Uncapped uni places may be the death of the ATAR obsession

University is no longer just a place for high achievers. AAP/Julian Smith

Each December we celebrate students who achieved an ATAR Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 99.95. In January, we are awed by what you need to study subjects such as medicine, or horrified that you can do a teaching course with an ATAR of 50. This focus on ATAR scores is clearly wrong. We should be focusing on the skills students acquire while at university, rather than the scores they need to get there.

There are many ways to reach the end of a degree. Some students go directly from school into a prestige course at an elite university that requires an ATAR score placing them in the top 0.05% of the student population. A great many more will come with very different preparation. Many students entering university each year don’t come directly from school, and many do not enter on the basis of an ATAR score, high or otherwise.

As University of Melbourne Professor Richard Teese has shown in his book Academic Success and Social Power, ATAR scores align more closely to postcode than they do to human potential, and that social background is the strongest predictor of success.

We should aim to be a nation with an education system with institutions that can assist students from many different backgrounds in achieving a good degree, wherever they start.

The story of tertiary entrance is much more complex than an ATAR score, and government policy is changing the rules of the game.

In 2009, then-Education Minister Julia Gillard released Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System, which painted a vision for Australia in 2025, in which 40% of the 25-34 year old population hold university degrees. That would represent a significant increase on the 32% of the same age group who held a degree in 2009. It was argued that this highly educated workforce is needed to boost productivity growth.

It is hard not to endorse the merit of building a more skilled, highly-trained workforce. To compete internationally, a country such as Australia with a small population and a high standard of living should capitalise on its education infrastructure to train its population as a hedge against a downturn in commodity prices.

And so the Gillard government removed capped funding and enrolment targets that had previously controlled the number of Australian students enrolling in bachelors degrees. From 2010, universities were free to start increasing the number of students they enrolled in most courses. From 2012, they were able to enrol as many qualified students as they could attract. Many universities have taken the opportunity to grow substantially.

If more people attend university, this implies that a broader cross-section of our population will participate in higher education. As a result, many students are likely to come from non-traditional university entrance backgrounds. They will not necessarily be 18 year-old school leavers with relatively high ATARs. As more students participate in higher education, the flow-on effect is that ATAR entrance scores – a comparative ranking score – will get lower.

We will also expect to see other changes. For example, some new entrants may have earned a high ATAR, but for many reasons that may have occurred some years previously. Such applicants may have been under pressure to enter the workforce directly after school. There may be others who did not have great success at secondary school for a range of reasons, and so did not achieve a high ATAR. There will be others who will have left school early, or entered Australia as an immigrant, and do not have an ATAR at all.

In each of these cases, we should not assume that such students are somehow incapable of attaining the skills and knowledge associated with a degree.

Universities are not “dumbing down” the system by encouraging more people into study, but we will need to strive hard to ensure that more people succeed. A more diverse student population means that many of them will need more support, particularly during the crucial first-year transition into tertiary studies. We will need to develop new course designs and teaching methods to ensure that these students attain the mix of skills and knowledge they need to earn quality degrees.

Some universities are getting cold feet as they contemplate this challenge. They are calling on the government to introduce minimum standards for university entrance based on ATAR scores. Clearly the desire to support a more diverse student population is not for every university.

Under the previous, capped system, students were less diverse, and so were universities. As the federal government continues to roll out its plan for a more highly educated workforce, we will see a broader range of students entering university, and we are also likely to see greater differentiation between our tertiary institutions.

We should aim to be a nation with institutions that can assist students from many different kinds of backgrounds achieve good degrees, whatever their starting point.

That’s not dumbing down, it’s smartening up.