Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Student drop-out rates on the rise

University drop-out rates are at their highest levels for a decade, with one third of students not completing their degrees. Nationally, almost one in seven first year students will not continue their studies, but it’s far worse in Tasmania where around 30% of first years will drop-out.

The Grattan Institute predicts that an incredible 50,000 students who begin their courses this year will not finish. It’s even worse when you look at part-time students, 50% of which will not finish the course they started.

All of these students who drop-out will still be burdened with a HECS debt, not to mention the time wasted. In one survey of people who had quit their studies some 40% said they regretted studying at university, and around 30% did not think they had gained anything from their time there.

The high attrition rate amongst first year students has also been cited as a reason for a course restructure at Victoria University, with a new ‘first year model’ being introduced this year. But why is the drop-out rate so high?

There is no doubt some students decide their course just isn’t for them, but this is a minority. Undoubtedly, financial stress and insecurity are the main factors causing student attrition rates to rise.

A study from 2015 found that around 30% of students went without basic necessities, including food. Close to 30% had gone without medications, and one third were struggling with rent.

An Anglicare study from last year also made some alarming finds. 89% of students had struggled to pay for textbooks at some point while 85% did not think that Centrelink payments were enough to live on.

The study found that around 75% of students had to find time to work as well as study, with 19% saying that they worked so much it hurt their studies. 40% were aware that they had been underpaid by an unscrupulous employer.

Another survey conducted by the National Union of Students revealed that 70% of Australian student’s mental health was just “poor or fair”. Such was the pressure they felt, one third had considered self-harm or suicide in the past year.

These figures reveal a serious mental health crisis facing students. There can be no doubt that the struggle to pay for rent, food and textbooks is a huge burden that is made much worse by many students being forced to work in low paid insecure jobs.

A report from the Australian Council for Educational Research in 2015 confirmed that financial and mental health/stress factors are the leading cause of students dropping out. It concluded that the top four reasons students considered leaving university were “health or stress, workload difficulties, study/life balance, and financial difficulties”.

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham puts the blame for rising attrition rates solely on the universities. But given the issues faced are much wider, high drop-out rates will not be solved by changes to university polices alone.

Dropout rates will only be fixed by addressing the root causes. In order to be able to complete their studies properly students need both time and financial security.

Course completion rates would rise dramatically if the economic burdens, and time constraints caused by having to work, were removed. In addition, the quality of education would improve if students had more time to dedicate to study. No doubt this would also have a positive impact on people’s mental health.

Socialists demand that students are given the opportunities they deserve. In addition to making education free for all we support increasing welfare payments so that students are not forced to work in low paid casual jobs.

Student allowances should be set at a liveable standard and proper access should be granted to services such as childcare and healthcare, including mental health services.

Most importantly, students need access to quality affordable housing. Governments should build and acquire public housing stock near university campuses and make it available to all those that need it.

Students should be entitled to a quality of life as much as anyone, and a person’s time at university should be a rewarding one. The benefits students would experience from these socialist policies would also carry through to society more generally.

The only way they will be implemented however is if students fight for them. The student unions should link up with the trade union movement to fight for these improvements. Instead of ordinary people suffering to put themselves through university, we should make the employers that benefit from a highly educated workforce pay the costs.

By Dane Letcher