The asbolute number of lower-ATAR students is still small

In The Conversation today, I have some suggestions about how to handle the increasing willingness of universities to make offers to lower-ATAR applicants. One point I should have made (other than just noting that many lower-ATAR students reject their offers) is that the absolute number of lower-ATAR offer acceptances is not that high, despite a high growth rate since 2010 – about 3,500 in 2014, out of 86,500 acceptances by school leavers admitted with an ATAR (or about 4 per cent). The trend in lower-ATAR absolute numbers can be seen in the slide below.

Comparing acceptance data and enrolment data during the demand driven review last summer there were significant discrepancies between lower-ATAR acceptances and enrolments, indicating drop outs before the HELP census date. If the past is a guide, nearly a quarter of those who made it to the census date won’t return in second year, and just over half will complete. So the absolute number of lower-ATAR students in the system is lower than these acceptance numbers might suggest.

lower ATAR offers
Source: Department of Education applications reports

The other interesting thing about this chart is the sharp increase in applications. As cut-off ATARs began to fall with the enrolment boom it is likely that school leavers who had previously dismissed higher education as unrealistic began to think it was possible, and put in an application. Of course universities also alerted them to this possibility. An example from Victoria University is below.

lower ATAR

  1. The issue of low ATAR university admission is highly problematic and too wide-spread, often justified on the basis of mature aged students and folk from lower socio-economic backgrounds being fully capable of tertiary studies, if given a “fair go”. No doubt, in many instances, this position is correct. Yet, it does not follow that all these students should not face some form of barrier or post HSC selection task, prior to university entry.

    In fact, most universities do offer foundation cum preparatory programs to building writing and thinking skills. A good start; yet, all too often these programs are run with an exaggerated expectation that the programs are appropriately written and students who failed or just scraped through high school will suddenly become prime performers at university. Often, however, tertiary education providers forget the value of these courses, as a predictor of future success. Clearly, here, low admissions to universities, without the opportunity of further training, is highly undesirable. Presumably, driven by commercial reasons, there is a requirement to keep student numbers up, and there is a need to compete with other universities. Profit has become a shadow over high standards. Worst still, what happens when the graduates of a comprised university system, become teachers?

    The notions of provincial matriculation and giving special entry to only better TAFE students have gone to be replaced by a free-for-all.
    A related problem is the commercial private provider environment, where only a handful, out of scores deliver, again, owing, to profit-making considerations. Relatedly, Heads of School don’t want partnership deals brokered by their Deans to fail. Hand-in-hand, lecturers and tutors are under pressure not to fail students or receive complaints from students, because they don’t understand. Course too hard? … complain to the VC about the lecturer!

    Way back when Brendan Nelson was Commonwealth Minister for Education and these issues were in their infancy, the potential harm for these problems were brought the attention to Government but to no avail. Julia Gillard conferred with the Vice Chancellors’ Committee, but isn’t this like conferring with Al Capone, on stopping bootlegging?

    The Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA), the precursor of the Tertiary Education Quality Agency (TEQSA), made some valiant attempts to improved things, but held limited authority over (autonomous) universities to actually impose penalties. If memory serves, universities were given advanced notice they were to be audited and re-auditing didn’t occur until five years later! The practice of unannounced audits, common elsewhere throughout industry, was not implemented. And, has never since been implemented.

    TEQSA draws its templates from the Australian Quality Framework (AQF). It would be a brave person to argue that these standards are followed at a discipline group of faculty level in all Australian universities – especially the newbies. With lower-graded universities a shell can exist around Deans’ fiefdoms, where high graduation numbers are applauded as an Ends. But, who truly questions the Means?

    To be fair TEQSA has promoted the idea that AQF standards are to be “threshold,” rather than merely, “aspirational”. Great goal, but how will this come about and what will be the (dire?) consequences for inadequate universities and their leadership?

    There are clearly structural problems too, which go back to the elimination of the College of Education mid-tier by John Dawkins. If this mid-tier still existed, better selection and more appropriately positioned foundation programs and potential alterative university selection processes could now exist. Alas, “Gone with the Wind”.

    Andrew, importantly, regarding low ATARs, you have identified an area requiring immediate action to rectify. Likewise, one needs to review the consequences for employers and industry-at-large receiving graduates ill prepared for the workplace.

    Readers and their colleagues are welcome to join me on Linkedin:

    https://www.linkedin.com/in/petersinclair1

    I plan to address Andrew’s concerns and other related matters over the next six to twelve months. Beforehand, I suggest some discussion to articulate issues is important. Further, I suggest peak bodies, industry and chambers of commerce could become valuable allies in a concerted effort to change things for the better.

    Yours in improving education,

    Peter

    Peter Sinclair PhD

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