Equity groups have increasing access to higher education enrolment, but factors including health, finance and disposition towards study can contribute to the decision of disadvantaged students to drop out of university study. This study looked at the determinants of student satisfaction and academic outcomes at university, with a focus on equity group differences.
The 2008 Bradley Review of Australian higher education identified the need to better support access and participation of disadvantaged individuals in higher education, with the aim of improving their socioeconomic outcomes through the provision and attainment of university study. The recommendations of the Bradley Review have had bipartisan support and have led to a number of initiatives within the higher education sector aimed at achieving the targets set out in the Bradley Review.
Over the past decade, participation in higher education by Australians from disadvantaged groups has been increasing. However, their degree completion rates still lag behind those of their fellow students from more privileged backgrounds. It is thus of interest to explore the differences in university academic outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as the determinants of those differences. In addition, it is of interest to examine whether there are differences in student experience at university for disadvantaged groups, and how student experience contributes to academic outcomes.
This study investigated the determinants of student satisfaction in Australian higher education, with a focus on students in various equity groups. Furthermore, the study examined the determinants of three key academic outcomes:
- being at risk of dropout
- actual dropout from university studies
- academic performance, as measured by students’ Weighted Average Marks (WAM).
This study was based on data from the national University Experience Survey (UES), supplemented with demographic and enrolment data from the Higher Education Information Management System, and WAM data from 13 participating universities. The study examined seven equity groups: Indigenous; students from Non English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB); Disability; Women in STEM; Low SES; Regional and Remote; First in Family.
The UES measures five facets of the higher education student experience:
- engagement with learning at their institution
- satisfaction with the quality of teaching they have experienced
- satisfaction with the learning resources provided by their institution
- satisfaction with the support they received at their institution
- satisfaction with the skills development they experienced through their studies.
In addition to the items asking students to rate their levels of engagement and satisfaction with different aspects of their university experience, students were also asked to indicate whether they had seriously considered leaving their university in the year the survey was administered. Actual dropout from higher education was also examined, using data sourced from the Higher Education Information Management Systems. Course weighted average marks data from 13 participating institutions were also analysed, in order to examine the academic performance of disadvantaged university students. Logistic regression models were estimated in the models of at-risk of dropout and actual dropout, while linear regression models were estimated in the models of academic marks.
Key findings and recommendations
The results of this study suggested that equity students in Australia were generally well-supported at university and were satisfied with most aspects of their educational experience. However, students from non-English speaking backgrounds or who have a disability were found to have lower levels of student satisfaction across most dimensions.
Equity group membership is not found to be associated with an increased likelihood of considering leaving university in the short term. However, students from most of the equity groups, particularly students who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Straits Islander, who have disabilities or who were from regional or remote locations, are more likely to consider leaving university than non-equity students. Financial and health reasons are identified as strong drivers of these students’ consideration of leaving university, while at the same time, the disposition of equity group students towards university study reduced their likelihood of considering leaving university relative to non-equity students.
The models of actual dropout behaviour showed that students from equity groups are not statistically different from non-equity group students in terms of the likelihood of dropping out, although being at risk of dropping out (i.e. considering leaving university) is a significant predictor of actual dropout, particularly for commencing students. Equity group students are also shown to perform less well academically, relative to their counterparts. At the same time, academic performance is also shown to be an important influence on university dropout – academically weaker students are more likely to drop out from university study.
Conclusions and considerations for policy
The findings of this study indicate a strong need to provide support to students from equity groups from an early stage of their access and participation in university studies. The results from the various analyses all indicated stronger equity effects for commencing students as opposed to students at a later stage of their studies. This itself is likely attributable, at least partially, to especially vulnerable students dropping out relatively early in their courses; this is all the more justification for providing early support. Finally, it should be recognised that there could be a need for support for equity students from beyond the higher education sector, particularly in the areas of financial support and health, in order to level the odds for such students to succeed graduating from university.