How high is Australia’s uni drop-out rate?

The report of the Bradley review of higher education policy says that Australia’s university completion rate was 72% in 2005. For this they rely on the OECD’s Education at a Glance publication.

The reason the review report doesn’t use an Australian source is that we actually don’t know what our completion rates are. The attrition rates occasionally published by DEST/DEEWR on a year-to-year basis count someone taking a year off or changing institutions as a ‘drop out’, but someone dropping a course but staying at the same institution in another course as a retention.

The OECD calculates its drop out rate by taking completions as a % of commencements n years earlier. But this is far from straightforward in the Australian statistics, since some people will be counted as ‘commencing’ more than once if they change courses. There used to be a ‘new to higher education’ commencing figure, but unfortunately it no longer seems to be published. But if I remove from the 2005 commencers those admitted on the basis of previous higher education and age the cohort three years I get a completion rate of 87%. Of course this is also highly problematic because some courses are longer than 3 years, and many people take more than 3 years to complete a 3-year course (and many of the people who completed a course will not have enrolled in that particular course originally). But it highlights how statistical factors influence results.

The best way to do this is by a cohort study, and the Bradley report refers to this one (pdf). But for some reason they are rather vague about what it actually finds. They note that about half (49% to precise) of the cohort they were tracking from Year 9 had entered higher education by age 24 in 2005. Bradley says that a ‘significantly smaller’ group – 32% – had completed a higher education qualification, and that is likely that some are still studying. But the cohort study tells us that 10% are still enrolled in higher education. Put them together and 86% of those who ever entered higher education have either completed or are still enrolled.

Since 2005, there has been a national student numbering system, so eventually we will be able to track long-term progress. But the best we can now offer is educated guesses, and it is not clear that the OECD number is the most educated of those guesses.

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