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.
Reporting that part-time students struggle more than full-time students to complete studies, or that one in three students don’t complete, makes for good headlines but does not accurately reflect the real issues nor help experts advocate for meaningful change.