Student attrition is a symptom of cascading problems

This post is about student attrition (and student completions) and has two parts. In the first part, I try to explain why I think student attrition will become a significant issue (again) in the Australian Higher Education sector over the next few years, and in the second part, I try to explain why I think university responses to student attrition are fundamentally flawed and most often ineffectual.

I hope I am wrong (the early data actually suggests I might be), and the Australian Higher Education sector’s student retention and attrition rates remain relatively stable – but there is some logic behind my thinking. The COVID pandemic started in earnest during 2020 when the governments of the world began implementing all sorts of responses aimed at arresting the spread of the virus. These responses had many and varied negative impacts on students and Australian University students in particular. I think it is fair to say that 2020, 2021 and perhaps 2022 were very disruptive for Australian university students, and this will have an impact on student attrition numbers.

Whether right or wrong, student attrition numbers are a quality indicator in the Australian Higher Education sector. Universities are particularly sensitive about their student attrition numbers and the potential PR problems they can entail. Student attrition is a lag indicator which means it typically takes a couple of years before the bad news arrives. I would argue that we are yet to see just what impact the pandemic alone has had on student attrition, but there are other, perhaps more important factors at play that need mentioning. During 2022, Australia’s unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point since 1974, and low unemployment often correlates with declining university participation rates. Australia is also in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis brought about by “rabid” inflation, which is significantly impacting on university students and cost-of-living more broadly. Now throw into the mix university staff losses, belt-tightening and inevitable declines in student services over the last couple of years as universities responded to reduced international-student income. I think we have a developing storm around student attrition. Again, I hope I am wrong.  

A colleague and I have written a couple of papers (here and here) about student attrition in the past, where we make some assertions:
– How universities conceptualise and think about student attrition is fundamentally flawed
– Student attrition is an intractable, non-linear and entangled problem that cannot be solved using the usual tools in a university’s methodological toolbox.

Imagine you work at a university where student attrition has skyrocketed, and now picture the inevitable unequal and opposite overreaction that follows. Chances are that you would see management kick off some detailed analysis process that will likely include some external consultants, plans for new systems, processes and policies are developed, budgets are set, accountabilities are established, and a project is kicked off to “solve” the problem. And in a few year’s time, rinse and repeat. In one of our papers, we argue that the nature of student attrition “precludes one-shot solutions based on simple models of the problem” (Beer & Lawson, 2016), but this is what generally happens. We repeatedly try to solve the problem within boundaries defined by our current structures, methodologies and institutionalisms.

I’d go as far as to suggest that attrition is not the problem but the symptom of a host of other problems. If we think of attrition as an observed phenomenon arising from a complex system, then it has many distributed, interacting parts, which means the idea of central control is illusionary. So rather than assuming attrition is a simple problem whereby we do X, and we get Y result, I propose we need to think about attrition differently. There are mountains of advice telling us that if we do X or adopt system Y, our attrition will magically disappear overnight. As silly as this sounds, we fall for it. So my thing is, let’s think about it in a different way, and there is some philosophical evidence that suggests that this approach has merit.

Top-down directives, reductionist approaches, and linear perspectives whereby it is assumed that by targeting “this particular vulnerability, we get this effect” is well suited to hierarchal (and bureaucratic) world views (Zweibelson, 2015). I would argue that university management and operations tend to be based on techno-rationalism whereby there is a desire for prediction and direct control, which plays ontologically and epistemologically into how we construct, select and subsequently measure success (Zweibelson, 2015). In the case of student attrition, epistemology is acting as the gatekeeper for methodology in that it influences what is and what can be known. In other words, I think we continue to delude ourselves by thinking that a problem like student attrition can firstly be solved; secondly can be solved using centralised approaches; and thirdly, can be solved based on ontological assumptions that the associated systems are measurable, comprehensible and controllable.

If time permits, I would like to follow up on this post and offer some suggestions for moving forward. I think there is also a very interesting leadership piece attached to this post whereby I think Mary Uhl-Bien’s complexity leadership and Dave Snowden’s Sensemaking ideas fit nicely into a distributed, complexity-based approach to student attrition.


Some notes about “bullshit”

I follow a Youtube channel that covers the military-industrial complex and military investment around the world. What I like about this channel is that it talks about military capability and quality in terms of strategy, intelligence and logistics, and not in terms of the number of tanks and aircraft. A recent video on this channel talked about the ongoing Russian failures in Ukraine and focused on what they describe as one of the Four Horsemen of military underperformance. “Vranyo” is a Russian word that the video described as a culture of lying.

According to Wiktionary, Vranyo is defined as “White lies or half-lies in Russian culture, told without the intention of (maliciously) deceiving, but as a fantasy, suppressing unpleasant parts of the truth“. Perhaps more simply put, Vranyo is about covering one’s own arse and pretending that everything is ok. In Australia, we use an all-encompassing term to describe this phenomenon, no matter the magnitude – “Bullshit”. Now call me cynical, but I would suggest that anyone who has been involved with reporting in any large organisation would be familiar with this phenomenon. The regular reports that narrow in scope as they vertically traverse our organisational hierarchies will tend to be predisposed to good news over bad. I guess it’s human nature; nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news when it could impact their job or their standing.

“As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

The aforementioned video talks about the cascade of bullshit (Vranyo) in the Russian military-industrial complex and political system. I would argue that we observe similar phenomena, albeit with far less consequence, on a daily basis in higher education. The decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy are at the end of an upwardly cascading chain of “Chinese Whispers” that can be dominated by positive imagery, or when bad news can’t be avoided, it is accompanied by a positively framed path to resolution. There are shades of Plato’s Cave here in that the mental models of the people in the upper echelons of the organisation are the product of their ability to sense what is happening in the environment. Throw into this mix the use of external consultants who lack intimate knowledge of the context and are masterful at telling people what they want to hear, not what they necessarily need to hear.

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

In my experience, the problem gets worse when we are talking about education technology inside a university. Education technology conversations in universities tend to be highly political and provide “powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others” (Selwyn, 2016). Discussions about technology often use language that conveys certainty, confidence and revolutionary potential, when history shows that “education has been largely un-transformed and un-disrupted by successive waves of technological innovation” (Selwyn, 2016). The indifference, ignorance or misinterpretation of objective reality has, based on my observations, become a very real problem for universities that are supposed to be at the vanguard of critical thinking.


Frankfurt, H. G. (2009). On bullshit. In On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit… and what might be done about it. In: Taylor & Francis.

Education – Profit or liability?

The Queensland Audit Office recently released its audit report on education institutions for 2021. Overall, the financial health of the seven Queensland universities was better than anticipated. Of the seven, four had budgeted for a loss during 2021 and it turned out that only one posted an actual loss. There were a number of things I found interesting in this report beginning with the following sentence:

Most have realised the benefits from financial sustainability measures they implemented in their response to the pandemic in 2020, particularly from lower employee costs

The report then goes on to detail the financial performance of these Queensland universities including a statement that will no doubt cause some angst in the corridors of power in our universities:

This year, the Australian Government changed the funding arrangements. Universities’ funding increased by $110.1 million under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and by $170.3 million from Australian Government research packages. While this eased the financial pressures caused by COVID-19, this funding is not guaranteed in future.

A similar report was recently published by the Victorian Government that also focused on the financial performance of their universities and the results were somewhat similar with most universities earning more than they are spending. I’m sure all of the other Australian states have similar reports available from their own audit departments that tell a similar story – yes COVID hurt the bottom line but we are still making more than we spend and things are improving.

It might just be me, but I have a number of concerns about these reports and their focus. Sure the drain on the public purse is important. Universities and university management need to be held to account for the funding they receive, and the money they spend – I get it. However, if the dominant lens by which we are going to assess the worth of our universities is going to be exclusively financial, then we are missing the point. A great article in the Campus Morning Mail this week said:

…different discourses about costs and value are embedded in the neoliberal policies that currently inform VCs and senior managerial decision-making in Australia’s public universities. These discourses are underpinned by accounting methodologies better suited to commercial, for-profit corporations.

The article said that the Victorian Audit office relies on 11 financial and only one non-financial indicator to make a judgement about each university’s sustainability. I wonder if this relates to the idea of metric fixation – “what gets measured, gets done”. As an aside, my preferred aphorism when it comes to metric fixation and how most organisations report on their performance is “they use stats like a drunkard uses a lamp-post; for support, not illumination”.

It has been said so many times previously that education is a social process and a long-term investment in a society’s future – something that I personally agree with. But then we hear things like the aforementioned from the Queensland Audit Office that links university sustainability with “lower employment costs” and almost exclusively uses financial metrics to evaluate the sustainability of universities. We also regularly hear Vice-Chancellors and other university managers complain that the single largest expense to the university is salaries. Well yes…If education is a social process and a public value activity that serves a public interest, and not a factory that produces widgets, then what’s your point? This is usually when I get an eye-roll and a “but the reality is…” to which I argue that we have created this reality when we have the ability to change this reality. I just haven’t figured out how yet.

Education – Profit or liability?

Ramblings from the complexity and change conference

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the 1st International Change and Complexity in Learning conference at the University of South Australia. The conference was about education institutions and how they respond to rapidly increasing complexities associated with new technologies and globalisation. What made this conference especially enjoyable for me, besides the topics of conversation, was that I got to meet in-person some people whose work I’ve followed for many years – most notably Professor Mary Uhl-Bien-Bien, Professor Dave Snowden and Professor George Siemens. The conference included a number of great keynotes and panel discussions which will feed my PhD thesis for some time. As a PhD student, I found the conference included quite a lot of philosophical presentations and conversations that I thoroughly enjoyed. While the following ramblings likely include my cognitive biases, it distils some half-thoughts provoked by the conference that I garnered from both the presentations and the conversations with other participants.

We have a higher education sector (and system) in Australia that is, at the moment and based on my personal opinion, incapable of delivering what the country needs now, much less into the future. Our society in its totality is a function of our education institutions (see Michael Crow and I believe that Higher Education in Australia is failing on any number of levels around things like scale, speed, flexibility, equity, accessibility and ultimately, fitness for purpose. I’m one of those naive idealists who think of education as a public good and something very different from a business. This doesn’t preclude for-profit education, but rather acknowledges the social complexity and potential long-term benefit afforded by a functioning education system. While it is easy to point the finger of blame at the Government for broken funding models, or COVID for the overnight departure of so much international student income, or even institutional management for unsustainable business models and ill-informed spending, I think we are now struggling to deal with the system of systems that we have created…we have created!. We designed these systems so it follows that we should be able to change them right? But how does one change the direction of an ultra-large crude oil tanker seemingly determined to beach itself?

According to Michael Crow (who was quoted by a couple of presenters), our organisations have become intense bureaucracies that are incapable of changing. The purpose of bureaucracies is self-preservation and the inherent organisational silos that develop within these bureaucracies have become “cottage industries” that actively preserve the status quo and reinforce existing structure. It is the natural state of bureaucratic organisations to submit to order and prioritise stability, where the very thought of change can be perceived as threatening and disturbing. Dave Snowden in his talk referred to these systems as a solid in a solid-liquid-gas analogy about flexibility and rigidity. The trouble is that education is a social process (Professor Shane Dawson), a craft that combines theory and practice (Dave Snowden). It is not a product with outcomes but a complex social process (Dave Snowden). But we seem to be suicidally determined to manage our educational institutions as if they are a production-line factory that produces widgets. In other words, there is fundamental dissonance between our education system’s purpose, how we achieve the purpose, and the true nature of the social systems involved. I am also likely falling into the trap that Dave Snowden calls out:

The single most important need at the moment is for people to stop describing how things should be (it’s a disease) and start with describing how things are” (

If you are like me, you are a little fish swimming in the big pond that is your educational institution and this limits the influence you can have to effect change, but more importantly, I would also argue that the hierarchical arrangement of our organisations and the obsessive focus on plans and planning impact on our perceptions, our agency and our ability to truly evaluate “how things are” (I did get in trouble once for adding a small Soviet flag to my feedback on a five-year plan document). There is also the “Prophet” problem that seems quite pronounced in Universities for some reason. So a challenge for me moving forward is to give some thought as to how I can help facilitate more abductive reasoning around decision-making in my little neck of the woods.

There were a number of things talked about at the conference that I found helpful for someone who would like to see their institution become more adaptable and welcoming of new ways of doing things. Mary Uhl-Bien-Bien talked about the idea of adaptive spaces whereby the adaptive space is the conditions that enable an adaptive process to occur (Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Winston Churchill suggested that you should “never let a good crisis go to waste” whereby a crisis tends to loosen up the system and make the system more amenable to change. The adaptive space is what allows the development of new ways of thinking and operating (Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Universities have any number of pressures such as financial challenges, academic misconduct, technology flux, workloads and flexible options for students to name but a few. These pressures, when they become a crisis, open up adaptive spaces that enable change and adaptation to occur; changes that then become part of the system as it phase-shifts from crisis back to homeostasis. In other words, the paradigm shifts and a new order is created. This raised a number of questions for me to explore:
• Change is learning so how do we carve out spaces in our ordered bureaucracies to enable safe-fail approaches to these pressures?
• How do we actually create adaptive space in our highly constrained operating environments?
• How do we pragmatically leverage the pressures to develop adaptive spaces?

Lots to think about in the coming months and a big shoutout to the conference organisers. I hope this becomes a regular event.

Uhl‐Bien, M. (2021). Complexity and COVID‐19: Leadership and Followership in a Complex World. Journal of Management studies, 10.1111/joms.12696.