Saturday, June 9, 2018

Improving retention and completion for students in higher education

The report "Improving retention, completion and success in higher education" (Australian Department of Education and Training, 6 June 2018) makes 18 recommendations to improve student retention.  Many of the recommendations seem a little pointless, such as the first, suggesting institutions give students "the best chance to complete their studies". However, some are more significant, such as recommending nested courses and allowing for trimester structures. Unfortunately the report is of little practical value as it concentrates on internal on-campus students, whereas most Australian students are now studying externally online.
The report notes that the attrition rate for external students is about two and a half times that of internal students and the number of such students is rising. What the report does not point out that this is partly a correlation, not a causal relationship. The factors which cause students to enroll externally also result in the dropping out at a higher rate.
The report suggests that "Curricula for external courses must be designed with the external student in mind and must utilise the benefits of contemporary technology in course design". However, the report doesn't address the change which has already taken place in Australian higher education: most students now study externally online off-campus. Most of these students are officially enrolled as internal on-campus students, but don't come to lectures and only attend where required. 

Rather than address the needs of these students, government policies and some university practices are trying to force these students to attend when they do not need to or want to. Instead, I suggest the curricula for all courses needs to be designed with the external students in mind. Universities and government policy makers need to accept that students stopped coming to class years ago and change policy and practice accordingly.


Expectations of completion in the current context

  1. As a first priority, institutions should ensure students who have the capacity to succeed in higher education are given the best chance to complete their studies through the appropriate provision of academic and other support services as required of them by the Higher Education Standards Framework.

Supporting students to make the right choices

  1. School students and mature-age people need better access to effective career advice. The National Career Education Strategy, due to be released in 2018, should be closely monitored to identify improvements in the area of student career advice, including study options and pathways, and information about the post school learning environment. This strategy should also be expanded to include mature-age students or a separate strategy should be initiated for this cohort.
  2. Career advice cannot be left to schools. Every higher education institution should ensure that their students are given the opportunity for career planning and course advice on entry to the institution and as they require it throughout their studies.
  3. Where and how student success, completions, retention and attrition data is made accessible to students should form part of considerations by the Department of Education and Training in the establishment of a new online information platform.

Supporting students to complete their studies

  1. Every institution should have its own comprehensive student-centred retention strategy, which is regularly evaluated. These strategies could include institutional retention benchmarks and, as appropriate, processes for entry and exit interviews, the integration of data-based risk analytics and targeted support interventions, a suite of support services and a means to re-engage with students who have withdrawn.
  2. Institutions should automatically review the enrolment of all students who have not engaged in their studies to an agreed level by the census date.
  3. Institutions should pay particular attention to ensuring their support services are meeting the needs of external students who are not regularly attending campus because these students are identified as at risk of not completing their studies.
  4. Every institution should have an institution-wide mental health strategy and implementation plan.
  5. Institutions should increasingly offer nested courses, which are appropriate and compliant with the Australian Qualifications Framework, to provide students with a greater range of exit options with meaningful qualifications.

Sharing best practice

  1. There is already a wide variety of approaches to sharing best practice within the higher education sector. However, these approaches are not always scalable or frequently evaluated. Peak bodies should collaborate to develop streamlined processes to collect and disseminate best practice, with support from the Department of Education and Training. A dedicated website could be established for this purpose.

Clarity of definitions and enhancing transparency

  1. The higher education community should work together with the Department of Education and Training to ensure a greater understanding and clarity of definitions in attrition, retention, success and completions data. The Department should continue to measure and publish adjusted attrition, retention, student success and completions data.
  2. At present some institutions have a trimester structure of teaching and this can lead to different timings for assessment, graduation and reporting. As a result, students who complete Semester 1 and 2 and enrol in Semester 3 but not Semester 4 are recorded as not completed. Consequently, the definition of attrition should be changed to reflect the trimester teaching structure.
  3. The adjusted attrition rate should be the primary measure of attrition published for domestic commencing bachelor students.
  4. The Department of Education and Training should further develop and publish the calculation of attrition rates that take into account key student characteristics so as to better reflect institutional differences.
  5. The Department of Education and Training should report attrition among non-university higher education providers on a similar basis to its reporting of Table A and B universities.
  6. The Department of Education and Training should publish attrition data at more disaggregated levels, for example, by institution, by study area and by student characteristics.
  7. The Department of Education and Training should establish a common student identifier to better understand student pathways across tertiary education with a view to working with State and Territory Governments to establish a common student identifier across all levels of schooling.

Accountability and regulation

  1. TEQSA already has sufficient powers in relation to provider compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of the identification and tracking of students at risk with support strategies in place, analysis of student performance and evidence on reasons for attrition. TEQSA should continue to take account of every institution’s retention performance in assessing whether these standards are being met."
    From:  "Improving retention, completion and success in higher education" (Australian Department of Education and Training, 6 June 2018)

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