Australian universities stick with ‘unfair’ early entry schemes

With Covid exam disruption mostly gone but early entry schemes still in the ascendancy, admission stresses have been brought forward

August 16, 2022
Students taking exams to illustrate Australian universities stick with ‘unfair’ early entry schemes
Source: Getty

Australian universities are continuing to admit students on academic achievements logged long before they finish school, even though Covid normalisation has erased a key rationale for this approach.

Thirty universities accept students on the strength of their progress during year 11, guaranteeing them places months before the final exams that have traditionally guided university entry.

Early entry schemes emerged years ago as universities sought alternatives to the Australian Tertiary Education Rank (ATAR), which is used to judge students’ suitability for university and to gatekeep access to popular courses.

These schemes multiplied during the pandemic, which severely disrupted school exams in 2020 and, to a lesser extent, in 2021. Universities argued that it was unfair to rely on final-year results in such circumstances because students with access to effective online programmes had a massive advantage over those without.

But with school exams now largely back to normal, universities show few signs of dismantling their year 11 entry arrangements, saying they ease the anxiety associated with year 12 – often seen as a make-or-break point in students’ professional lives.

Critics say that far from removing this pressure point, early entry schemes simply hasten it in a “race to the bottom” fuelled by intensifying competition for domestic students.

“It’s an unmoderated exam which perpetuates disadvantage,” said University of South Australia vice-chancellor David Lloyd, whose institution is one of a handful that have completely eschewed the approach. “There’s no comparable attainment between the students who come in the door.”

Professor Lloyd said this amplified the inequities between wealthier students in small classes and their disadvantaged counterparts in bigger classes led by overstressed teachers. Meanwhile, students with guaranteed entry into their courses of choice – and required only to pass their final-year examinations rather than achieve cut-off scores, under the settings of most early entry schemes – tended to “coast” through their remaining time at school.

“The transition from year 12 into first year in university is hard anyway,” Professor Lloyd said. “If you haven’t really been applying yourself, the step differential to the first-year expectation at university is phenomenal.”

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University, said that as a gauge of students’ raw abilities, year 11 results were “probably not too bad” and unlikely to greatly change who ended up being admitted to university. But the approach risked leaving students underdone in “foundational” disciplines such as maths and science, causing “substantive academic problems once they’re at university”.

“If this continues, the problems people have associated with year 12 will simply shift back to year 11,” Professor Norton said. “For some courses there are more applicants than places. That inevitably is going to cause some method of rationing, whether it’s done at year 12 or year 11. You cannot abolish the fundamental problems the ATAR is designed to deal with – all you can do is place them somewhere else.”

Daniel Edwards, a tertiary education specialist at the Australian Council for Educational Research, said universities that relied on year 11 for admissions risked saddling themselves with unanticipated student support expenses. “The fewer tools that you use for admissions, the less information you have about the ability and aptitude of the students you’re enrolling,” he said.

“We need a more mature way of getting this right – a transparent, fair, rigorous admissions system that is also efficient.”

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