University standards at risk from low performing school leavers

As university offers increase, the proportion of lower performing school leavers who take them will rise sharply. Flickr/jennandjon

The proportion of low performing school leavers who enter university is likely to rise sharply from this year, potentially causing a spike in drop-out rates and a slide in learning outcomes, the Group of Eight universities have warned.

In a note released today, the Go8 says that under the government’s new demand-driven system - which has lifted the cap on places at universities - “a large proportion of the additional students will be less academically prepared than was expected in the past. These students will need more support and more intensive teaching, which will cost more.”

For students with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of more than 70, offer rates have stayed level at about 98% since 2005, when places increased under the Howard Government’s Backing Australia’s Future reforms, Federal Department of Education figures show.

But new places have had a big impact on offer rates for applicants with ATARs of 70 or below. In the first year after the reforms, the offer rate increased by 14 percentage points, from 33% to 47%. By 2008, offer rates had reached 58% - 25 percentage points above their 2004 level. They reached a historic high of 61% last year.

The Go8 note says that offers to students with ATARs below 70 have accounted for more than ¾ of the growth in offers to school leavers since 2004. From 2008, when the government began moving to the demand-driven system in stages by raising the over-enrolment cap each year, they accounted for ⅔ of growth.

Although it was too early to assess the impact of the latest expansion in places under the demand-driven system, “increasing the number of offers to school leavers necessarily means most of the additional offers will go to students with low ATARs”.

“Without increased resources and attention to learning needs, attrition will increase or the quality of student learning outcomes will fall.”

The Executive Director of the Go8, Mike Gallagher, said that the shift to the demand-driven system had happened so quickly that universities had not had time to think through the implications.

“It’s not about the Group of Eight, because we vacuum clean from the top talent pool,” he said. “But the downstream effect is disturbing, especially if these are people going into teacher education, for instance, and teach the next generation of people and they themselves haven’t done too well at school. You’ve got a bit of a problem.

"The answer is, be careful about letting all the horses run down the hill without knowing where they might end up. I think we’ve unleashed something here that we don’t know the end result of. Either it’s going to cost a fortune, or standards will slip, or a whole lot of people’s lives will be damaged.”

The probability of completing a course is closely linked to ATAR scores, research according to research that found completion rates increased by about seven percentage points for each ATAR decile, from around 66% for ATARs between 50 and 59, to 94% for the top decile.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), introduced by the Federal Government last year, would oversee minimum standards, the note says, and a peer review model such as the “Quality Verification System” trialled by the Go8 last year would allow universities to see how well their graduates performed above the minimum threshold. “But more open access to higher education will require a sharper focus on learning outcomes and exit standards than has yet been in evidence.”

The Lomax-Smith base funding review last year found there was under-funding in several disciplines, including business, medicine and the other professional life science-based fields, and possibly also in law and humanities.

Simon Marginson, a Professor of Higher Education, said that “some students who in past years may not have enrolled will need additional academic help in the transition to first year and during the year. At this point of time, nothing extra has been provided by government to address this need, and institutions will have to cross-subsidize extra academic help from somewhere else.

"But how widespread are these concerns, and whether they translate into "angst” or any other emotion [among lecturers], is something no one knows much about.“

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