Suggestions that lowering university entry scores will result in a reduction in academic standards are wrong, say the vice-chancellors of the two universities that have seen the greatest increase in students from low socio-economic backgrounds in the past three years.
“I think worrying about lowering ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank] scores as a proxy for quality would have to be one of the most pointless exercises in Australian history, like working out an alternative plan to storm the beach at Gallipoli. It is 100 years too late,” said Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University, which has had a 63.5 per cent increase in the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds it has enrolled in the past three years – up from 587 in 2009 to 960 – and a decline in ATAR cut-off scores for almost all its courses.
The federal government released the details of the number of university offers made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds this year on 23 April. Up to 40,000 offers were made, an increase of 19 per cent from 2009. But while Chris Evans, the tertiary education minister, said in a statement that “It is not just that it is unfair to lock people out of university. We can’t afford to. An elitist model of university education will consign Australia to second-rate economic growth”, an article in The Australian suggested that entry standards at many universities were dropping.
Craven said, however, that entry scores had little to do with student ability.
“Why do we think ATARs are such a terrific method of predicting performance? We know that if you get an ATAR of 95, you’re bright, if you get an ATAR of 0, you’re probably not terribly bright. The ATAR as a predictor in the middle – the 50s, 60s, low 70s – is an appallingly bad predictor.
“There is a very weak correlation between university success and the ATAR. The ATAR isn’t an intelligence test; it’s an economic mechanism that matches the number of places supplied to the number of students who want them.” Other universities that saw a large increase include Deakin University, with 45.9 per cent growth, the University of Canberra, with 41.5 per cent, and Queensland University of Technology, with 25.5 per cent.
Colin Stirling, vice-chancellor of Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, has seen a 49.3 per cent increase in the number of students from a low socio-economic background enrolling this year compared with 2009 (up to 799 from 535). He said that in Western Australia, low ATAR scores were often a sign of choices a student had made in high school rather than a reflection of their academic ability, with schools improving their ranking by encouraging only the brightest students to do the hardest subjects in Year 12.
“The proportion of students [in Western Australia] who are leaving school with an ATAR that is sufficient for university is low and declining, and it’s a function of the secondary education system, which is discouraging students from taking the most stringent exams,” he said. “If anyone were to argue that those kids are dumber it would be a ludicrous contention, but it’s difficult for them to get into university.”
Students from a low socio-economic status (SES) need to be handled a little differently from their wealthier classmates, but it’s no indicator of their intelligence or aptitude. Craven, who studied law at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, said: “Certainly [low-SES students] are not more stupid. I’ve seen a few things around that suggest low-SES students aren’t terribly bright, so they’re going to need special hand-holding. I find that offensive as someone whose grandfather was a cook.”
What this cohort is most likely to lack is confidence in their abilities. “If you had not thought you were going to go to university, you may well need things that make sure your confidence levels are maintained,” Craven said.
“The question really is, what do you add to students along the way? If you’re talking about whether to do accounting, a person has to get 55 or 62, you show me a person who can tell the difference [between students with those scores]. I would love to have partners for accounting firms betting their houses on their ability to tell whether a person got 55 or 62.”
Stirling said he believed that the drive to recruit more students from low-SES backgrounds recognised that they were not “dumber” than other students but that they simply had not had the same opportunities as others. “While there can often be a difficult transition for a student that does require a bit of effort from support staff and teachers, once those students make that transition, that potential is there to be realised,” he said.