University Universities
University of Sydney (Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

Education Minister Dan Tehan’s unveiled the latest piece of his university reform plan overnight — a proposal to withdraw government help from students who had failed more than half their units.

In a media release titled “putting students’ interests first”, Tehan said students who fail more than half of their eight subjects would no longer be able to access government support in the form of a Commonwealth supported place, HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP.

The plan is intended to crack down on large, unpaid HECS debts, and push students towards more sustainable study choices. But the plan could also cause more anxiety and hardship for many students, with little tangible benefit.

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How many students fail?

Tehan says his plan will help both students and taxpayers, by stopping students taking on HECS debt they’ll never pay off. But analysis from the Department of Education suggests the changes will only affect 2500 students per year.

What we do know is that failing subjects at university is fairly common. According to analysis from the Grattan Institute, 8% of students failed every subject in their first semester at university. About 40% of students who fail half their subjects — the threshold for HELP to be cut off under Tehan’s plan — will already drop out.

Another study, led by researchers at Deakin University, surveyed students studying civil engineering, education, nursing and commerce, and found between 23% and 52% had failed at least one subject. Most who failed once failed again, and were four times as likely to drop out.

Why do students fail?

Experts and student advocates are concerned this latest proposal doesn’t address the root causes of academic failure, and could make university even more difficult for struggling students.

Associate professor of educational research Rola Ajjawi, who co-authored the Deakin University paper, told Crikey students failed subjects for a complex range of factors, including their financial situation, caring responsibilities and mental health issues.

“What this policy makes an assumption around is that when a student fails, it’s a result of their own capabilties,” Ajjawi said.

“This punitive approach has the potential to raise anxiety, particularly in vulnerable students.”

Liam Donohoe, president of the University of Sydney’s Students’ Representative Council, said first year students, who faced particular challenges with mental health, were most likely to be adversely impacted.

“Mental health is a most significant issue, and that’s particularly hard to manage and deal with in first year,” he said.

“It’s when students feel an onset of difficulties, and many don’t reach out for help.”

Ajjawi said the transition from high school can be particularly jarring for some students, and the added financial stress of failing subjects could make that process even more challenging.

Will Tehan’s plan work?

Given the complex factors that affect a student’s academic performance, it’s unclear how well Tehan’s plan will change behaviour. Most universities already have rules, procedures and support in place for students failing multiple subjects.

Ajjawi says often, these students require an educational rather than punitive intervention to change study behaviour. She also says there’s a lot that hasn’t yet been answered about Tehan’s plan.

For one, it seems to be targeted at “serial failures”, who are enrolling in multiple courses at multiple institutions, with the press release singling out students who had racked up HELP debts of over $600,000. But it’s unclear how many students are in this specific situation.

“I’d love to see the figures around how many students are enrolled in multiple universities. I wouldn’t have thought that many students are doing that,” Ajjawi said.

And despite those examples of students with large debts, the Coalition itself put in place a limit on HELP loans of $100,000 ($150,000 for certain degrees like medicine) in 2018.

Donohoe said that beyond the rhetoric about “serial failures”, the plan means more hardship for students and young people, who are already struggling during the pandemic.

“The Morrison government wants to say that those who have a go get a go, but now they want to say that those who have a go and don’t succeed the first time don’t get another chance.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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