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Higher Education

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Finding the right fit: University course selection and completion

As higher education enrolments continue to climb, the proportion of students failing to graduate remains high among some cohorts, according to analysis by Daniel Edwards.

More students than ever before are now enrolled in higher education institutions in Australia. This year, controversy around selection and the usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) in this process has been particularly evident as the effects of the demand-driven funding system are felt.

Matching students with the right course

Most students do their homework before enrolling in a course, but many make their choice on the basis of a “cut-off score” they consider a proxy for quality. Essentially, some students cash in their ATAR for the best possible cut-off score. They do this instead of scrutinising objective information about course requirements or the quality of education that particular courses provide; and identifying a course matching their knowledge, skills and career aspirations.

The result is that students often have little understanding of the knowledge and skills they need to successfully begin their higher learning.

Universities now operate in an era where ‘selecting-in’ is the norm, rather than the ‘selecting-out’ of the past. This ‘selecting-in’ approach is arguably easier to do at the outset, but in some cases it requires less information on the university side of things on which to make decisions on who is best suited to their courses.

Ideally, a university should know a great deal about the aptitude of their first-year students before they arrive on campus. But do current selection processes provide relevant and sufficient information for universities to make good judgements about candidates? Do they provide enough information so that universities can determine whether they will be able to provide a successful education for their students?

Completing university

A recent ACER study found that in the nine years to 2013, 74 per cent of university students graduated. This percentage differed among different student groups, modes of study, universities and fields of education.

In terms of ATAR, the study found a positive correlation with the likelihood of completing university. But less than 40 per cent of the students in the national data used in the study actually commenced university on the basis of an ATAR. So over emphasis on the ATAR is misleading if a complete understanding of the dynamics of retention and completion is to be gained.

The study, Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue?, found that completion rates were lower than the national average for students with the following characteristics of disadvantage:

  • aged above 25 years at commencement (49 per cent completion rate)
  • identifying as Indigenous (47 per cent completion rate)
  • from a low socioeconomic background (69 per cent completion), and
  • from a regional area (69 per cent completion).

Low completion is compounded for students with more than one characteristic of disadvantage. The more disadvantaged a student, the less likely he or she is to complete university.

Improving completion rates

How well are students and universities equipped to understand their mutual needs and expectations? And how can the completion rates of disadvantaged groups be improved?

Earlier this year, Commonwealth Minister for Education and Training, the Honourable Simon Birmingham, committed to tackling the issue through improved scrutiny and understanding of selection processes. He put his Higher Education Standards Panel onto the task of dealing with this, and are currently undertaking a public consultation to build a better understanding of the issue.

The Commonwealth Opposition’s platform includes incentives to universities to increase completion rates.

The policies of each of the major parties at this stage address only part of the problem. But a combination of both – balanced with recognition and understanding of different students, and the different contexts in which universities operate – may be a step towards raising completion levels and improving outcomes in Australia’s higher education system. ■

Read the study:

‘Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue?’ by Dr Daniel Edwards and Dr Julie McMillan.


About the author

Dr Daniel Edwards is the Research Director of ACER's Tertiary Education research program. 

More [rd] articles by Daniel Edwards

View selected works of Daniel Edwards

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