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). This was reported with the headlines such as "Nation of dropouts: University completion rates drop to a new low" (Liz Burke, 18 January 2017). However, I suggest the situation is not that bad and not the fault of the students. Australia's regional universities do not have a low completion rate, but even so there are some simple steps the government could encourage the universities to take to improve it.

The Cohort Analysis found the completion rates were: 39.2% after four years, 45.7% after six years and 73.5% after nine years. This is for a bachelor's degree, which is designed to take three years for a full-time student. 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 expect nothing in their life to change for the next six to nine years. It does not help for the system to label a student who wants to change their studies or has to withdraw due to job or family commitments as a failure.

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, to a significant 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 graduate 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, including on how to create better degree programs. Also, I have had the pleasure of talking to international and Australian researchers looking at student retention, such as Dr. Cathy Stone at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education,

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 and work experience was also useful. In North America, I found being able to delay choosing what sort of degree I was doing (coursework or research) until after enrolling and completing introductory courses was very useful. Had I not had that option, I would not have completed my studies successfully and would not have been awarded a degree (today).

There are some steps the Australian government can take to increase completion rates for degrees and in also reduce the cost of unrecoverable student loans. 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, not left with a massive debt and nothing to show for it.

Students could receive a certificate after six months, diploma after a year and an advanced diploma after two years, with the option to suspend students at any of these checkpoints and return to complete their degree later. This would reduce the figures for non-completion of degrees as the students who left with a sub-degree would not be counted as non-completions. This would also reduce the student loan cost as students would not fee pressure to continue studies past a checkpoint and so not incur further debt unnecessarily.

A student who has to change institutions should have prior 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. I was a reluctant student of education, thinking that I had already learned all I needed to know the on-line job at one of Australia's (and the world's) learning institutions. However, having been encouraged to study education as a discipline, I found there was much I could learn which not only was beneficial for my students but made teaching less stressful for the teacher.

The Australian Government could encourage measures to reduce non-completion and lower cost through the way it funds institutions directly and through student loans. Government funding could be contingent on the intuitions introducing these measures.

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