Attrition in the Context of Equity and Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

The literature suggests that there are strong relationships between equity group students and an increased likelihood of, or actual, attrition; examples in the literature that suggest attrition is an issue for a particular group include:

  • For low SES, see Rubin & Wright (2015); Buchanan, Ljundahl & Maher (2015); O’Shea et al. (2016) – although see Gale (2011) for a counterview once students commence their programs;
  • For students with disabilities – particularly psychological illnesses and autism: see Foreman et al., 2001; Ganguly et al. (2015); Owen et al. (2016); Kilpatrick et al. (2016) ;
  • For Indigenous students, see Asmar, Page & Radloff (2015); Bandias, Fuller & Larkin (2013); Day & Nolde (2009); Mahuteau et al. (2015);
  • For first-in-family, see King et al., 2015;
  • In contrast, Mestan & Harvey’s (2014) data suggests that NESB students have higher than average rates of retention.

Edwards & McMillan’s (2015) research strongly suggests that students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to complete their higher education studies, particularly for low SES, rural and remote, and Indigenous students. Their analysis of their data suggests that equity group students are more likely to cite finance, family responsibilities, and ‘getting by’ for withdrawing from their students, whereas non-equity students more likely to cite lifestyle or ‘choice’. For Murray (2013), struggles with gaining academic language proficiency – which can be problematic for both native and non-native English speakers, but particularly students with less familiarity with academia - leads to attrition, as well as a lack of engagement and stigma. Murray argues that difficulties in communicating in academic discourse is a “potential source of real trauma”, reinforcing “latent feelings of a lack of self-efficacy” and can lead to issues getting work after graduating (p.300). Similar arguments have been made specifically about Indigenous students (Asmar, Page & Radloff, 2015; Bandias, Fuller & Larkin, 2013). Asmar, Page & Radloff’s (2015) research shows that there is a stronger likelihood of attrition among Indigenous students than non-Indigenous students, particularly those enrolled in Indigenous-specific programs. Financial reasons are most commonly reported, followed by academic reasons. Indigenous students with a disability are even more likely to consider dropping out. The characteristics of Indigenous students most likely to drop out are:

  • students whose circumstances qualify them for financial assistance
  • students who are studying externally or at a distance
  • students from a provincial or remote area
  • students with a disability
  • older students and
  • male students (p.23)

The work presented in Willcoxon, Cotter & Joy (2011) examines attrition in six Australian universities and compares students at different stages of an undergraduate business degree. Although not specific to any one equity group, this research usefully unpacks students’ reasons for withdrawing from their studies differs according to year of study and university attended. For first year students, the notion of ‘commitment’ for studies was strongly connected with attrition, as well as factors grouped under the label ‘expectations’ and ‘support’. The sensitivity of teachers and support staff was found to be particularly important. In later years, internal factors such as motivation and a paucity of ‘helpful’ feedback (Year 2), and university status and reputation and academic confidence (Year 3) were common reasons for considering withdrawal. In a context where higher education is sold as a route to the ‘good life’, and “in a world where education is increasingly seen as a consumer commodity”, the authors argue that definitions of ‘expectations’ need to be reconsidered; to go beyond “academic expectations of students but also to student expectations of the educational experience that will be provided for them” (p.343).

However, despite patterns of attrition within equity student groups, other research suggests that the recent Australian project to expand higher education – especially to students from low SES students – has not increased rates of attrition. Instead, Pitman, Koshy & Philimore (2015) report work that uses attrition as a proxy for examining the quality of Australian higher education after the implementation of the demand-driven system, and show that attrition rates have actually dropped with the widening of participation in Australia. This suggests that arguments around a ‘decline in quality’ with expansion are unjustified.


Asmar, C.; Page, S.; & Radloff, A. (2015). Exploring anomalies in Indigenous student engagement: findings from a national Australian survey of undergraduates, Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1): 15-29.

Bandias, S.; Fuller, D. & Larkin, S. (2013). Vocational education, Indigenous students and the choice of pathways. NCVER: Adelaide.

Buchanan, J.; Ljungdahl, L.; & Maher, D. (2015). On the borders: adjusting to academic, social and cultural practices at an Australian university, Teacher Development, 19(3): 294-310.

Day, D. & Nolde, R. (2009). Arresting the decline in Australian indigenous representation at university: Student experience as a guide, Equal Opportunities International, 28(2): 135-161.

Edwards, S. & McMillan, J. (2015). Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? Australian Council for Educational Research: Camberwell, VIC.

Foreman, P.; Dempsey, I; Robinson, G.; & Manning, E. (2001). Characteristics, Academic and Post-university Outcomes of Students with a Disability at the University of Newcastle, Higher Education Research & Development, 20(3): 313-325.

Gale, T. (2011) Expansion and equity in Australian higher education: Three propositions for new relations, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(5): 669-685.

Ganguly, R., Brownlow, C., Du Preez, J. & Graham, C. (2015). Resilience/Thriving in Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Kilpatrick, S., Johns, S., Barnes, R., McLennan, D., Fischer, S. & Magnussen, K. (2016). Exploring the Retention and Success of Students with Disability. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

King, S., Luzeckyj, A., McCann, B. and Graham, C. (2015). Exploring the Experience of Being First in Family at University: A 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Project. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Perth: Curtin University.

Mahuteau, S., Karmel, T., Mavromaras, K. & Zhu, R. (2015). Educational Outcomes of Young Indigenous Australians. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Australia. National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS), Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Mestan, K. & Harvey, A. (2014). The higher education continuum: access, achievement and outcomes among students from non-English speaking backgrounds, Higher Education Review, 46(2): 61-80.

Murray, N. (2013). Widening participation and English language proficiency: a convergence with implications for assessment practices in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 38(2): 299-311.

O’Shea, S. & Vincent, H. (2011). Uni-Start: A Peer-Led Orientation Activity Designed for the Early and Timely Engagement of Commencing University Students, The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 59: 152-160.

Owen, C., McCann, D., Rayner, C., Devereaux, C., Sheehan, F. & Quarmby, L. (2016) Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Pitman, T.; Koshy, P.; & Phillimore, J. (2015). Does accelerating access to higher education lower its quality? The Australian experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(3): 609-623.

Rubin, M. & Wright, C. (2015). Age differences explain social class differences in students’ friendship at university: implications for transition and retention, Higher Education, 70: 427-439.

Willcoxon, L.; Cotter, J.; & Joy, S. (2011). Beyond the first-year experience: the impact on attrition of student experiences throughout undergraduate degree studies in six diverse universities, Studies in Higher Education, 36(3): 331-352.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.