Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Narrow Focus on Completion Rates for Australian University Students is Discriminatory

The Australian Education and Training Minister, Simon Birmingham, wants universities to have a “laser focus” on student outcomes. The minister points out that six-year completion rates for university students had dropped to their lowest levels on record. This is based on the latest Completions Rates of Higher Education Students - Cohort Analysis, 2005-2015 from the Australian Department of Education and Training (November, 2017). However, the results are not as bad as the minister suggests and implementing the Minister's advice would make the situation worse, not better.

The key messages from the department's report were that 9 years after the 2007 students commenced, 73.6% had completed, almost the same as for 2005 and 2006. For 2010 students, 66.0% of students had completed after six years. This was the lowest completion rate since statistics collection commenced in 2005. However, it is only 0.9% lower than the average for other years. There is a similar 0.9% drop from 2011 to 2012.

A 0.9% drop in student completions does not look good. However, there has been a large increase in enrollments in the last few years. Students who were unable to attend university are now able to. It is likely that the same factors which previously prevented these students from attending university are now delaying, or preventing, completion of their completion.

The difference in the students is likely to also explain the different completion rates of students at different universities and those using different instructional techniques. This is not though any fault of the university, or lack of commitment on the part of the student, but due to the same circumstances which previously stopped the student enrolling.

Were universities to follow Minister Birmingham's suggestion for a “laser focus” on student outcomes, there would be undesirable social outcomes. To increase the student completion rates, universities would be forced to exclude low income students and others from disadvantaged groups, those from regional areas and students who have families. Universities would select only wealthy city kids.

As an alternative to a discriminatory student selection policy, I suggest that the Australian Government and the Universities agree on broader outcomes targets. One way to do this would be to lengthen the target completion time for degrees from nine to twelve years. Shorter term measures could target nested qualifications, so that students receive a vocationally useful qualification after completion of the equivalent of one or two years full time study, not a three year bachelor degree. In addition universities should be encouraged, to have measures which will help students study, such as introductory study skills courses and teaching staff with teaching qualifications.

An additional measure to increase university completions would be to encourage more students to enroll in Vocational Education and Training, before, or as an alternative to, university.

Lastly, but perhaps the easiest measure to implement, would be for universities to use academics who have been trained in how to teach. Research by Bryant and Richardson (2015) found that students with a teacher having a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education did better than those who just a PHD but no teaching qualification. It may not be popular with academics, but it would be a relatively simple administrative measure to require academics who teach to have a teaching qualification.  This is already the case for the VET sector, where teachers are required to have at least a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.


Bryant, D., & Richardson, A. (2015). To be, or not to be, trained. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(6), 682-688. URL

No comments:

Post a Comment