And university enrolments are also stable – in fact they are now slightly lower than the rate of population growth – torpedoing claims that the current system is growing unsustainably.
“Universities are powerful vehicles to enhance social mobility and equity,” said Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive Catriona Jackson.
“Australia’s universities have actually achieved something extraordinary – while vastly expanding access, attrition rates remain broadly where they were when a university education was limited to the privileged few.”
In 2016, Indigenous student enrolments grew by 10.5 per cent to 17,800, students from poorer backgrounds grew by 3.8 per cent to 177,288, and regional and remote student enrolments grew by 2.1 per cent to 212,413.
Since the expansion of university access from 2008, Australia has achieved 55 per cent growth in low SES undergraduate enrolments, 48 per cent growth in regional and rural undergraduate students, 89 percent growth in Indigenous undergraduate students and 106 per cent growth in undergraduate students with a disability.
“For students who drop out, the top reasons are health or stress, juggling work/life balance, the need to do paid work, their overall workload, and financial difficulties,” Ms Jackson said.
Mature-age, part-time, disadvantaged and online students generally have the greatest challenges to complete. That’s why programs such as HEPPP – the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program – are so crucial not just for equity but also to keep attrition rates down.
“When people call for a crackdown on attrition, surely they don’t want to see mums juggling study with a job, or the worker who wants to study online, being turned away because they are from groups with traditionally higher attrition rates?” Ms Jackson said.
“People are making complicated – and sometimes deeply personal – decisions to withdraw from study when life gets in the way. We shouldn’t pressure students to stay enrolled if they need to care for a dying parent, for instance, and they should feel welcome to return when the time is right.”
“Universities are working hard to support students to stay enrolled where that is the right choice for them – but often there are reasons beyond anyone’s control why people withdraw from study.”
Offers of a place at university were up 1.5 per cent in 2016, to 305,802, compared to Australia’s population growth of 1.6 per cent in the 12 months to March this year.
Economic modelling shows Australia will need another 3.8 million skilled graduates by 2025.
“We need to continue to invest in a strong and high quality university system that offers all Australians the opportunity to gain the skills they will need in an era of rapid change,” Ms Jackson said.
“That’s precisely why university funding cuts would be the wrong call for Australia’s future.”