BY NADINE ZACHARIAS
Higher education equity performance is most meaningfully analysed longitudinally for changes in broad trends. Year-on-year fluctuations at the institutional level are usually small and might reflect changes in the commencing cohort, the local economy or the institution itself. In that context, the most interesting stories in the 2016 Higher Education Information Management System data emerge from the new measure of ‘first address’ (as in permanent home address at the commencement of study) in the location-based equity groups.
The application of the ‘first address’ measure shows that the sector has systematically and substantially under-estimated the numbers of students from low SES, regional and remote backgrounds at most universities and the sector overall.
Using ‘first address’ as the means to identify equity students results in significant increases in the participation rates of many universities, mainly city based ones. It also slightly reduces the total numbers of low SES students for a handful of universities based in regional and/or disadvantaged areas. The ‘first address’ measure was adopted following a study by Buly Cardak at La Trobe University and colleagues funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and published earlier this year.
At the highest level, the 2015 overall retention rate (all students, undergraduate and postgraduate) softened slightly, especially in NSW (minus 4.5 percentage points). While any annual result should be treated with caution, it shows that the sector retention rate has dipped just below 80 per cent for the first time in seven years. However, this broad result needs to be unpacked carefully to explain the observed changes at sector, state and institutional levels.
Equity students are proportionately affected in that their retention ratios remain just below parity (e.g. 0.96 for students from low SES and regional backgrounds), in line with previous years. Retention ratio is the more meaningful measure because it shows relative performance of students associated with different equity groups in relation to that of non-equity cohorts by institution and for the sector. Inter-institutional differences in retention ratios have been small in the past and this year is no exception. This means that equity students do (almost) as well as the non-equity cohort in most institutions and, in some universities, are retained disproportionately well.
Differences in retention rates between universities can be partially explained by the level of diversity of the student cohort, the size and location of the institution as well as the proportion of online students. The latest analysis of the Student Experience Survey illustrated that many students considered dropping out due to personal circumstances which are often beyond the immediate control of universities. In 2015, there were only two universities with retention rates below 70 per cent. At the other end, most of the Group of 8 had retention rates in the high 80s as well as less diverse student cohorts.
Finally, first year attrition rates were slightly up in 2015 but within the longer term trend. The new adjusted measure of first year attrition shows only slight net differences to the old measure. However, the adjusted measure demonstrates the power of the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number (CHESSN) for tracking students across the sector. Going forward, the Department of Education and Training should track students beyond their first year and report any inter-institutional migration as students progress through their programs, or change their mind.
Nadine Zacharias is a senior research fellow at Curtin University’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education