In the eyes of some Australian newspapers, the nation’s universities have been admitting “large numbers of sub-standard students”.
It led Simon Birmingham, education minister in the Liberal-led government, to convene a review of university admissions transparency in February this year. The government “wants to ‘shine a light’ on the practices and habits that may be keeping students in the dark”, he has said.
The debate boils down to the issue of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which indicates a student’s academic achievement relative to those who started high school at the same time. It is the route of entry to university for less than half of all undergraduates.
The charge in the media coverage is that universities are publicly advertising high ATAR requirements to appear prestigious (meaning some students are deterred from applying) while in reality admitting those “large numbers of sub-standard students” to maximise revenues.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported this month that the University of Sydney had become the second university in New South Wales “to fully disclose its admissions scores after Fairfax Media [the SMH owner] revealed the practice of admitting students below the advertised cut-off was rife throughout the sector”.
Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia chief executive, said that “concerns about low-ATAR admissions are significantly overstated”.
Nevertheless, the ATAR coverage could have major consequences in undermining confidence in the demand-driven system.
The system, in which caps on student numbers were abolished, was introduced by the Labor administration in 2012. It is under fire from the Group of Eight research-intensive universities for supposedly devaluing degrees while creating unsustainable costs.
Hamish Coates, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said: “Basic machinery for admissions hasn’t changed in decades, despite [a] massive change in applicants and more generally…Australia needs to evaluate how people apply for higher education, and how they succeed. Assumptions of old no longer play into new futures – better evidence is needed.”
He added: “Any large system failure will show up in the next few years. We’ll see if expanding the system half a decade back created the kinds of professional workers Australia needs.”
Andrew Norton, higher education programme manager at the Grattan Institute thinktank, said: “While it would be useful to publish more information about admission criteria and ATAR ranks, I am not convinced that transparency in itself is a major policy issue.”
He pointed out that “applicants with ATARs below the cut-off are often also admitted on the basis of disadvantage or some other entry requirement”, such as interviews.
Meanwhile, students are “not informed, for example, about the non-completion risks” linked to a low ATAR score. “That is much more important information than whether they need an ATAR of 65 or 70 to be admitted,” he said.
He added: “The lack of this information in a readily accessible form is one current weakness of the demand-driven system, or indeed any system that has enough places to put university in reach of ‘non-traditional’ students.”
Ms Robinson said Australia’s universities were “committed to improving the clarity of admissions information – without removing their capacity to consider and enrol students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
She added that in its submission to the admissions transparency review, UA had proposed a new model that would “make it clearer to students how they can meet course entry requirements”.
The Higher Education Standards Panel will report to the federal government on the issue later this year.