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University completions and equity

University students from disadvantaged groups have a lower completion rate than their more advantaged peers, but most disadvantaged students do complete their degrees, research reveals.

Analysis of the latest university completions data indicates that university students from disadvantaged groups have a lower completion rate than the national average, according to a Joining the Dots research briefing released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in May.

The briefing, ‘Completing university in Australia: A cohort analysis exploring equity group outcomes’, investigates the progress of a number of cohorts of university students using data from the Higher Education Student Collection (HESC), tracked on the basis of their individual Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number (CHESSN) identifier. The briefing is based on analysis of the latest available data from the Commonwealth Department of Education that follows a cohort of students for nine years following commencement at university from 2005 to 2013, and four cohorts for six years after commencement in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Dr Daniel Edwards, ACER Principal Research Fellow, said the retrospective cohort study, tracking the progress of a number of cohorts of bachelor degree commencers since 2005, found that those from a low socioeconomic status (SES) background, Indigenous background, or regional or remote location are less likely to complete their degree.

‘In terms of outcomes, are all things equal once students are through the gates of the university? The data suggests not,’ Dr Edwards said.

Funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University, the Joining the Dots research briefing indicates that 73.6 per cent of all students who commenced university in 2005 had completed a degree by 2013, but low SES students had a completion rate of 68.9 per cent.

‘Low SES students are more likely than their medium or high SES peers to drop out during their first year or later in their degree,’ Dr Edwards said.

The research briefing also found that regional students had a completion rate of 69.8 per cent, remote students had a completion rate of 59.5 per cent and Indigenous students had a completion rate of 46.7 per cent.

‘While low SES has a significant impact on non-completion, the analysis indicates that a range of compounding factors works to limit the likelihood of completion for many students in higher education, particularly those belonging to equity groups,’ Dr Edwards said.

‘Students from low equity groups are more likely than average to be in more than one equity category, and also face a higher prevalence of other characteristics linked to lower completions, including type and mode of attendance, age, gender and prior achievement,’ Dr Edwards said.

NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, said the report indicates that a more nuanced picture of undergraduate completions in Australia is required.

‘This retrospective study highlights the experience of equity students in higher education. Since 2005, governments, secondary schools and universities have continued to develop support systems for students. That effort needs to be maintained and the outcomes for students improved,’ Professor Trinidad said.

‘While there is room for improvement in completion rates, the great majority of the equity students who commenced their degrees in 2005 have now completed their studies and in 2015 are likely in the workforce or have proceeded to further study. For these students, their higher education will be key in allowing them to unhook themselves from the socio-economic situation into which they were born, realise their potential and contribute to Australia’s social and economic prosperity.’

The NCSEHE aims to inform public policy design and implementation and institutional practice to improve the higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people. ■

Find more information:

Joining the Dots is a resource developed by ACER for those with an interest in Australian higher education. Details available at www.acer.edu.au/joining-the-dots/briefings or by emailing jtd@acer.edu.au

The Joining the Dots research briefing draws on the full report, Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? by Daniel Edwards and Julie McMillan.

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About the author

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

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