A year ago, I voiced my concern with the delays in releasing data which form part of the higher education statistical collections (CMM, 13 February 2022). I argued that the release of the statistical information needs to occur a lot sooner, ideally within 90 days from the date of submission. Timely release of the information assist decision makers in making informed decisions.

Recently, the Australian Department of Education released a set of tables from the 2021 student data collection but is yet to release the datasets which it makes available to institutions. The 2021 Financial tables were also released so was the national datafiles from the Graduate Outcomes Survey. In the past, these datasets were all released before year’s end.

There are so many things to look for each year when the national higher education statistical datasets are released. Let me distil some insights from two key areas: Student progress rate and students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. These are two domains of institutional concern and feed into the current debate on higher education policy.

 Student Progress Rate

Student progress rate (SPR) is a measure which has been used in Australian higher education since the 1980s. SPR is defined as the pass rate but often referred to as student success, which can lead to confusion.

SPR is the proportion of actual student load for units of study passed each year. It is calculated by the number of passed units divided by the sum of units passed, units assessed and units withdrawn. It means any unit of study yet to be commenced in the year, still in process of completion, or completion status not yet determined, are excluded. It is a lagging measure which can only be meaningfully derived once a year.

Over the 2005 to 2021 period the progress rate among domestic commencing bachelor students (Table A providers) declined eight times and increased eight times. SPR has ranged from a low of 83.1 per cent in 2013 and a high of 85.8 per cent in 2020. SPR declined for four years consecutively between 2010 and 2014, driven in part by tightening of regulations and institutions being mandated to undertake granular analysis and monitoring of student progress.

In 2021, nationally the SPR declined 0.8 points from 85.8 per cent in 2020 to 85.0 per cent. There were 28 institutions which experienced a decline compared to an average of 10 in 2020 and about the same the preceding two years.

The implication for universities they need is to increase the level of support provided to students to mitigate this rate of failure. Universities need to be more vigilant in monitoring student progress on an on-going basis across the various cohorts, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also means universities keeping an eye on who gets admitted and on what basis.

What we are likely to see for 2022 is that the SPR would have declined for a second consecutive year nationally, driven in part by the disruption caused by the pandemic which has hindered students’ ability to study as expected. But also, policy changes introduced by government, including the Low Completion Rate requirements out of the Job Ready Graduates programme  are resulting in hundreds of students being discontinued due to poor academic performance. Andrew Norton’s 2020 piece in The Conversation alerted us on what to expect when the government’s measures to reduce fails kicked in. I fear we will continue to see weakening SPR across many institutions over the next two to three years.

Students from Low Socio-Economic Status  backgrounds

This is one of the defined student equity groups, and it has been a key focus in government policy. One of the recommendations from the Bradly Review was that by 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments should be people from low SES backgrounds. In 2021, Australia’s target was short by 3.4 per cent (16.6). There were 14 universities which had enrolments over the 20 per cent target, three institutions which were close to target, and eight had less than 10 per cent of enrolments of students from this cohort.

Daniel Edwards and Hamish Coates identified that students from low SES backgrounds were more likely to attend institutions that were less than 50 years old or in regional locations. Broadly this assertion stands correct when it was made in 2011, except when it comes to the age of an institution. Since then, there are six fewer universities which are less than 50 years old. Of the 25 universities in 2022 which were less than 50 years old, ten exceeded the national target; two were close to it; two were less than halfway of achieving it; the rest had varying percentages of enrolments.

Through the lens of institutional affiliation, all seven members of the Regional Universities Network had 20 per cent or more of enrolments of students from low SES backgrounds. Of the seven members of the Innovative Research Universities, three exceeded the national target; one was close to achieving it; one well below halfway; the others ranged between 14 to 18 per cent. Two of the six Australian Network Institutions exceeded the national target and the others ranged between 12 to 16 percent. Of the Group of Eight, five universities had less than 10 per cent of enrolments of low SES students and the other three ranged between 10 to 15 per cent of enrolments.

Unsurprisingly, Go8 institutions have the lowest attainment rates for low SES students. The top 10 universities with the highest attainment rates are drawn from regional Australia and those university which have a strong commitment to social justice.

One of the key areas for review as part of the Australian Universities Accord is to recommend new targets and reforms to support greater access and participation for students from underrepresented backgrounds. One would also assume that with increased access and participation comes increased rates of student success and higher attainment rates for students from underrepresented groups.

Peter Scott in his magnificent book Retreat or Resolution? Tackling the Crisis of Mass Higher Education, discusses at length the challenges facing higher education. Scott also provides us with a set of strategic recommendations on how to resolve the crisis of further expansion and have a decisive shift towards a universal system of tertiary education that provides fair access to all.

Scott says that one of the things which need to be done is to “equalise the social profile of students across all kinds of institutions, including (and specially) major research-focused universities” (p 178). This is a point which I would like to encourage the Accord Panel to consider as part of the spectrum of recommendations for the future of Australian higher education.

Imagine how significantly Australian higher education (and society at large) will be transformed if those universities which have low rates of participation of students from low SES backgrounds are required to increase year-on-year to levels comparable to sector averages over the next decade or two. Achieving this outcome may not be easily attained as there are likely to be a number of barriers to overcome, and possibly unintended consequences.

To achieve this outcome, a shared vision towards a common goal (i.e., sovereign capability) is required and strong leadership to guide us all in the pursuit of this goal. In doing so we will effectively reimagine the role higher education plays in Australian society. It will also help us progress the United Nations’ 2030 sustainable development agenda, particularly Goal 16, in the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Angel Calderon is Principal Adviser, Policy and Research at RMIT


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