university of sydney

The media briefly got itself into a tizz this week over some new data released by federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

One-third of Australian students won’t graduate within six years,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported. The ABC and The Australian also carried the story.

The data made for some nice headlines for Birmingham, who is seeking to position himself as a kinder and gentler reformer in a portfolio that troubled his predecessor, Christopher Pyne. 

“We’ve heard too many ­stories about students who have changed courses, dropped out because they made the wrong choices about what to study, students who didn’t realise there were other entry pathways, or who started a course with next to no idea of what they were signing themselves up for,” Senator Birmingham told The Australian.

Positive coverage for a Coalition is rare these days, even in The Australian, so hats off to Birmo for his media coup.

The only problem? The story is a massive beat-up.

As so often in higher education policy, a flawed metric and lazy journalism have combined to paint a picture at odds with reality.

If you examine the Department of Education data, which no one in the mainstream media seems to have bothered to do, you can see why.

The top level figure of 66% completing by six years is not the headline figure from the report (this figure instead comes from Birmingham’s media release).

In contrast, the department’s study highlights completion rates after nine years. The figure here is rather better: 73.5 %. 

I’ve screen-shotted the executive summary of the report. The nine-year figure is the top dot point. You would have hoped that the media could actually look at the primary source they were reporting on.

The report goes on to attempt a regression analysis of the reasons that might explain drop-out rates for those students who don’t go on to complete their courses.

It’s not a particularly strong regression. The best explanation for why students don’t complete is their type of attendance (full time or part time). But this factor explains just 6.3% of the variation.

As Curtin University’s Tim Pitman notes in The Conversation: “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.”

Universities Australia’s Catriona Jackson defended the sector this week. She told the ABC’s Julia Holman that the attrition rate is actually third best in the OECD. “There are a number of reasons people don’t complete degrees and it would be very, very strange if we had 100 per cent completion rates, nowhere in the world does.”

Jackson pointed out that completion rates had stayed steady, even as the higher education system has massively expanded. “They’ve been pretty consistent and pretty good while we’ve opened up the system to people of low socio-economic backgrounds, people from indigenous backgrounds, people from rural and remote areas, we’ve welcomed everyone in and completion rates have not changed. That is an extraordinary achievement for the higher education system, and for those students most importantly.”

The media also used the data from the Education Department report to construct league tables. The league tables put the University of Melbourne on top, and Charles Darwin University on the bottom. This is more junk data, based on sloppy reporting.

As with league tables for primary and secondary schools, what they really measure are socio-economic advantage. The top universities tend to harvest the wealthiest and most educationally advantaged students; these are the ones most likely to go on to graduate. Universities in regional Australia draw their cohort from a radically poorer and more disadvantaged population. These students face multiple barriers to completing their studies, and so fewer of them complete.

Indeed, one conclusion you could make when looking at the socio-economic factors underlying university completion is the same one that the Gonski panel made when looking at similar data for the schools system: that if we want to improve outcomes, we need to spend more money on the most vulnerable students. Strangely, that was not the argument put forward by Simon Birmingham. 

But there’s an even bigger problem with the focus on completion, and that’s the instrumentalist idea that the only thing that matters in education is gaining a qualification.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a rubbish idea. Education matters for many reasons. Few of them boil down to the piece of paper you get at the end of your degree.

Is the effort put in by students to courses they don’t complete wasted? Surely not.

Higher education is structured into discreet lessons and units. If you studied Indonesian or philosophy or mechanical engineering for a couple of years and drop out, do we really think that you will mysteriously forget everything you’ve just learned? If you turn up to classes, if you turn in assessment, if you take the time and effort to engage with a difficult academic field, then you have plainly gained something from your studies, even if you don’t graduate with any degree.

Students drop out of courses for all sorts of reasons: to care for family members, for reasons of illness, or because their priorities have changed. Some do drop out because of poor teaching or because the course is not right for them. But some also drop out to enter the workforce, an outcome we can assume Simon Birmingham would support. 

So why is the government so keen for students to complete their courses? A paragraph buried halfway down The Australian’s write-up explains it nicely.

“Senator Birmingham has also asked [the Higher Education Standards Panel] panel to investigate trends in student completion rates and to consider how universities can be helped to arrest attrition rates and support enrolled students through to course ­completion.

“Doing so would help the government claw back the amount of debt now not expected to be repaid, which is accruing under the FEE-HELP student loan scheme.”

Ah yes, clawing back debt for the federal budget. Now there’s something that any Coalition minister can understand.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey