Are high student:staff ratios bad for retention?

According to the Universities Australia productivity paper, high student:staff ratios have a negative effect on retention. The citation for this claim is to a 2001 American academic journal article. But what does the local evidence suggest?

The figure below shows the student:staff ratios reported by Universities Australia and the attrition data reported by DEEWR for domestic commencing students (so retention is 100% minus the attrition rate).

Now there are problems with both sets of numbers. Actual teaching capacity is understated and actual attrition is overstated because of problems with the way the data is collected. But I don’t think those problems can explain away the trend evident in the figure. If the UA hypothesis was correct for Australia, student:staff ratios and attrition should be positively correlated: if SSRs go up, so should attrition. Instead, they are negatively correlated: as SSRs have gone up, attrition has gone down.

This isn’t the only evidence that doesn’t fit the hypothesis that current SSRs are a problem. As I noted late last year, student satisfaction with teaching has also improved despite the increase in SSRs.

I am prepared to believe that all other things being equal more staff time spent on students is good for students. But over the last 15 years I don’t think all other things have been equal. Universities have put far more effort into improving teaching, and the positive effects of this have outweighted any negatives coming from student numbers growing more quickly than staff numbers. On the UA theme, the productivity of universities has improved.

2 thoughts on “Are high student:staff ratios bad for retention?

  1. I’m not sure what you can learn from that — one simple way to keep attrition rates down is to make courses easier, which, when overloaded with students, is a fairly standard strategy as far as I can tell. You can also ignore plagiarism etc. (and get rewarded for it!), and this helps also.

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    • Conrad – Maybe, though pass rates for domestic students have not changed much – 84.77% in 2001, 84.83% in 2010. Interestingly, there was a slight increase to around 86% for a period last decade when the unis were slashing domestic numbers to avoid Nelson’s over-enrolment penalties. Perhaps removing some weaker students from the pool kept fails down.

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