Part-timers at greatest risk of failing to complete their studies

by Andrew Norton

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 2 May

There has been controversy raging over the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank for several weeks while a larger problem with university admissions, that of part-time study, is hardly mentioned.

Grattan Institute research has found that studying half or less of a full-time student’s study load is a major non-completion risk. It represents a greater risk of dropping out than having a low ATAR, studying online, being ­mature age, having a low socio-economic status or any other of more than 20 academic and personal variables in a detailed statistical analysis of ­enrolment data.

After controlling for these other characteristics, students who take three or four subjects in their first year are at more than twice the risk of not completing in eight years compared with a student who starts full time. Only half these part-timers will earn a ­degree in that time. The risk is higher again for students taking one or two subjects in first year. Enrolling full time after starting part time reduces the risk. But students who continuously study part time have a poor prognosis.

Fewer than 20 per cent graduate in eight years. With only 9 per cent still enrolled, their final attrition rate will exceed 70 per cent.

The main reasons for low part-time student completion rates are work and family responsibilities.

Part-time students typically spend many more hours a week in employment than full-time ­students. The median full-time student works fewer than 10 hours a week, while part-timers work 30 to 39 hours. Nearly 40 per cent of part-time students aged 25 to 44 have a youngest child under 15.

These competing commitments make full-time study impossible for some students. But the enrolment data shows that some students adapt. Thirty per cent of the mature-age students who start part time and make it to second year convert to full-time study. Perhaps this is because they ­reduce their work hours or share childcare with others.

Although it is good that Australian universities offer flexible options for part-time students, ­including online courses and conveniently scheduled classes, the system is not working as well as it should for part-timers.

Too many enrol without fully appreciating the time demands. Often they drop out, having ­incurred a HELP debt. Others have to reorganise their lives ­before study becomes feasible.

As most part-time students are mature age, they miss out on school course and career advice.

The government could help by ­including completion prospects on the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching student information website. The data would need to adjust for individual study choices, as otherwise the study success of full-time students would give a misleadingly positive view of completion prospects.

University websites for future students rarely make clear the practical implications of part-time study. Only some universities note that courses have maximum completion times. These times vary between institutions but on average students need to pass three subjects a year to complete a bachelor degree within the maximum time. Six per cent of commencing bachelor-degree stu­dents commence by taking fewer than three subjects.

Students can have good reasons for taking fewer than three subjects in a year, such as exploring whether university is the right choice or managing temporary time commitments. But students should understand the time and effort required to complete a ­degree. If they have too few spare hours in their week and cannot make more time available then enrolling probably isn’t a good idea.

Once prospective part-time students accept an offer of a student place, universities should check at enrolment and re-enrolment that they are on track to complete their studies, or have a credible plan to catch up if they are taking fewer subjects than needed in a semester or year.

The main higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, mon­itors student attrition rates. But its routine annual risk assessment is done on a whole-of-­institution level. In universities dominated by full-time students, their good results could conceal poor outcomes for part-timers. Analysing attrition for part-time students would encourage universities to look carefully at how part-time students are managed.

Australia’s open higher education system, which allows many people to try university, is a good one overall. But with openness comes risk to students, and we could do more to protect part-time students from unrealistic study decisions.