Despite interventions, national departure rates from Australian universities remain consistently high at 18% but if we focus only on figures, we fail to adequately address the personal impacts that leaving university has on those who do depart. In fact, we know that these departing students are often the most vulnerable in our society and that leaving university can have long-term repercussions for both individuals and their family / community.
Unfortunately, it is often the ‘individual student’ who is blamed for this apparent lack of success with little regard for other risk factors. The risks associated with attending university are multiple and can include the complexity of managing competing demands (familial and cultural), the various emotional and financial challenges as well as concern and fears around identity formation. Those learners who experience financial disadvantage may also have their choices of university curtailed by geographical proximity or have a deep aversion to taking on student debt.
So what are some of the implications of this for the HE sector and how can these risks be minimised?
There is a need to normalise interruptions in educational trajectories, the ideal student who completes a degree within 3 or 4 years needs to be exposed as the myth it is! Instead institutions need to take a longer view of their engagement with learners that includes a flexible and navigable return policy.
More than ever there is a need to identify diverse student populations in terms of strengths rather than deficits or weaknesses – recognise that those students who are older, those who have taken a non-linear pathway to university (rather than coming straight from school) or who have multiple responsibilities in their lives are also those students who, given the right encouragement and supports, will have the necessary resilience and motivation to continue their studies.
Bring significant others on the journey with these students – don’t engage solely with the individual and instead acknowledge that learners are deeply embedded in social and family networks. Engaging with these networks in a meaningful way can assist students to persist in their university journey rather than depart.
Create networks that recognise learners as being complex entities who come to university with a diversity of informal learning experiences, capitalise on these apriori experiences through opportunities for students to legitimately engage in university life through meaningful ‘students as partners’ ventures.
Utilise alumni as a means to foreground the multiple pathways that students take into and through the higher education sector, use these experiences to realistically measure life post-degree as well
The suggestions above and others are based on extensive research with students who are at various stages of their university degrees and who come from diverse backgrounds. Further details of some of this research and related findings are available in our latest publication: First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation, Palgrave Macmillan