News media are widely reporting on new data released by the government showing that one-third of students starting university in 2009 had not finished their studies within six years.
This stat makes a good headline, but oversimplifies the reality, which is detrimental to improving higher education standards.
When you drill down into this data, the picture is very different for a number of universities. Completion rates range from 36.9% to 88%.
Those in rural and regional areas – in Queensland in particular – struggle the most to retain students, and accounted for seven of the ten lowest-completing institutions. Those based in the city have the highest rates of completion.
This is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the educational experience that rural and regional universities provide, but reflects the demographics of the students they support.
So why is it that some universities – mainly those in rural and regional areas – are still struggling to reduce drop-out rates?
More studying part-time?
One key message of the report is that type of attendance, among measured variables, appears to have most influence on student completion. That is, part-time students are less likely to complete their studies than full-time students.
A cursory read of the part-time enrolments in individual universities might seem to support this argument. Generally, universities with below-average completion rates have above-average part-time enrolments, and vice versa.
However, the reality is more complex. For example, the Australian National University has one of the best completion rates but above-average part-time enrolments. Conversely, Federation University has one of the worst completion rates, but lower-than-average part-time enrolments.
The fact is, as the report itself acknowledges, despite part-time enrolment having the largest influence of all variables measured, it still explains only 6.31% of the variation in completion rates.
The report acknowledges that the method of analysis may overstate the strength of the relationship between particular factors and completion, and that a range of factors are “less amenable to measurement or unmeasurable”. However, these important caveats, by and large, do not make it into the media releases.