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Making university admissions more transparent is important, but won’t improve equity

Universities will now need to use common language around their admissions processes. from www.shutterstock.com

Making university admissions more transparent is important, but won’t improve equity

Universities will now need to use common language around their admissions processes. from www.shutterstock.com

The government has announced it will accepted the recommendations put together by the Higher Education Standards Panel earlier this year on making the university admissions process more transparent.

The changes will make it easier for young people to compare entry requirements for university courses and find out how to meet these criteria.

Recommendations

The government has accepted all recommendations put forward by the panel. These include:

  • a new national admissions website
  • adopting a standard information template
  • ensuring common language is used between universities
  • making it easier to compare course admissions criteria between states and territories
  • publishing minimum entry and bonus point schemes for all courses
  • making information from admissions centres more easily available

Why we need a more transparent system

The rapid expansion of the university sector has led to a disparity of admissions practices, with equivalent courses at different institutions potentially having wildly different admissions requirements.

Earlier this year, a Fairfax media investigation revealed up to 63.5% of students at some universities were being admitted to courses of study below the advertised Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) “cut off” scores.

However, subsequent disclosure by a number of prestigious universities has illustrated that this practice tends to be isolated to particular institutions, and courses of study.

In their recommendations, the panel was careful to point out that offers to students with an ATAR of “50 or less” made up slightly over 2% of all offers in 2016 – and more than half of these students rejected their offer. This fact is often overlooked in the broader debate around higher education admissions.

Across the sector, universities have been accused of not being transparent about how they deploy “bonus point” schemes. The review found that almost all providers offer bonus points of some kind. These points are commonly allocated for:

  • high academic achievement in particular subjects;
  • participation in elite sport or arts;
  • students facing social, geographic, or economic disadvantage.

The panel suggested that the opacity is at least in part the result of successive waves of expansion and diversification of the sector that have gone relatively unchecked since the 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review).

Education minister Simon Birmingham has flagged cuts to funding for those institutions that fail to publish accurate minimum entry and bonus point schemes for all courses.

The government has also agreed to adopt a common language around admissions processes across all higher education providers. However, in a diverse system of relatively autonomous providers and discrete state and territory admissions centres (TACs), this will be difficult.

The centrepiece of the government’s plan is the adoption of a national higher education admissions information platform. This is a good step, and aligns with a long held view to revamp the Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching (QILT) website.

Substantial research has shown that simply making information available does not necessarily address the challenges many young people face in completing secondary education and choosing higher education courses.

Too often, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are unaware of the options available to them. Commonly, they come from backgrounds with no history of higher education.

These students tend to have lower completion rates and report a poorer experience of higher education. Many do not feel that higher education is for “people like them”.

Is the ATAR still useful?

Four in ten students admitted to a course with an ATAR lower than 60 do not complete. from www.shutterstock.com

For many senior leaders, the ATAR remains an efficient and convenient tool for allocating Commonwealth supported higher education places.

However, researchers have suggested that the current policies contribute to “gaming” practices at some of the country’s most elite schools.

Research has shown how academic success concentrates in elite public and independent schools through subject and curriculum selection, intensive test preparation, and academic tutoring.

While debate continues regarding the effectiveness of the ATAR for predicting success for young people once they enter university, data does support the predictive power of the ATAR at a group level.

Data shows that four in ten students admitted to a course with an ATAR lower than 60 do not complete it.

But scholars have been at pains to point out that ATAR performance and retention rates both correlate strongly with factors of disadvantage such as Indigenous, remote, part-time, and socio-economic status.

Transparency won’t necessarily help to improve equity

Equity of access to higher education remains an area of broad agreement between political parties.

Diversity schemes such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) are currently being reviewed in line with the government’s intended shake up of the higher education sector.

Over the next three years, HEPPP is marked for a A$152 million cut. Along with the shift to a demand-driven system, targeted HEPPP programs are thought to be partly responsible for the over 50% growth in low-SES participation in higher education since 2010.

More information needed for school leavers

The government’s decision to adopt these recommendations presents an opportunity to ensure young people have accurate information for making decisions about their intended courses of study.

But they will not address continued concerns about Year 12 completion rates.

It is too late to begin the careers counselling process at the point of applying for courses, no matter how clear and accurate the information provided.

Helping students make an informed choice about higher education is critical. However, information about the admissions process itself is not enough.

Greater attention must also be given to ensuring that students are provided with the skills to navigate higher education.

It is increasingly likely that for the majority of young people, this engagement will be a lifelong activity.

Beyond this, helping students to develop a sense of belonging is key for boosting engagement and retention.

A successful reform must also include a more comprehensive approach to working with young people to identify a diversity of pathways and opportunities.

It must actively challenge and seek to redress the prioritising of university over technical and trade options.

It must be inclusive of broader questions of the benefits of having young people engage in education beyond school without reducing that discussion to one of “budget constraints”.

Despite recent concerns about the economic value of degrees, post-school qualifications are more important than ever.

Any reforms must enshrine principles of student equity both in how young people are supported to access higher education, and in their experiences in those institutions once they arrive.