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Data backs the importance of university sport and student retention rates


Every student experience is different on university campuses around Australia. Creating identities, being part of clubs and teams and forging bonds with other students are fundamental building blocks to an enriched student experience. To date however, the link between sport participation on campus and student retention rates has not been clearly defined.

UniAnalytics (UA) is a world first company who have worked with over 30 universities in Australia and the UK over the past 14 years to pioneer algorithmic technology to predict a score based on a student’s activity and this student’s risk of dropping out of university.

Founder of UA, Ranjit Singh Rees-Sidhu (Sid) discusses the foundations of his business and the importance sport plays in the overall student experience on university campuses in Australia.

“I’ve always thought that universities are quite unique in how they have a massive student presence so it’s a bit different than the usual online world (universities) have all the daily interaction from what is happening in real life.

“We’ve worked with about 25 UK universities and six Australian universities, with marketers as well as student evaluations and departments. UniAnalytics specialise in university information and data because we think it is quite unique as a sector.”

Discussing work done specifically with Curtin University, Sid talks to the initial framework design attempting to understand the types of interactions different students were having with the range of services universities offer.

“From our work, primarily in Australia with Curtin University, over the last three years, the first question was: how can we actually put a value on, and understand what that value is, for a particular service to a student? What we had to do wasn’t immediately obvious. We had to start from the beginning and create the modelling and a statistical framework to understand and evaluate particular services, be it sports, counselling, housing or what ever services the university offered,” he said

“Curtin University were providing a wide range of student experiences and it wasn’t clear what services were helping the student achieve better results and how they retained the students, so retention and improvement of results were the key drivers.

“From the masses and masses of information, millions of data points each day, we were able to create an algorithmic predictor which allowed us to predict a score based on the student’s activity, how much we think they were at danger of leaving, or how their academic performance was tracking, with the major focus on retention.

“We launched the predictor model 8 months ago and we’ve gone through the first stage of evaluation with Curtin and the results have been very impressive.”

The correlation between students actively participating in sport on campus and high retention rates are clear.

“With the universities we have worked with, we’ve found that sport has been essential when we correlate sport with retention, we find that it is a key factor. So from all the different universities we work with from the results we’ve seen, we can generally say that sport is a very important factor in student retention,” said Sid.

Interestingly the data sets created through the touch points available, allow UA to study which sports have higher retention rates and which sports may assist in retaining international students.

“We get the information from the sports clubs and work with students who participate in sport off campus as well. A majority of universities have a campus sports club, so we get the information from them on which students are members, who has come to pre play (trials) and who got involved in the first week. We then tie that back in with all our other data which we refer to as the spine of our analysis and from that, we will be able to see what different sports did to the retention and behaviour of that student”, he said.

“From one university we worked with, we found that international students from China, their retention rate increased incredibly when involved with the badminton club. Sports clubs at the universities can deep dive into the data so they can literally click and say, you know what? We have a problem with retention from a certain country, let me look and see what sports the students from this country are interested in and how it’s affected retention. They can then make a business case as for why that should be done. We provide clear hard data for funding reasons for sports clubs and supporting why sport is so important for the universities.”

Bespoke models are created allowing each university to gain a clearer understanding of where their retention challenges are. Furthermore, the data points allow the universities to understand the best initial form of contact towards at risk students. Sid explains.

“Because we know universities so well, we have been able to tailor the model to the universities rather than have a product that universities have to try and latch onto”, he said.

“From the data we are recommending interventions based on what will work for that particular student. Communication lines such as email, phone calls or asking them to come in for a chat.

Once the intervention is complete, through an app or another piece of software we’ve designed, that intervention will be graded and fed back into the predictor to enrich the data source.

From a sport participation and retention perspective, a university can gather statistical data and see the students who have been attending and participating in sports clubs, they might have a three times better retention rate. When this is monetised around the fee’s students are paying, it may be up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When someone gets involved, comes and does something enjoyable and has a feeling of self-worth and is being a part of a club and feels associated to the brand of the university, that is going to have a positive effect. University sport is incredibly under-rated in those factors. What we are finding, is that the data is completely backing this up. When we look at the data we have not had a single time where sport services hasn’t been of a beneficial factor”, Sid said.

“It’s very exciting and the feedback has been exceptional. A key piece of feedback is that the modelling system is timely and really necessary. We’ve been hearing how unique the modelling system is as the users have been able to get the hard figures and data to build their business case.

“For student services it is important to have this evaluation. It is important to have sport as a top-level discussion of why it is such an important area of the student experience. If a university comes on board say next week, we have the technology to produce immediate reports. For the last six months, we have been producing daily reports for Curtin University, it’s ready and it’s there.

“What we’re doing is cutting edge, there is a bit of a paradigm shift and we really hope that the hard data allows people to make really key decisions.”

For more information or to get in touch with Sid, click here