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.