Short termism is alive and well on both sides of politics

I continue to be dismayed at the short-termism that governments and organisations are engaged in. The latest example is from the Australian federal opposition government. Keep in mind this article was reported in the The Australian Newspaper which does tend to lean to the right (anti-Labor for those not familiar with Oz politics). The article describes a plan by the federal opposition to link university funding with productivity, retention rates and graduate outcomes. Labor argues that universities are “focused on harvesting enrollments for revenue with insufficient regard for graduate outcomes or ensuring students – particularly from low socioeconomic backgrounds – complete their studies”. Yep. True that.

However the problem will come when funding is coupled with university performance. In essence, a KPI. This is where the task corruption will creep in. A Twitter response about the story:

” I think I will ditch my exam and implement an 80% finger painting task. Problem solved!”

Student retention is extraordinarily complex and is especially susceptible to task corruption. Labor is trying to make universities more accountable for student retention. More accountability is good; however the problem I have with this plan is the complete lack of understanding about student attrition and a lack of vision for the future.

In a recent publication (in print), we looked closely at the causes of student attrition based on a recent survey of students who failed to re-enroll. It should come as no surprise that the top three reasons for student attrition as cited by students was work, family and personal. We also looked at the various combinations of factors that students cited. These three top reasons were not mutually exclusive and when looked at the combination of multiple factors, it turned out that the vast majority of factors were beyond a university’s ability to influence. By our (very rough) reckoning, less than 5% of student attrition can be influenced by universities. It’s the things happening in students’ lives and macro-level societal factors that have the vast majority of impact. And this is before we consider the problem of task corruption that David has described previously.

Governments are always trying to reduce the drain that education places on the public purse. I can’t help thinking of the other side of the argument. Education is an investment for the future that goes beyond the next election, or even the next 10 elections. Short term penny pinching is all well and good, but don’t we need a more balanced approach?

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