12 July 2010
Internationally the focus is intensifying on retention of students in programmes in both tertiary and secondary programmes. That stubborn statistic that tertiary education systems in the English-speaking world are unable to budge is starting to be of interest to the funders of systems that have become more permissive in terms of access and the kinds of programmes offered while mechanisms for funding of secondary education are facing an overhaul.
It remains a truth that about half of the students who start a postsecondary qualification actually complete it. Now before blood pressure lifts in response to this, it has to be kept in mind that this is true of tertiary education in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. This cannot be about the competence of tertiary providers in all of those countries, the issue cannot be simply one of standards; the issue must lie in a complex set of features of those systems that result in this. And remember too that this statistic has sat there for 60 years unchanged.
An excellent study of this in New Zealand shows that 40% of students will have completed their qualification five years after starting while 9% were still working towards it – 51% had left without completing. The figures for students starting their first qualification were not quite as good, 37% completed and 57% left. The figures improve as the level of the qualifications lift from certificates (30%) up to Masters (59%).
So the current attention being given to funding for performance raises some very important issues.
How is this to be measured? The international literature is clear – the most critical progression is from Year 1 to Year 2. Institutions that are able to lift their rates of progression at this level will in the end have higher overall statistics for completion. So a clear focus on Year 1 to Year 2 progression would seem to be best. I am surprised therefore that New Zealand is looking at making this less clear and intending to somehow aggregate progression at whatever level it occurs – Years 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4 and so on. This shift in focus from attrition to retention removes any notion that there is a reasonable time in which qualifications should be completed.
Aggregating retention figures and in so doing obscuring attrition rates will help no-one.
It might also make less clear just where attrition / retention issues are at their most critical – Year 1 to Year 2. It could be that paying attention only to the Year 1 to Year 2 progression rates is a sharper means of effecting improvement. It also provides a clearer focus for institutions, something to aim at and know to what extent improvement is happening. Later when that indicator is lifted, attention might shift to overall qualification completion rates. Lifting Year 1-2 progression rates will in fact inevitably see that completion rate rise.
A further reason for putting the attention at the front end of postsecondary courses is that it will encourage much greater care with selection of courses. Is this student in the right course? Do they know what is involved, what will be required of them? It will also lead to much clearer thinking about what constitutes an adequate preparation for the chosen programme.
This means not only that a tertiary provider will have to be much more articulate about the requisite skills and knowledge required for students entering a programme but also that they will need to do something about monitoring the incoming students, spotting weaknesses early (probably in the first two weeks) and responding to them. It will also place some added responsibility on secondary schools who, on the basis of better information, will be able to better prepare students for the pathway they are choosing. The secondary school has a clear role in the successful transition of students from that level into tertiary education.
So will the proposed quarterly funding of students in secondary schools help? Well, it all depends how the money saved is used. Assuming that secondary schools can cope with the added sophistication of planning for a shifting (and in many cases diminishing) resource base, the difficulties of this should not be underestimated, there could well be an argument for closer tertiary / secondary co-operation where students planning to leave are offered transition programmes in the secondary school. In essence they could make a decision to leave school but stay in the school and work towards the transition.
The key factor for a school under this new funding regime will be stability of the school roll. I believe therefore that the winners and losers under this new approach will not be as some people expect. Many low decile schools have rolls are pretty stable and the biggest impact could well be on middle decile schools where rolls are more volatile.
Regardless of the impacts of these various changes one thing is clear. It will no longer be that case that no-one is responsible for student progression. Schools will be encouraged to retain students while the tertiary providers will similarly have to see retention as the most important measure of success. And at long last, completion within a reasonable time will be seen as a sound goal.
All this will require sound performance at all levels – early childhood education helping get little ones ready for school, primary schools that deliver students to secondary schools ready to face work at that level, secondary schools that sharpen the focus on those skills and start the transition to postsecondary qualifications and tertiary providers that deliver the goods – completed qualifications.
And all that should be done within a reasonable time but that is another issue.
 Scott, David (2005) Retention, Completion and Progression in Tertiary Education in New Zealand, Ministry of Education, Wellington (http:www.educationcounts.govt.nz)