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Getting students into uni is one thing, but how to keep them there?

Written by Sarah O’ Shea, Paul Chandler and Valerie Harwood for The Conversation

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has revealed Labor’s policy platform for higher education, saying the focus would be on retaining students in higher education and curbing the numbers dropping out.

The students most at risk of not graduating are those from equity backgrounds including low socioeconomic and Indigenous students. So how do we make sure these students complete their degrees? Labor has been light on detail, but we know of some things that would help.

Getting students into university

Australian universities have done an excellent job of attracting more students from a greater diversity of backgrounds. From 2007-2013, the rate of undergraduate enrolment increased by over 25%. The growth was spurred by both policy directed at increasing participation rates and the more recent demand-driven system that uncapped university places.

Since 2007, student numbers from designated equity groups have significantly increased. The exceptions have been women in non-traditional areas of study and students from rural and remote areas.

While increased access and participation are cause for celebration, getting students into university is only the beginning of this journey. The successful retention of learners remains elusive. Student dropout rates in Australian universities consistently hover around 18%, with some institutions indicating that an average of 25% of students leave before gaining a degree.

Rates of early departure from university remain particularly high among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, rural and remote areas, and Indigenous students. Obviously for students who fall into multiple equity groups, the possibility of leaving university without a degree increases dramatically.

Entering university has similar characteristics to entering a foreign or unfamiliar country. New students have to master a new and somewhat alien language; all the time adjusting to an unfamiliar environment where accepted etiquettes may be unclear or simply invisible. Expectations, presumed both prior to arrival at university and during the initial stages of study, may remain hidden or unexplained for certain groups.

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Posted 25 September 2015 Posted in Editorial, General, Indigenous, Low SES