claim is plain wrong. About 15 per cent – not 20 per cent – leave university before graduating. So about one quarter of those students don’t actually leave higher education, they simply transfer from one degree to another or move to another university.
And even within the 15 per cent, some may come back to university later on. But the numbers are not easy to track, so we can’t easily say how many.
Still, we can all agree that a 15 per cent attrition rate is too high, but inflating the figure certainly doesn’t help us tackle it.
So what is really going on? What are the causes and why does it matter?
During the past decade, Australia has uncapped university places – expanding access to university for tens of thousands more Australians. This has included significantly larger numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, often the first in their family to go to university.
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 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?
According to the annual Student Experience Survey, the most common reasons were not related to course content or the choice of degree. Rather, students cited health or stress, juggling work/life balance, the need to do paid work, their overall workload, and financial difficulties among the top reasons for considering not completing. So it’s not surprising that mature-age and part-time students have higher attrition rates.
Students battling disadvantage are also more likely to have thought about leaving. The particular challenges faced by these students underscore the importance of support programs run by universities to help students with their degrees, to not just get them in but keep them in.
The personal stories that emerge from those outreach and scaffolding programs – which often simply help students catch up with more privileged peers – can be surprising and inspiring.
At the same time it is important to acknowledge that universities cannot control everything. A student who leaves university to care for a sick child or elderly parent, who needs to work more hours to support themselves or their family, already has a complex set of choices and pressures to negotiate. Sometimes they will not be able to complete in the minimum time, sometimes they will be forced to withdraw.
Universities have strongly urged the Turnbull Government to retain the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, and shield it from budget cuts. It is the wide range of support programs under HEPPP that makes a key policy goal a reality: that all Australians, regardless of their background, with the ability to successfully complete a degree should have the opportunity to do so.
Or in simpler terms, everyone deserves a fair go, in education as in everything else.
HEPPP serves those students who deserve to be there just as much as anyone else, but need a little help to get in and stay in. As we face a period of seismic economic change these supports are more important than ever.
Offering solid support and return options are just some of ways Australian universities are working to stem attrition. Clearer information in applications and admissions – to maximise the chances that a student ends up applying for the right course for them – will also enhance these efforts.
The 15 per cent attrition rate includes many students who may return to study. We know that when universities do reach out to these students, even a number of years down the track, often students will return.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham has flagged this as an area for attention and universities are working with him in that task.
One thing we can all agree on is that we all want as many students as possible to graduate. Having a clear idea of how many leave, and why, is an important step on that road – inflating figures, and labelling people ‘drops outs’ is not.
Catriona Jackson is the Deputy Chief Executive of Universities Australia.