Is reverse articulation the answer to improved student retention?

Much has been made in the media of the contention that university dropout rates have been increasing and that they ‘have hit their highest level for eight years as booming enrolments of academically struggling students, particularly in regional and online courses, take their toll’ (Hare, 2015).

To place this in context, in 2013, the national figure for domestic commencing bachelor students in all higher education providers was 14.79%, compared to 13.43% in 2012. This attrition rate is the highest it has been since 2005, when it was 15.04%, which, incidentally, was when the number of places was capped, and before the demand driven system was implemented.

Focus on success rather than attrition

A key aspect of student retention is to facilitate the factors that enable student success, rather than focussing attention on attrition. A concerted approach is needed to ensure students are supported both academically and pastorally, as they make the transition into higher education.

The 2013 review of the demand driven system proposed extending it to sub-bachelor places, to:

‘address student quality concerns about lower ATAR entrants, by increasing their academic preparation before they enter a bachelor‑degree course’ (Kemp & Norton 2014, 82).

Reverse articulation allows university-enrolled students to gain a vocational education and training (VET)-sector qualification or pursue a higher education degree at a public mixed sector provider while proceeding to university degree completion, or taking a break from university-based study.

Student-centric focus

This model allows students who find that they are struggling to succeed at university to continue their studies in institutions that can offer a student-centric focus, where teaching rather than research is paramount. The mixed sector institution can support students to succeed in higher education because they offer small class sizes within a personalised learning environment, where education programs can be tailored to individual needs, which is an important advantage of the mixed sector higher education setting. It offers benefits to students who are reverse articulating in terms of the prospects of obtaining the academic and pastoral support that they require.

Leesa Wheelahan et al. recognise that (2009 p.5) ‘[m]ixed-sector TAFE institutes aim to help their students negotiate the boundaries between VET and higher education qualifications and adapt to learning in university’. The intensive support available to students within the mixed sector creates an enabling environment. Norton (2013 p.8) argues that for students who use their results from a TAFE or a pathways college as their basis of admission [to higher education], [w]ith this additional preparation, on average . . . get higher marks than students who were admitted directly on higher ATARs which, it could be argued, is testament to the intensive support that is offered to students within the mixed sector. Norton contends that sub-bachelor courses, such as diploma or associate degree qualifications offer positive pathways to higher education, and so it could be argued students who might be at risk of exiting from education altogether are offered an alternative and supportive opportunity. This is an area of strength for the mixed sector, where the student cohort has the opportunity to transition back into academic studies within a supportive environment.

Qualification en route to a degree

Reverse articulation students achieve a qualification en route to their degree. Students are often given an edge in the workforce over university students by having earned a recognised credential, especially in cases where students are unable to complete the degree. Reverse articulation allows for the freedom of early transfer, especially in academic disciplines that encourage expedient pathways to the university. As an educational model it is particularly beneficial for low SES, regional and Indigenous students.

Reverse articulation strengthens institutional partnerships and demonstrates commitment to students’ success. It allows for a more accurate depiction of degree completion than is currently accounted for by ABS data and can contribute significantly to retention rates.

It is essential to develop effective policy and procedures that enable seamless transition for the student and the institutions involved.

References

Hare, J, ‘Drop-outs soar as unis ride enrolment boom’, The Australian, 3 August 2015,

Kemp, D & Norton, A 2014, Review of the Demand Driven Funding System Report, Australian Government, viewed 08 September 2014.