Universities don’t have a drop-out problem – everyone else does

Lessons from Australia's 'drop-out crisis'

Brody Hannan

Education | Australia

21 August 2018

High schools are abandoning students on the doorstep of university education, and we blame universities for opening the door too wide, Brody Hannan writes.

When the Grattan Institute released its ‘Costs and Benefits of Dropping Out of University’ report in April 2018, it highlighted drop-out rates as a serious issue that universities need to solve.

In Australia, 50,000 students drop out of university each year – that’s more than one in five students. For years, pressure has been placed upon universities to mitigate drop-out rates, with suggested remedies including increased course flexibility and student outreach programs.

But is it the responsibility of universities to actively manage the many students who, as the Grattan Institute puts it, “were never very serious about university”? Or do their findings point towards a much larger cultural problem we ought to address, rather than merely studying the symptoms?

In addition to alerting prospective students to the risks of dropping out, the report recommended the introduction of a ‘risk calculator’. The calculator would estimate the likelihood of a student dropping out based upon their academic background, gender, socio-economic status, whether they live on campus, and other factors.

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The report also suggested changing the way students enrol in university after the census date from the current opt-out system to one that is opt-in. This, the report argues, would ensure that only engaged students continue with their studies and accrue debt.

But these measures fail to address the root of the problem.

Australia has a strong societal culture that places pressure upon high school students to pursue university, irrespective of their grades, job market potential, or the risk of dropping out.

It wasn’t too long ago that I went through the university application process. With a ‘try before you buy’ university system and with a “relatively low” application fee of $100, students are encouraged by their teachers to apply to as many universities and degree programs as they can.

Once they’re in the system, many of these students aren’t ready for university. As many as 24 per cent of high school leavers fail at least one subject in their first semester of university, while 44 per cent of this group fail not one, but all their subjects. Three out of 10 university students won’t complete their bachelors within eight years.

While this cultural pressure for high school leavers to enter university exists, the statistics show that the support universities provide them with works. High school leavers are less likely to drop out of university in the first six months than their older, non-high school leaving peers.

Universities already do enough to support students in their pursuit of higher education.

By offering double degrees, add-on diplomas and associate degrees as supplements to bachelor degrees, universities provide their students with the choice and flexibility required to tailor their education according to time commitments and desired learning outcomes.

Universities also provide academic and pastoral support to students throughout their degree, and give several forewarnings about the census date each semester, even emailing students to notify them of the census date weeks beforehand.

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Instead of reprimanding universities for offering support to high school leavers who are unquestionably pushed towards enrolment, we should encourage high school leavers to pursue a diverse range of pathways.

The Grattan report argues that “incomplete degrees are an inevitable cost of trying to match people with courses and careers”. But do these same statistics exist for trades, diplomas and Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses?

The reality is that universities’ non-completion rates are drastically better than those of the VET sector – less than half of all government-funded VET courses are completed.

Despite these figures, there is said to be a ‘drop-out crisis’ facing universities. Grattan recommends the inclusion of attrition rates with university performance and suggests that these rates be tied to government funding.

Although this may have the desired effect of reducing university drop-out rates, it doesn’t do much to address the underlying culture of students feeling pressured to gain a university degree.

The responsibility for resolving this issue rests in several places. Teachers and careers advisors could more actively encourage the value of vocational education, instead of insisting on alternate pathways into university. Admission centres that look solely at ATARs without considering the motivations of students applying to university also bear responsibility.

Finally, the government should work hard to make non-university options more appealing. A good start is to incentivise vocational education – as the Victorian State Government did when it made courses in priority vocational fields free earlier this year.

Solving the ‘drop-out crisis’ will require a multi-sectoral approach. Everyone is responsible, and universities are already pulling their weight.

This piece is published in collaboration with The Monsoon Project.

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2 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Schools’ and teachers’ success is measured by education departments; the most significant of which is % of students who enter university.

    Problem 1. University quals don’t provide earning $ commensurate to the investment esp when compared to trade equals.
    Problem 2. Vet courses are fueled by another measure of school success: the % of students who enter vet courses. Some also measure completion but only for certificates 1 & 2.

    It is by these terrible measuring sticks of performance that we decide which schools are performing and which are not.

  2. Andrew Norton says:

    Good article Brody, although our report was fence sitting on the performance funding idea. We did not want to buy deeply into that debate for the report, but my personal view is that other measures that are more closely aligned with the best interests of students would be preferable.

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