Prospective higher education students need better information about admissions process: Shergold report

Students sit next to the quadrangle at the University of Sydney. Paul Miller/AAP

More students than ever before have the opportunity for higher education but their choices are being undermined by a confusing admissions system in much need of reform.

This is the conclusion of a report to Education Minister Simon Birmingham, which points to “a paradoxical situation”.

“Entry into universities has become more equitable. Yet there is evidence that families with less experience of higher education, which are economically disadvantaged or live in regional Australia, are less able to understand how admissions processes operate.”

The report, “Improving the Transparency of Higher Education Admissions” is from the Higher Education Standards Panel, chaired by Peter Shergold, a one-time head of the Prime Minister’s department, and will be released by Birmingham on Wednesday.

It says the increasing diversity of admissions criteria for higher education is not well enough understood. Media focus is on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) but in 2014 more than half the students admitted to higher education courses were admitted on other criteria. These included previous study and mature age provisions.

“Diversity is good. Varied entry standards and pathways are giving greater numbers of students the opportunity to benefit from higher education than ever before.

"More students from disadvantaged families, who in previous times would not have been able to gain entry to higher education, are now able to do so.

"However, choice is being undermined by information about the system’s operation that is confusing, ambiguous, misunderstood and unevenly distributed.”

Problems include: no common language to describe entry requirements; the ATAR calculation differing in each jurisdiction; information not being provided in a readily accessible way that facilitates comparisons; the ATAR focus leading many prospective students to assume that is the only path; and the danger that some higher education providers might make exaggerated claims about ATAR requirements, in an effort to boost their prestige.

There is consensus that the autonomy of higher education providers to set their own admission criteria should be upheld, but the panel says the emphasis should be on a student-centred approach.

The panel has produced a detailed set of recommendations to:

  • achieve more transparency by using common language and publishing consistent information about admissions processes;
  • widen the accessibility of information to prospective students;
  • improve the comparability of information from providers about admission processes and entry requirements;
  • make providers more accountable for the information they give;
  • ensure providers are subject to common reporting requirements, and
  • give students, parents, teachers and career advisers the knowledge and capacity they need to navigate admissions policies and processes.

Releasing the report at a higher education summit in Melbourne, Birmingham will support the recommendations’ intent and promise an official response within weeks. The government will get input from the sector and states and territories.

“Admission policies should not only empower students to make wise, well-informed choices but should also create levels of transparency and accountability that, coupled with optimal financial incentives, help to ensure that higher education providers make enrolment decisions that are genuinely in the best interests of students and the nation,” Birmingham will say.

“That shift towards greater transparency is why the Turnbull government has been such a strong advocate of the QILT [Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching] website - giving students better information about institutions and course quality, as well as graduate employment outcomes.”

The site has received about 490,000 visits. Enhancements to QILT would be part of the government’s response to the report and broad higher education reform, including better information for postgraduate students and greater use of universal data sources, Birmingham will say.

“We also require better understanding of whether students are moving between sectors or institutions within sectors or moving in to work or from a bachelor course of study to a diploma or advanced diploma in the same or another institution. Those students are currently being counted as non-completions.”