Attacks on Australian university admission ranking ‘misguided’

Leading expert says a non-academic enrolment mechanism would cause more problems than it solved

April 4, 2018
Ranking

A leading higher education commentator has defended Australia’s maligned university admissions mechanism, saying that it helps universities to shield students from their own bad choices.

Andrew Norton warned that renewed attacks on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, a unique league table that rates students’ suitability for university on a single national scale, were jeopardising the “most useful indicator” of university success.

In a blog, Mr Norton acknowledges the shortcomings of academically based selection measures such as the ATAR. But he argues that they are preferable to the “admit-and-attrit” approach of the 1950s and 1960s, when universities accepted anybody who completed senior school and then culled those who fell behind.

This approach had produced failure rates of about 30 per cent, which were “very high by today’s standards”.

Resurrecting this approach would also spawn less prepared university students because they would have less incentive to try at school, says Mr Norton, who is higher education director with the Melbourne-based Grattan Institute thinktank.

“Non-academic admission methods would also absolve universities of any responsibility to protect prospective students from poor choices that have a high risk of not bringing benefits worth the time and money spent,” he adds.

Mr Norton’s comments follow a widely reported critique of the ATAR by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute. It argued that the ATAR was skewing school programmes and feeding a teach-to-the-test mentality even though barely a quarter of students used it for university entry.

Mr Norton says that this is because more applicants were relying on previous tertiary qualifications. ATARs, he says, are still used by most school-leavers and provide a good indication of their prospects of completing their degrees – at the higher achievement levels, at any rate.

The predictive power of the ATAR is weaker for lower-ranked school-leavers, he concedes. But many of these students took matters into their own hands by rejecting offers of university places, withdrawing before they incurred debts or not applying in the first place.

Mr Norton says that the biggest danger to these students is not missing out on university, but rather the “elevated chance that the benefits of enrolling won’t be worth the costs in time and money”.

He says that this is likely to remain the case despite the federal government’s December move to freeze teaching grants, limiting the number of students likely to win places. Universities will cut admissions from mature-aged applicants rather than school-leavers, he predicts.

Mr Norton said that he was not against students with lower school results “having a try” at university to see if it suited them. “But you need a strategy to make sure they don’t just spend semester after semester enrolled without getting terribly good results,” he told Times Higher Education.

“We have to be careful about ensuring that they are going to get some benefit from what they’re doing; and if they’re not, there’s a strategy for getting them out at as low as possible cost to them.”

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which regulates Australian higher education, has also rejected suggestions that the sidelining of the ATAR for university entry means that admissions standards have fallen unacceptably low.

TEQSA said that the reasons for overlooking the ATAR were largely demographic. “The background and life experience of students entering higher education has changed dramatically in the past decade,” said chief executive Anthony McClaran. “As student cohorts alter, so to do their entry pathways.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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