Settling scores: universities can cope without ATARs

It’s time we took another look at the university entrance score and whether we need it. Score image from

Every year we require all five- to six-year-olds to enrol in primary school. We do not apply an Australian Primary Academic Rank (APAR) to determine who is most worthy of a place.

Seven years later nearly all those children move onto secondary school. Again, there is no entrance score required. If there were one, half of those beginning secondary schooling would have a ranking of 50 or under – a ranking some media regard as a fail.

Some schools select students for academic capability but most private, and almost all government, schools enrol a wide range of students. We expect the schools to cope – to educate to their potential the full cohort of their students.

All too obvious?

Two hundred years ago there was no acceptance that everyone should complete primary school. And it was only in the 1980s that completing secondary school became an expected outcome for the large majority (over 70%), rather than for few (35%).

Universities have shown that people with a wide range of entry capability can gain from further study and complete a degree. None of that holds back the very academically able. What it does mean is we have more and more people with greater knowledge of the world and greater capability to contribute to it.

If we assume all children should go to primary school and expect all of them to go on to high school, with most to complete year 12, why then are we so willing to doubt whether more and more school leavers can go to university?

What’s the score?

The first thing to understand is that the Australian Tertiary Academic Ranking (ATAR) is a rank. Someone has to be at 99 and someone else at 1. An ATAR of 50 is not a pass mark, it is an indicator of the mid-point of all students in that age group.

Had the ATAR existed in 1980, the 35% of students completing school would have taken most of rankings from 65 to 99. With more than 70% now completing school, those students are necessarily spread from around 30 to 99.

Because the ATAR is a rank not a score it does not directly say anything about the knowledge and capability of the person, other than in comparison with others who also have a rank.

So each year many students complete school having done similar things to those from the previous year. But it is pure assumption that a rank of 70 means something similar year to year. If the school system and student performance improves or deteriorates, the spread of ATARs would not change.

Back to basics

It is useful to remember that the basis point for entry to university is completion of secondary education – a year 12 certificate. The various ranking mechanisms that evolved into the ATAR were designed to determine who most deserves a place in a particular course, based on priority for those with the greater previously demonstrated capability.

Some such mechanism was necessary when universities had more applicants for most courses than they had places available. This became an issue only from the 1970s onwards – before then, the school certificate was the key requirement.

The funding system now allows universities to enrol all those they think suitable. The issue for most courses is not relative capability but the harder question of whether the person is likely to be able to complete the course successfully. For school leavers, this would be better based on the actual level of achievement for each student as determined by each state’s year 12 system.

A second factor is sheer disbelief that most people are capable of learning at post-school level and arguments that it is not necessary that they do so even if they can. Whether there are limits to what the large majority can learn and where such a point is remains open to empirical test. The evidence to date is that faced with the need for higher levels of education for employment and social acceptance levels of education increase.

The need is clear. There was a time when there were many jobs for people with no more than year ten education. Such people now struggle to find an effective place in both employment and society.

The reality of the job market shows that a degree is important for many to gain employment. They may not earn the highest salaries post-graduation, but they do earn a salary when without the degree they increasingly could not.

Just as it was once rare to have basic reading, writing and numerical skills, we need to adjust to a world in which a degree is a common and necessary outcome.

Finding your vocation

Of course, it is not all higher education. Large numbers of people acquire vocational qualifications that equip them for employment.

Growing numbers acquire both. However, it is wrong to assume that university education is only for the top placed.

This was never the case with large numbers of people with high ATARs of 70 and above not seeking university education. We cannot assume that all those seeking vocational education either are or should be from those lower ranked to university entrants, rather there it will be mixed.

The Government target is for 40% of those 25-34 to have a degree. This is not much more than half of those completing year 12.

Allowing for the many people who leave school early and then return to education later with a renewed interest and determination, the target is not a radical change.

Combined with VET graduates it helps ensure all Australians can access the education and training they need for a reasonable chance of a productive life.