OPINION: University admissions systems are – and should be – a topic of discussion. They should be fit-for-purpose so that students who are admitted have the right attributes for success in their degree. And the systems should have integrity.
In Australia many university places are allocated to recent school leavers via systems that use the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, as a foundation.
There are many supporters of the ATAR system. It is simple and efficient and provides a rank as students cross the line after the Higher School Certificate sprint. Everyone gets a number and good numbers provide opportunities irrespective of gender, race or religion. And, within certain limits and not surprisingly, good school marks are good predictors of success at university.
Accordingly, university entry cut-offs for each degree are published annually and at the University of New South Wales we also publish guaranteed entry cut-offs in advance. This provides students with the required ATARs certainty with respect to their choices.
But one must also remember that the ATAR finishing-line photo captures only one angle and that the playing field of life is not always level. So there are various refinements in place to help recognise these two issues.
Here is another thing about the ATAR – it is not only a snapshot, it is a private selfie.
First, there is a national Educational Access Scheme that adds bonus points for disrupted educational experience, financial disadvantage, disability or long-term illness, home disruptions, refugee status, low socio-economic status or rural school background, and language issues.
Second, universities also take into account qualities that may not be visible in ATARs using auditions, portfolios and discipline-specific aptitude tests.
At UNSW, HSC Plus points reward high achievements in courses related to the intended degree. If a student wants to study advanced maths and scored well in maths but less well in French one doesn't want that to prevent them entering a degree they are suited to.
All of these systems are publicised on our website. But as admissions processes continue to evolve to take multi-dimensional factors into account, the complexity can become confusing.
More problematic still is the fact that in some circumstances ATAR-based entry cut-offs have become regarded as a proxy-indicator of the quality of a course, or indeed of a university. The higher the number, the more desirable the product, so perhaps the better the offering.
Accordingly, there is a suspicion that some universities across the sector deliberately inflate their cut-offs to attract students. While this may be happening, my view is it hasn't turned any tables upside down. In general the published cut-offs do properly reflect the demand for different Australian institutions.
Recently, a new issue has emerged. It has been noted that some students who are admitted to universities have very low ATARs or didn't even finish school and questions arise as to whether this represents a lowering of standards.
Some legitimate questions about attrition rates have been raised and a debate about whether university should be the preferred or only pathway for our young people is continuing. But unfortunately this debate has also focused too much attention on the ATAR as the defining feature of student quality. This could be particularly damaging to Australia if we wish to build an inclusive society.
ATARs are useful and important but they should not be overused, should not be the only route for admission to university, and individual ATARs have to be seen in context. And here is another thing about the ATAR – it is not only a snapshot, it is a private selfie. It does not and should not define someone for all time. Successful students should not rest on their laurels and students who have faced disadvantage should not be stigmatised by this snapshot.
Too strong an emphasis on this single number can extinguish educational ambition, and alienate sectors of our society, locking out certain groups from the benefits of education and depriving our society of the talents and perspectives they would bring.
At UNSW our 2025 Strategy aims to ensure that in the next 10 years we will move to having a student demographic that matches the make-up of our state. This will not be possible if we only utilise the raw-ATAR system. We have to provide additional pathways and we have a lot of work ahead to ensure that we get these systems right and also explain their importance to students, parents and the community.
We support moves to build in even greater transparency across the sector. Universities should be held accountable for their admission systems, completion and attrition rates, and the quality of their graduates. But they must also protect the privacy of individual students and specific groups who may have low ATARs but have earned an educational opportunity via other properly publicised criteria of entry.
In a competitive world, we will continue to allocate places to high-performing students on the basis of ATAR alone but will also provide opportunities to the most promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have successfully demonstrated their potential.
Professor Merlin Crossley is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.