Should students lose Commonwealth support for failing too many subjects?

My previous post explained various measures proposed in new government legislation to reduce how many students fail subjects. These include restrictions on marketing to students who may not be serious, a new Departmental power to not pay universities for subjects if the student is deemed not ‘genuine’, a requirement that universities refund student contributions or fees where the student is not genuine, a new obligation to check the student’s academic suitability at the subject as well as the course level, and restrictions on students taking more subjects in a year than they can manage.

Most of yesterday’s media attention, however, focused on a different part of the legislation, restricting Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP entitlements for students who fail too many subjects.

In explaining this change I am, as with the previous post, going to cite legislative provisions to help people who are working on providing feedback on the bill. HESA 2003 means the Higher Education Support Act 2003. As before, please feel free to point out errors or alternative interpretations in comments or via email.

General rule – failing more than half of subjects leads to loss of funding entitlements

The general rule is that students who fail more than half their subjects in a course will lose their entitlement to Commonwealth support: new section 36-13 of HESA 2003 for Commonwealth supported students, for FEE-HELP students existing section 104-1A activated by schedule 5 part 2 of the draft legislation. At public universities, FEE-HELP borrowers are mainly postgraduates, as they cannot offer undergraduate full-fee places except in narrow circumstances.

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Is grade inflation a problem in Australian universities?

In his multifaceted critique of higher education in The Australian yesterday, Adam Creighton makes one infrequently-made claim: that ‘grade inflation is rife’.

In Australia we often worry about soft marking at the pass-fail point, which Adam also mentions. But grade inflation controversies overseas are about too many students receiving high marks. In England, an increase in the proportion of students receiving first-class degrees from 16% in 2010-11 to 29% by 2017-18 has attracted the regulator’s attention. In the United States, critics complain that ‘A’ is the most popular grade.

Australian universities are not required to report student marks, and so we cannot conclusively confirm or reject the grade inflation hypothesis. But the figures we have do not look overly-skewed to the top.

In a paper looking at the relationship between ATAR and socioeconomic status, the NSW Universities Admission Centre earlier this year reported on first-year university grade point averages (GPA). They used a 7 point scale for their GPA.

The UAC’s main point is that ATAR rather than SES best predicts GPA. But it is striking that even the most able first-year students, coming into universities with ATARs of 90 or above, averaged less than a credit grade.Read More »