Viewpoints: should universities raise the ATAR required for entrance into teaching degrees?

How much does ATAR matter when selecting teacher education students? www.shutterstock.com

Viewpoints: should universities raise the ATAR required for entrance into teaching degrees?

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek has announced a Labor government would raise the ATAR required for entrance into a teaching degree if elected at the next election. Plibersek said:

I don’t want people with ATARs of 35 going into teaching, I just don’t.

The effectiveness of ATAR as an entrance criteria has been heavily debated for some time. Some say to improve teacher quality, we need to raise the entrance criteria. Others argue ATAR doesn’t tell us all we need to know about a person’s suitability for teaching.

So is raising the ATAR for teachers a good idea, or will it simply exclude potentially great teachers?


The case for no minimum ATAR

Tania Aspland, Professor in Teacher Education, Dean, Education Policy and Strategy at Australian Catholic University and President, Australian Council of Deans of Education

We all want to attract and retain the best teachers and move away from the singular focus on ATAR scores. Earlier this year, the Mitchell Institute released a report which stated only one in four domestic undergraduate students was admitted to courses based on an ATAR. This does not match the message reinforced by schools, families and the media that ATAR is everything.

Many students with average or comparatively low senior secondary results also do well once at university. www.shutterstock.com

In 2014, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which has underpinned the raft of recent reforms in teacher education, found:

  1. research indicates ATAR is a good predictor of success for students entering university with strong secondary school performance, but loses predictive capability for those entering university with lower scores. Many students with average or comparatively low senior secondary results also do well once at university

  2. while rankings are clearly a very good predictor of performance in engineering, agriculture and science, the relationship is low for education.

The argument about ATARs ignores the range of selection methods universities use to choose teacher education students with the right mix of academic and personal traits. These include looking at prior experience, interviews or psychometric tests.

It ignores the clearly defined professional teaching standards and the new numeracy and literacy test teaching students must pass before they graduate.


Read more: Why we need to review how we test for teacher quality


It also strikes at the heart of whether or not we want to provide multiple pathways to attract a diverse cohort to teach in our increasingly diverse classrooms. This includes those from marginalised and disadvantaged groups, such as students from rural or regional areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Teacher education students accepted with lower ATARs need to be viewed in context. They may be selected because:

  • they have gained further experience and qualifications that supersede their ATAR, as their ATAR may have been acquired years before their university entry
  • they’re given special consideration due to personal circumstances (such as the death of a parent) as their low ATAR doesn’t reflect prior academic performance
  • as a member of a disadvantaged group, they’re granted access to a pathway course during which they would have to prove they’re capable of undertaking teacher education.

Research does not support the move to mandate ATAR entry scores.


The case for setting benchmarks

Anne-Marie Morgan, Professor and Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning at the University of New England

ATARs provide a visible measure of standard to the public, prospective students and their families. They’re also used by politicians as an indicator of confidence in producing quality teachers. But the reliance on ATAR levels as a predictor of success is insufficient on its own, and is tied up with complex equity issues around location (especially for regional and rural students), socioeconomic status, family dynamics and unequal access to educational opportunities.

In the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report which has guided national education policy on initial teacher education, the relationship between ATARs and student success in education courses was acknowledged to be low, and is the reason why other processes are included for entry, within programs and at graduation.

There is research that indicates an ATAR of 70 supports successful outcomes. It found ATAR scores were significant, but scores on a scale which measured motivation and engagement were a much stronger predictor of first year marks results. This indicates students’ motivation and how they’re taught in their first year are more important than ATAR, but so is setting an appropriate benchmark for ATAR, for students who enter using this pathway.

Setting an ATAR benchmark is prudent, while also allowing for other entry pathways. www.shutterstock.com

UNE currently has an ATAR requirement of 77 for its education courses. Historically, competition for places in our teacher education programs has justified this level. This is higher than most NSW and interstate universities.

We are currently considering lowering this to 70 in line with confidence in our students’ results, the literature, and to open opportunities for teaching to a wider range of students and to compensate for pathways lost through changes such as removal of Principals’ recommendations of year 12 students considered to have the right attributes for teaching.

The Victorian state government currently requires an ATAR of 65 for teaching courses, which will be raised to 70 in 2019. This will be done so teacher education students in Victoria are from the top 30% of year 12 graduates, but there are also opportunities in this policy for entrance pathways other than ATAR.

So, setting an appropriate ATAR benchmark is prudent, while also ensuring there are other entry pathways that uphold our commitment to equity of access. The programs we provide, and how we teach students are other critical factors in ensuring we prepare great teachers.


Read more: How to get quality teachers in disadvantaged schools – and keep them there



Tania Aspland

I appreciate that we are both largely on the same page that the best research doesn’t supports the case for minimum ATARs. Setting minimum ATARs may make the public feel more confident, but that confidence stems largely from perceptions based on the narrow focus on ATARs by public figures.


Read more: Should we scrap the ATAR? What are the alternative options? Experts comment


I also appreciate the valuable contributions made by the diverse range of great teachers who have have come into teacher education through different pathways and graduated with high professional academic standards.

Anne-Marie Morgan

We agree on the conclusion that the research to date does not support the obsession with ATARs as the only source for entry to an initial teacher education course. But it will be important to continue to collect data to demonstrate this conclusion, and to show how both other entry pathways and what happens during a student’s preparation to be a teacher influence their chances of success, and suitability to be a great teacher.

As Tania says, governments, communities, parents, teacher educators, and the wider community all want to attract and retain the best teachers.


Read more: Your ATAR isn't the only thing universities are looking at


Our teachers are recognised as some of the best in the world. We should continue to provide opportunities for our teachers to come from diverse communities and backgrounds to work with children who are also diverse. We need to talk about the complexity of the profession and the needs of students in more nuanced terms.

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