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A more transparent university admissions process? Here’s what we should be talking about

In 2014, less than a third of undergraduates were offered a university place on the basis of their ATAR score alone. from www.shutterstock.com

A more transparent university admissions process? Here’s what we should be talking about

In 2014, less than a third of undergraduates were offered a university place on the basis of their ATAR score alone. from www.shutterstock.com

It’s been a tough year for the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR).

First, a Fairfax Media investigation showed that large numbers of students are being admitted to university programs with scores well below the cut-off.

Then, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham told the Higher Education Standards Panel that he is keen to explore “greater transparency measures” in university admissions processes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Birmingham’s call has won support from Group of Eight (Go8) universities, with University of New South Wales vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley suggesting that the ATAR is, at best, a “finishing-line photo” of a student’s future ability.

It is worth noting, however, that according to the Fairfax investigation, Go8 universities were among those that offered the fewest places below published cut-offs.

Transparency really about choice?

In the minister’s own words, there is a need to “ensure that Australian students are provided real information on what they need to do to be admitted to a course at a particular institution”.

However, the language of transparency obscures pressing truths for the young people in our university system.

It masks the reality that the young people most likely to be admitted below the published cut-off are also often the most disadvantaged.

It ignores recent research highlighting how these young people are also the most likely to face irregular study patterns and that this reduces their eligibility for many courses.

It disregards that for those outside all but the most prestigious sandstone institutions, there is a depreciating return for these students in particular around how useful many degrees are.

It neglects that, in 2014, under one-third of all undergraduate offers were made on the basis of ATAR alone.

The moniker of “greater choice” is less useful for many of these students, as their “choice” is already hamstrung by myriad social and economic factors.

Birmingham’s use of transparency here is code for making judgements about the capacity of those who are admitted to university degrees.

It mobilises the logic of the market as a fix-all for the continued poor retention rates among those most vulnerable in our university sector. It isn’t, and it won’t be.

A post-ATAR world

Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University, has suggested that we live in a “post-ATAR environment”.

In 2014, special entry or non-ATAR admissions made up 30% of those offered to school leavers.

There are countless institution-specific variations of these in place across the country.

Most are focused on providing access for particular equity groups. These are relatively effective at raising participation among target groups, though it is generally agreed that more could reasonably be done to support these young people once they have been admitted.

A smaller number of special entry and bonus point schemes also exist for students studying in particular subject areas.

However, non-ATAR schemes are commonly misunderstood. Perhaps most significantly, young people’s access to them too often hinges on the quality of individual careers counsellors in schools.

A souped-up version of the now-redundant MyUniversity website for comparing university courses — which seems to be the minister’s preference — won’t address these issues.

With the continued fallout from the Fairfax investigation, there are calls for non-ATAR admission measures to be extended well beyond those identified above.

Re-thinking admissions

Some have proposed the entire ATAR be scrapped. In partnership with a local university, at least one school has already done so.

It’s sensible for minister Birmingham to call for a review of admission processes and the place of ATARs in these. But it is unclear how this will interface with the anticipated increase in student contributions in this week’s budget.

However, we need to ensure we are having the right debate around the transparency of admissions processes, and the readiness and capacity of those who are admitted.

A sensible debate around transparency would focus on the quality of careers advice in schools that young people receive for making decisions about tertiary pathways.

A sensible debate around capacity would include an expansive view of the factors that limit young people’s ability to engage in education, and it would enshrine principles of equity in the selection of students and ongoing support provided to them.

We should be talking about what makes students ready for tertiary study. These measures must form the basis of an open and equitable admissions process for all young people. Such a system must also expand the support provided to those admitted through equity measures throughout their degrees.

It sorely remains to be seen if either side of government is up to the task.