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Dropout rates at Australian universities have hit their highest level in eight years as booming enrollments of academically struggling students, particularly in regional and online courses, take their toll.

The national average attrition rate for first-year students reached 14.84 per cent in 2013, the highest since 2005. The worst ­affected institution was the University of Tasmania, where nearly one in three students dropped out, new federal Education ­Department data reveal.

It was followed by Swinburne University at 28 percent, Charles Darwin University (26 percent), Central Queensland University (25 percent) and University of Southern Queensland (24.73 percent).

Attrition rates for last year are not yet available.

Experts say there is a direct correlation between increasing attrition rates and the introduction of the demand-driven system by Australia's higher education system in 2012, which allowed univer­sities to enroll as many students as they deemed qualified.

Richard James, a professor of higher education at the Univer­sity of Melbourne, said the spike in dropout rates was not con­sistent across the sector, but it “was a very grim picture for ­certain institutions.”

“Higher attrition is not happening in traditionally high-­status, urban universities,” he said. “It’s students who did not get into their university or course of first preference and who have gone in with marginal levels of commitment. And then the wildcard in all of this is online.”

Swinburne University, which has seen its attrition rate rise from 12.8 percent in 2010 to 28.05 percent in 2013, attributes the rise to the introduction of Swinburne Online, a joint venture with the publicly traded online recruitment and education company SEEK.

Jennelle Kyd, Swinburne’s senior deputy vice chancellor, said Swinburne Online attracted a cohort that differed from on-campus students and higher dropout rates were to be expected.

“You have to recognize the ­average age of students is 31; they are older, life gets in the way, sometimes it is several years since they last studied,” she said.

David Sadler, deputy vice chancellor (students and education) at the University of Tasmania, said increasing enrollments over the past few years was a sign the university was being successful in addressing the state’s chronic underrepresentation of young people in postsecondary education. He also said that a coding error when submitting data had resulted in a dramatic spike in first-year attrition to 31.77 percent. A more realistic figure was about 24 percent, he said.

Andrew Norton, a higher education policy expert with the Grattan Institute, said that he fully supported the continuance of the demand-driven system but that serious questions needed to be asked about the academic standards of some institutions when admitting students, particularly into online courses.

“Most of the people who are high risk don’t really understand the level of the commitment they are undertaking when they enroll,” he said. “If they didn’t do well at school, they probably won’t do well at university.”

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