CM Postgraduate Studies feature - generic students
CM Postgraduate Studies feature - generic students

High uni dropout, job rates for Gillard’s ‘additional’ students

A SCATHING report into university dropout rates has found less capable students were left jobless and saddled with debt after the Gillard government removed placement caps. Meanwhile, the State Budget will fund a Year 1 phonics test trial.

The Productivity Commission will on Monday release a report that shows the creation of unlimited university spots in 2010 boosted take-up, but many new students were ill-prepared and struggled as they lacked the literacy and numeracy skills necessary to complete a degree.

Gillard’s program saw more students from diverse backgrounds study at universities, but a study found they were more likely to drop out and earn less.
Gillard’s program saw more students from diverse backgrounds study at universities, but a study found they were more likely to drop out and earn less.

The changes also left taxpayers to pick up a multibillion-dollar tab, with government expenditure rising from $6.4 billion to $9.3 billion in the eight years positions remained uncapped.

Productivity Commission chair Michael Brennan found that while the policy achieved its goal of getting more people from "low socio-economic backgrounds" to attend university, the additional students had a dropout rate of 21 per cent by age 23.

That compares with a dropout rate of just 12 per cent for other students.

On average, those who dropped out were left with $12,000 of debt and no degree, and went on to earn less money than those who decided not to go to university at all.

"Additional students are less likely than other students to succeed academically," the report found.

"While most students that drop out do so within two years of enrolment, there is a tail of students who attend for longer prior to dropping out.

"It is an opportunity that came with costs, not least to the student. Students who drop out incur fee costs of $12,000, with the costs in terms of forgone earnings likely to be much greater."

And even if the less academically gifted students did graduate, the report found they suffered in the workforce and were paid less on average than other graduates.

"Additional students who graduate face slightly less smooth labour market transitions," the report said.

"They are less likely to be in full-time employment and have lower average weekly pay than other graduates or those who never attended university at age 23 years."

Three in four of the additional students had an Australian Tertiary Admission rank below 70, compared with one in four of the other students­.

Mr Brennan said the findings showed the focus for universities needed to be more on student outcomes than enrolment figures.

"The university sector needs to be motivated by informed choice much more than enrolling large numbers of students, bringing a stronger focus on student outcomes, quality teaching and support," he said.

"Government policy and university business models need to adapt to the ongoing shift to a mass participation model."

The Gillard government's demand-driven university funding scheme was axed by the Coalition in 2018 and replaced by a capped funding model.

The report also found the literacy and numeracy skills of school students - on the decline since 2003 - "should be of concern", and could severely impact the university prospects of children from disadvantaged groups.

"It's a clear challenge for policy," Mr Brennan said of the declining school skills.

"Schools do need to adapt from the world when university was a small, narrow and elite community to now, where 60 per cent of 22-year-olds go to uni."

While more youngsters from low socio-economic backgrounds took up university because of the changes, other target groups were not impacted.

Rather, participation gaps for those from indigenous communities and remote and regional areas may even have widened.

"There was little improvement in participation for regional or remote and indigenous young people, and significant participation gaps remain for all of these groups," the report said.

Mr Brennan described the report as having "mixed" findings on the university cap changes, showing improved university access, higher dropout rates, graduates getting well-paying jobs, a weaker VET and labour market, and strong cash incentives for universities to enrol more students but little reason to support them.



By Anna Caldwell

NSW public school children in grade one will face a statewide phonics screening test under a trial funded in Tuesday's state Budget.

Schools will have the choice to opt in to the standardised testing of their youngest students on their understanding of linking letters to sounds.

The results will put teachers and students under the microscope, and will identify schools and pupils who need to put greater effort into learning to read and offer them help.

Standardised phonics testing has been the subject of dispute, with Queensland's then education minister in 2017 saying the tests were an unnecessary impost on children, and the Australian Education Union said they undermined the judgment of teachers.

Pupils like Girraween Public School’s Andrew Cheng, 6, Aiza Lalani, 5, Gamana Pasupuleti, 5, and Aarnav Matlani, 5, could soon have phonics tests. Picture: Tim Hunter
Pupils like Girraween Public School’s Andrew Cheng, 6, Aiza Lalani, 5, Gamana Pasupuleti, 5, and Aarnav Matlani, 5, could soon have phonics tests. Picture: Tim Hunter

However, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has backed the tests, telling The Daily Telegraph "research shows children who understand the relationship between letters and sounds - known as 'phonics' - will be better placed to succeed as readers".

"This trial will not only be hugely beneficial in making sure students' reading skills progress well, it will also be a helpful tool for teachers to quickly identify children who do not yet have a good knowledge of phonics, and plan for any specific support they need," Mr Perrottet said.

The phonics screening check was developed in the UK and was trialled in 56 schools in South Australia in 2017 before being rolled out statewide.

The test is a short one-on-one assessment between a teacher and child that takes about five to seven minutes. It will be conducted towards the end of grade one.

Literacy expert Dr Jennifer Bucking-ham, a staunch supporter of the tests, said there was no certainty about how well phonics was being taught in NSW.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet. Picture: Brett Costello
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet. Picture: Brett Costello

"That's why a phonics check is so important … it will give us a better understanding of how well students are learning phonics by the end of their second year in school," Dr Buckingham said.

"So any support that children might need in that area can be addressed before they get too far into their schooling."

The phonics check-up will be available to every state school in term three of 2020 and each can elect to opt in to the program. The test will not be compulsory. The project is part of a record education spend in tomorrow's Budget, and aims to increase the standard of reading for NSW children.

Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning Sarah Mitchell said the phonics test was simple to conduct "and a wonderful resource for improving performance".

Non-government schools will also be eligible to participate in the trial if they conducted the Best Start Kindergarten assessment in 2019 or 2020.