Representing quality private education
providers in Australia

Musings of a reform journey

Monday, January 23 2017

We all appreciate the real value and importance of quality Tertiary Education. A qualification makes a real difference to a person’s employability and income potential, together with many more social and economic benefits.

The changes that are happening across the economy require an even higher level of knowledge and skill, to not only get a job but to remain productive over one’s working life. Significant changes are going to affect the Australian workforce over coming decades as a result of technological change. With digital disruption already having a telling impact, it is not surprising that around 40% of today’s workforce may be replaced by technology in the next 10 to 15 years.

Therefore, at the risk of being repetitive, future prospects depend, more than ever, on having a highly skilled workforce that is able to respond flexibly to an increasing global market, the growing pace of technological change and the need for ongoing innovation.

Australia needs to continue to develop its world-class tertiary education sector with reforms that provide the flexibility and choices necessary to respond to diverse student and industry needs.

Last week’s release of the Completion Rates of Higher Education Students - Cohort Analysis, 2005-2014, report by the Department of Education and Training adds to the debate and provides an analysis of completions for Australian higher education students.

For the first time, it includes data for private higher education institutions. The addition of private colleges follows their inclusion in a number of recent reports, including the Student Experience Survey and Graduate Outcome Survey.

The data help us understand the growing role of private higher education.

For Table A universities the 4-year completion rate for bachelor degree students has remained largely consistent with previous years (45.0% in 2011 compared to 45.1% in 2010). It is not evident (yet) from the data that the move to demand driven university enrolments (from 2010) has impacted completion rates.

Interestingly, while there has been some debate about the impact of low ATARs on attrition and completion rates, analysis of university bachelor degree student outcomes highlights that the type of attendance (full time, part time) has the greatest impact on completions with student age group, ATARs and mode of attendance (internal/external/multi-mode) having similar, but lesser, impacts.

For private colleges, the completion rate for the 2011 domestic undergraduate student cohort was 39.2%. I should mention that there are also some very distinct cohort differences between the institutions, for example the data include significant diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree students, which makes direct comparison of the rates difficult. Regardless, a major difference appears to be the first-year attrition rate of 23.2% for private colleges, compared to 8.8% for Table A university domestic bachelor degree students.

Overall 46.0% of these private college students completed their course. 

The report does make a direct comparison of public universities and private colleges by considering the outcomes for their respective 2007 bachelor degree students. The following graph from the report highlights the cumulative impact of higher attrition rates for the NUHEI student cohort. Their first-year attrition rate is 27.7% - nearly double that of the university student cohort of 14.7%.


The federal government has expressed concern about higher education attrition rates and recently commissioned the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) to investigate the causes. The publication (for the first time) of this data as part of the government’s higher education transparency reforms will focus attention on those providers with modest attrition rates, as well as broader policy and program considerations.

For us, I mentioned last week that this year will see a real push to lift the standards and reputation of private tertiary education. With this key priority, including a focus on our Quality Endorsed Service, the explicit consideration of student attrition is a relevant indicator.

So what is the importance of the data in 2017?

Perhaps as a precursor to a much broader debate?

In May 2016, the federal government released the Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education consultation paper. That paper outlined the case for funding arrangements that support the best higher education choices for students, industry and the national interest. 

Over the next few months we will be focussing on the reforms required in higher education and will look to ensure a more equitable system is introduced.

For now though there are a couple of key points. The consultation paper articulated that there should be no perverse incentives for students to choose a VET course over a higher education course or vice-versa, yet that is what we now have.

Current VET funding arrangements have seen funding and enrolments decline in recent years, at the same time higher education sector enrolments have grown significantly.

Adding to this is that there are now significant disparities between the HELP loans available for student studying higher education courses and those enrolling in the new VET Student Loans program.

The failure in VET sector governance and funding needs to be addressed in order to have a tertiary education sector that best meets Australia’s future needs.

For higher education, students of private higher education colleges are already at a considerable disadvantage, in that they are required to pay a 25% administration fee, which University students are not required to. Additionally, the current higher education funding system restricts funding to public universities. Students at other providers essentially are required to meet the full costs of their study. This means, for example, a student completing a performing arts degree with a private provider can face tuition fees $38,000 more than their university counterpart.

You will see much more discussion on this important topic.

But for me it is about quality, of which completion rates are but one indicator, and also an equitable access to higher education.

Many things to contemplate……

Rod Camm


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