Thursday, January 19, 2017

Completion Rates of Australian Higher Education Students

The Australian Department of Education has issued a report on Completion Rates of Higher Education Students: Cohort Analysis (2016). In response the Australian Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, issued a media release urging university students to "... research options as completion rates dip" (18 January 2017). News Corporation reported this with the headline "Nation of dropouts: University completion rates drop to a new low" (Liz Burke, 18 January 2017). However, the situation is not as bad as suggested, is not the fault of the students. Also Australia's regional universities do not have a "shameful completion rate" as News Corporation suggests.

The Cohort Analysis found the completion rates for domestic bachelor students were: 39.2% after four years, 45.7% after six years and 73.5% after nine years. This is for a bachelors degree which is designed to take three years full time. Also the study found that capital city universities had much higher completion rates than regional ones.

Not surprisingly, the Analysis found that part-time students take longer to complete. However, there are very few real "full time" students. University students do not sit around campus relaxing: they have jobs and family commitments which conflict with their studies.

The Minister "... has urged students to research where they choose to study if they plan to go to university ..." (Media Release, 18 January 2017). This is unfortunate, as the minister seems to be blaming the students. The Minister suggests that the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website can help students “make the right choice, first time”. However, I tried this website recently and found it of little practical use. In any case more information will not help to choose between a set of inflexible programs.

Australia needs, I suggest, flexible offerings for students. It is not reasonable to tell students to choose from one of the fixed, three year,  degree programs, and then label those who are forced out due to changed circumstances as as failures.

Students change courses because they learn more about their interests as they study (if students knew everything before they started they would not need to study). Also students are forced to drop out because the programs do not provide the flexibility which the complexities of life demand. A student who can't attend the campus due to a job change or family commitments is forced to withdraw from their studies.

Students do not use other entry pathways, because they have no way of knowing they will need those pathways, until after they are enrolled in a fixed program in the higher education system.

The minister's suggestion that students look at the reputation of the university they want to attend is not particularly helpful. The completion rates of universities are, in large part, not due to the teaching quality of the university, but the circumstances of the students. A student with a job and family commitments in a regional area can't just decide to abandon their job and kids to study in the city.

For the last seven years I have been a part-time student at two Australian universities (ANU and USQ), a Vocational Education and Training institution (CIT) and a North American on-line open university (Athabasca University). My area of study was education. I have had to read a lot of textbooks and papers on education. Also I have had the pleasure of talking to international and Australian researchers looking at student retention, such as Dr Cathy Stone.

It happens I have been a student at one of the Australian universities with the highest completion rate (ANU) and the lowest (USQ). This difference is not due to there being anything wrong with USQ (I thought the courses very good) and is consistent with differences seen around the world. City and regional universities cater to different students, with different needs, resulting in different completion rates.

One thing I learned is that being a student is very hard work and very frustrating. There is no way to know exactly where and what you want to study, before you start to study. As I wrote in the Capstone e-Portfolio for my degree:
"... students need support to fit their studies into their lives. This can be through careful course design, giving the student small frequent nudges, scaffolding assignments and allowing them to be based on real-world problems. Also, frequently assessed work is an aid ..."
One of the most useful things I found was being able to supplement campus based courses at one university (ANU) with on-line courses at another (USQ). Being able to obtain vocational certification (at CIT) based on my university study was also useful. In North America, I found I being able to delay choosing what sort of degree I was doing (coursework or research) until after enrolling and completing introductory courses was also very useful. Had I not had that option I would not have completed my studies successfully and been awarded a degree (today).

There are some steps the Australian government can take to increase completion rates for degrees (and in the process reduce the unrecoverable student loan burden). One step would be to encourage universities to offer nested programs and guarantee mutual recognition of courses. A student who has had to suspend studies before completion of a degree should be awarded a sub-degree qualification for the work they have completed (such as a certificate, diploma or advanced diploma) and not leave with just a large debt. Students should be able to return to continue their degree later, after receiving the sub-degree qualification.

A student who has to change institutions should have past study recognized and not be penalized for the change. A student who wants to supplement their studies with a course at another institution should be free to do so.

Universities should not have arbitrary attendance requirements for courses. Unless a course requires physical attendance, the student should be able to study and undertake assessment on-line. Students should be offered projects and assessment relevant to real world work and have the option to undertake this in the workplace, not on campus.

Universities should require teaching staff to be qualified to teach, and in particular qualified to design and deliver engaging on-line education. There is more to e-learning than just recorded lectures. Teaching is a skill which needs to be learned.