The recent ‘revelation’ that Australian universities are not sticking to their advertised course cut-offs has caused a ruckus. Some even see it as a scandal: universities are admitting students with much lower (gasp) than advertised Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATARs), even into ‘top’ courses.
I think it is time to look at some facts around ATARs. I have four important ones for you. I believe everyone concerned about or discussing ATARs should know these facts.
Fact 1: Most university place offers are not made on the basis of the published ATAR.
Around two-thirds of the university places offered in Australia each year are made to students who do not have an ATAR. Almost 50 per cent of new university students are mature age, international, vocationally qualified or will have come to university through a myriad of alternative entry schemes.
Direct entry to university is growing exponentially at some universities, with the ATAR bypassed altogether. Direct entry, mature-age and international students, and students who come through VET pathways make up the majority of the Australian university cohort.
In my own state, Victoria, most courses that make offers to students through the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) do not publish ATARs for those courses. Yes, that’s right, most courses. Of the minority that do publish an ATAR for a course, two-thirds made more than 30 per cent of their offers to students with lower ATARs than the published figure.
All universities award ATAR bonus points. These extra points and how they are determined are not regulated in any way, nor are they usually transparent. Universities can award bonus points as they wish and for whatever they wish. This furtive awarding of points is disguised as recognising “leadership”, “community-mindedness” and other qualities of applicants.
Fact 2: The ATAR is not a score.
The ATAR is a numerical, relative ranking derived from senior high-school performance and a complex series of scaling and other adjustments. In a relative ranking system, students in one year’s cohort are ranked against each other.
An ATAR of 49 does not mean a student has failed, it means the student is ranked at the 49th percentile of a cohort that year in terms of their academic performance, as measured and scaled according to a complex series of mechanisms. In a cohort of, say, 45000 students in one year, a student with an ATAR of 49 has an academic performance equal to or better than 22000 students that same year. Hardly a failure.
And similarly, no matter how bright they are, nor how hard they or their teachers work, no more than ten per cent of students’ ATAR rankings will be in the top ten per cent of rankings. That’s how ranking works.
Fact 3: The ATAR is linked to socioeconomic status.
The evidence indicates that ATAR scores are correlated with socioeconomic status and social capital. To put it simply, the higher the socioeconomic status and capital of the student, the higher the ATAR is likely to be, and vice versa.
For example, poor people in rural areas generally have lower ATARs than rich people from metropolitan areas. But poor people are not stupid and do not compromise educational standards or outcomes. They just have less of the social and cultural capital that counts for school education outcomes (and, therefore, ATARs). No mater how tempting it is to think it: an ATAR rank is not a measure of intelligence, motivation, diligence, aptitude or ability.
Fact 4: The ATAR is now used primarily as a marketing tool to an under informed public
The ATAR was more important when the supply of university places was limited and demand for these exceeded supply. Cut-offs were a useful strategy for allocating too few places. However, in our current demand-driven system of university places, where there are few limits on the number of students a university can enrol, the ATAR is used primarily as a marketing tool. Universities rely on folk believing that the higher the ATAR, the better the quality of the course and possibly, the better the university. But what is it better at?
Many assume, understandably but incorrectly, that the higher the ATAR needed to get into a course of study, the “better” the quality of the course. But the ATAR has no correlation with objective measures of course quality. The simple truth is that the higher the ATAR for a course, the more popular the course is among school leavers.
The public are currently being misled by what is essentially a clever marketing system using ATARs as proxies of quality of courses and institutions. It needs to stop and Peter Shergold, the head of the federal Higher Education Standards Panel, has recently announced that the Panel will begin to increase transparency around this issue.
It is time to stop obsessing about entry standards and start focusing on exit standards
What we should be focused on as a society is what happens to students, regardless of their entry method, during their university study and after graduation. Many students who have very high ATARs come unstuck at university when the intensive support and guidance, to which they had become accustomed, falls away.
As Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has recently emphasised, the point of university education is not to validate entry standards but to educate, value-add and ensure high quality outcome standards. We all know that elements of effective university education and high quality learning outcomes go far beyond the supposed standard at which the students enter the university. Teaching quality, the curriculum, learning support and student support are just some of the most obvious.
All universities must put in place proactive support structures, processes and programs to ensure all the students to whom they give access can meet their potential and have the highest chance of success possible.
I often ask: When a university graduate seeks employment, how many sensible employers will ask them to reveal their ATAR from all those years ago? On the other hand, how many will be interested in what the graduate knows, can do, and can contribute?
The main priority should be to focus on exit standards and outcomes, where students end up, not where they started. If we restrict access to university only to those guaranteed to succeed based on previous education scores, we block a life-changing opportunity for scores of thousands of people every year.
It’s important to keep educating a wide range of students
University education is now open to more students than in the past when it was just available to white, upper-class men. This is good for students, their futures, their families, the economy and society. Successive governments of both sides have encouraged and supported increased access to university education for a larger number and broader range of people. The alternative is to have fewer people educated at the highest levels and subsequent reduced capacity to lead and innovate in a rapidly changing world.
Case studies at my own universities show that despite starting with very low ATARs, those who go on to successfully complete courses will graduate as qualified professionals and subsequently contribute to the economy, their communities and society in enhanced ways.
What matters most about university education is the quality of the education offered and the capacity and knowledge of graduates and whether they can do what governments and society expect of them, having had the privilege of access to education at that level.
If the purpose of university education is to contribute to an educated society, that treats its members and members of other societies with dignity, respect and kindness, while simultaneously advancing economic, environmental and other fronts, then we should unburden ourselves of outdated and inaccurate notions about the power of a single number.
I believe we need to focus more closely on how to facilitate success for the many, rather than the few.
Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin