UTAS drop out rates

Recently concern was raised regarding the drop out rates at UTAS:

From reading the ABC article “the growth in overall attrition was swayed by the online and part-time courses aimed at people from lower socio-economic backgrounds”. This in itself is interesting. However, rather than commenting on the issue raised in the articles specifically, I will reflect on my own experience as an online student. My reason for this, is due to the fact that I don’t fit the criteria named up for the affected students in the article.

As a person who holds a previous degree, I already have significant tacit knowledge of how the system works. I enter the space of learning at university with that in my ‘kit bag’. As someone who went to university as a young person I already understand the expectations around study and have support structures in place. As a person who has taught in an online space I have an understanding of how the tools work, which are used to deliver the courses.

During my time studying for a post grad degree I had access to the following (and this is not a definitive list):

  • a supportive partner
  • study leave (provided by my employer – I only became aware of this due to another colleague taking some)
  • support from my colleagues
    • conversations had around the topics that I was studying
    • proof reading my assignments (dare I admit that I never proof read anything in my undergrad)
    • sharing of resources
    • encouragement
    • listening ears
  • a stepped approach to obtaining a Master of Education with Honours (grad cert of Education that fed into a Master of Education, which then fed into a Master of Education with Honours
  • extensions on assignments when I was sick
  • deferring a semester when my father became sick
  • part-time employment for 12 weeks – a supportive workplace really is important
  • recognition of courses from another university
  • support from administrative staff when issues arose around my enrolment and course structures and systems not working
  • Relationships with lecturers – mainly ones I had contact with due to them using video conferencing, a face to face class, connection at a conference or use of a virtual world that required real time participation
  • good internet connectivity
  • easy access to the university library – transport was key here!

The things that made study difficult, and possible completion of a degree problematic, included (again this is not a definitive list):

  • Workload – both course and paid work – juggling life was not straight forward at times.
  • Lecturers who stuck to rigid timeframes for interactions re courses delivered online – it appeared that as a student it was expected that you would access regularly (there was an understanding that online was flexible regarding access and time), yet the lecturer had set times for contact (in some cases this was extremely rigid). Lecturers are confined to a work agreement and as a result the online environment creates a disconnect here.
  • Did I mention life?
  • Interactions in the LMS – feedback was limited, it doesn’t come with the same depth and detail as a face to face interaction.
  • Relationships were difficult to forge. Some lecturers were skilled at developing this within their course, others were not. Some classes had students who were skilled at developing connectedness within their cohort.
  • Isolation – the flexibility of online meant that you felt alone in a course that may have been full of students.
  • Commitment to a course that lacked something – it is all well and good to offer content and assessment, but without a sense of community commitment is harder to develop.

If the university has a commitment to a social mission, of providing access to Tasmanian people who are coming from a lower socioeconomic backgrounds and who are the first generation in their family to attend university, then significant support needs to be provided beyond basic access to courses. Failing to do this, is failing to attend to the social mission. One could be excused for thinking the social mission is more of a business plan, to increase revenue, if other supports are not put in place to enable greater success for those accessing for the first time.




  1. Ken says:

    A radio interview I just heard expressed another view. The student speaking in the interview was adamant that the Uni allowed many students to enter who were simply not up to academic study. That should be reasonably easy to verify based on historical data, student prior achievement etc. The move to Associate Degrees might be more appropriate for some, but it’s hard to see why we need “vocational Associate Degrees” when we already have an established vocational system.

    • dbatty1 says:

      Thanks Ken 🙂 There are many hurdles that create disengagement. The current entry point to university study is quite varied – you don’t need your HSC/TCE/specific ATAR, you can enter via a prep course offered by the university in the space you are interested in. It is quite concerning that people not “up to academic study” may find themselves in a position where they have resulting HECS type debts. It is also concerning that people “not up to academic study” are being encouraged to undertake tertiary study without appropriate support. Re the “vocational Associate Degrees” you raise an interesting point. I guess it is all about the underlying motivators that exist in the space of the university maintaining a relevant and profitable existence. I wonder how UTAS has been impacted by the provision of online learning from other universities in Australia.

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