Disengaged and failing students are an issue worth policy attention

The draft legislation for the Tehan higher education package, released on Tuesday, includes several previously unannounced measures. These include new – or least new for public universities – rules for managing under-performing students.

Among the measures are greater monitoring of student progress, restrictions on study load, and as the media has been reporting today students losing Commonwealth funding if they fail more than half the subjects they have taken. The minister’s media release is here.

I will get to the sometimes arcane detail in a subsequent post (or posts, there is a lot). I am not convinced that the government is going about this in the best way. But I don’t want complaints about the details to obscure the point that this is an area worth policy attention.

In the Grattan Institute Dropping Out report we argued that disengaged students are needlessly incurring HELP debt and blemished academic records. With demand likely to exceed supply for higher education next year, disengaged students are also using Commonwealth supported places that would benefit other people more.

The chart below from the report shows in 2015 that, of commencing bachelor degree students who attempted at least two subjects in their first year, nearly six per cent failed every subject they took. Of those who failed every subject in first semester, about half dropped out, a quarter failed every subject again, and the rest changed courses and/or started passing.

Some of these students tried but did not succeed. But we suspected that many weren’t even at university, but ended up with debt and fails because they had not taken the bureaucratic steps necessary to end their enrolment.

In the enrolment data Grattan had we could only see pass, fail or withdrawn outcomes. But data published by La Trobe after our report was published supported our disengagement hypothesis, with about a quarter of all fails due to students not submitting any work for assessment.

To avoid a HELP debt, students need to drop subjects prior to the census date. But a small survey a Grattan colleague did at four Melbourne campuses showed that many students either did not know what the census date was, or gave an incorrect answer (most commonly confusing it with the last day to withdraw without a fail going on their academic record, which at most but not all universities is later in semester).

Universities are already doing some good work to reduce this problem. But there are more things that could be done, to ensure that disengaged or failing students either get the help they need to succeed, or are encouraged to end their enrolment before getting a HELP debt or a fail on their academic record.

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