Category Archives: Higher education admissions

How students study influences course completion rates

My concern about low-ATAR students is primarily about their high risk of not completing a degree. But in this we tend to focus much more on underlying academic ability than on the circumstances in which students study. Completions analysis shows that off campus and part-time students have non-completion risks that are very similar to those faced by below 50 ATAR students, as the slide below shows.

The number of commencing off-campus and part-time students greatly exceeds the number of commencing low ATAR students, as the next slide shows. We are doing some more work at the moment to try to understand the interactions between these factors. In 2015, for example, 24,000 commencing bachelor students were both part-time and off-campus – are these cumulative risk factors, or both just proxies for students with other commitments? Distraction from study could be the actual main risk factor.

Source: Department of Education and Training (domestic students only)

Low ATAR is an issue. But if we are worried about increasing attrition, we have to focus on how students are engaging with their studies and not just how well they did at school.

Update: The day after I wrote this post, the Department released new completion statistics. They are slightly worse than the numbers shown in the first chart.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, but still a small share of all commencing higher education students

This week the main university offer rounds start, and with them the annual ATAR controversy. If the last few years are a guide, demand from low ATAR school leavers has stabilised, as the chart below shows. Offers, however, are increasing. Although most low ATAR applications do not result in offers, the number which did more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2016, from less than 2,000 to more than 8,000.

Source: Department of Education and Training

Last year, the number of low ATAR students accepting their offer increased, but still less than half of offers were accepted, which was about a quarter of the original applications.

When I looked at this last year, I said that a significant proportion of low ATAR applicants who accepted their offer were not enrolled after the first census date. While this is a factor in eventual enrolments, we now think this is less of a factor as some students who are reported as having an ATAR during the applications process don’t have one recorded in the enrolment data. A declining share of school leavers are being admitted based on their secondary education. This has dropped from 87 per cent in 2012 to 80 per cent in 2015.

Of the students who do have an ATAR in the enrolment data, those with low ATARs mostly don’t come direct from school. In 2015, there were 2,830 below 50 ATAR students enrolled who had completed school in 2014 (this includes students in pathway diploma courses, not just bachelor degree courses). But in the same year there were 8,000 students with below 50 ATARs in the enrolment data. Of those not being admitted based on their secondary education, about two-thirds were admitted based on previous higher education or vocational education.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, and I am among those who thinks that this is an issue. However, it is an issue that needs to be kept in perspective. Only 3 per cent of commencing bachelor degree students have ATARs below 50, and only 7 per cent have ATARs below 60.

Should teacher education places be capped?

NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli has long been a critic of universities over-supplying the teacher education market. In this morning’s Australian, he is calling for caps on student places. If accepted, this would be the second course after medicine to be capped.

It would also be a major precedent, as it would set a low benchmark for justifying capping. According to employment surveys education graduates do slightly better than average in finding full-time work. Among those finding FT work, education graduates do significantly better than graduates in other fields in getting jobs that use their qualifications. That said, full-time employment for education graduates is down 11 percentage points on 2008, the recent peak of graduate employment rates.

The strength of the demand driven system is not that student and universities will always make the right call about where the job market is going, but that it can adapt as new information becomes available. Over the last few years, the message that the teacher market is saturated has been well publicised. Commencing student numbers were already past their peak by 2015, as the chart below shows. The trend would have been further down except for a major move by Swinburne Online, which went from no students in 2014 to 8.5 per cent of the national commencing market for initial teacher education in 2015.

commecning ed students
Source: uCube

There are bigger falls in education more generally – down 10% percent in commencing students between 2014 and 2015 and 13 per cent in full-time equivalents (presumably part-time enrolments at Swinburne Online are affecting that). Under the legislation, capping occurs in full-time equivalent places, not on a head count of students.

The initial 2016 applications and offers data suggests a fall of 2.4 per cent in applications and 4.7 per cent in offers for education, so a further drop in student numbers seems likely.

Cutting student numbers under the pre-demand driven system was a slow, politically painful process. With demand driven funding, it is happening quickly with few people even noticing.

Low ATAR offers result in few low ATAR completions

The SMH has lots of NSW university offers data to contribute to the annual ATAR controversy. It’s the usual story of students being offered places with very low ATARs.

There are always lots of threads to this controversy. Are low-ATAR admissions a sign of declining academic standards? Do we place too much emphasis on ATAR anyway? Should universities be more open about their admission practices? Do low-ATAR enrolments risk putting incompetent professionals out into the workforce?

While there are real issues here, some numbers are useful for putting things into perspective. I’m using 2014 numbers because I have enrolment data for that year but not yet 2015.

The first three columns in the chart are from tertiary admission centre data. The first thing to note is that in 2014 about 60% of very low ATAR – 50 or below – applications did not result in any offer. Of the applications that did result in an offer – the issue in the news this week – about half resulted in the prospective student rejecting it. The offer might have been for a course that was not their first preference, or possibly they only applied to keep options open, without having a firm intention to go to university.

diminishing ATARs

The next bar on the chart is enrolments of students who reached the HELP census date, usually around the end of March. It shows that about a third of below 50 acceptances leave before the census date, presumably having decided that higher education was not for them, at least not at this time. The low-ATAR issue is starting to look at lot smaller than it did at the offers stage. Final enrolments of 50 or below ATARs from 2013 school leavers in 2014 were only 3% of all that cohort (although total low-ATAR enrolment is higher than this, due to students who finished school in other years).

I have added a projection of their final completions, based on the Department’s 2005 cohort analysis. If that is a good guide to the future, less than 20% of below 50 ATAR school leavers who receive an offer will eventually get a degree.

My perspective on this is primarily a consumer protection one. Prospective students are not being informed of the risks they are taking. Universities say that they are looking at what predicts success other than ATAR, but only rarely do they release any evidence of this that can be checked by independent analysts. The regulator’s vague statements are less than confidence inspiring. The numbers of people taking major risks are not that large in the context of total enrolments. But we should be doing more to ensure that they are making decisions that are in their own long-term interests.

ATAR and higher education admission

In this morning’s papers, there is controversy over the declining proportion of Victoria universities publishing ‘clearly-in’ ATARs – the ATAR above which all applicants are admitted. In Victoria, the share of courses with a clearly-in ATAR has declined from 40% last year to 25% this year.

Some universities say that ATARs, and especially ATAR cut-offs, can be misleading. ATARs are not necessarily the basis of admission or the only basis. As the chart below shows, in the lower ATARs a significant minority of recent school leavers are admitted to university on some basis other than their secondary education. More will be admitted based on secondary education but without relying on ATAR.

ATAR school leavers

The overall admission process is larger and more complex than for recent year 12 students. For 2014 commencing undergraduate students at public universities, people who had completed school the previous year were around two-thirds of those with ATARs in the enrolment data. The remainder were people who had finished school in earlier years, and people admitted on other grounds, the largest of which were prior vocational education, prior higher education, and mature age entry.

As can be seen in the chart below, this pushes down the share of people admitted based on secondary education, especially in the lower ATAR groups. Only just over a quarter of people with ATARs below 50 were admitted based on their secondary education. The biggest single category was vocational education (31% of admissions). About half of people with ATARs who were admitted based on vocational education had ATARs below 60, confirming it as a pathway into higher education for people who did not feel ready for higher education, or could not get into higher education with their school results alone.

ATAR admission color switch

I’ve consistently opposed minimum ATARs as too blunt a tool for regulating admissions. But the universities have conflicts of interest in this area. They want to fill all their places and avoid any reputational issues from admitting low-ATAR students. Given what we know about the link between low ATAR and non-completion, going to university may not be the best option for low-ATAR students (and indeed most don’t go to university).

And while the published ATAR cut-offs can be misleading, information on the range of ATARs that previously resulted in offers or enrolments would be helpful. They would give prospective students a guide to whether they are likely to be admitted, and to the academic strength of their potential fellow students.

Higher education demand still strong

The 2015 final applications data has been released. One important point for me is that there has been a revision to the 2014 unique applicant data – that is, the time series that eliminates double counting to get a count of the number of persons who made an application. As some people use multiple methods of application, applications are only a rough proxy for applicants.

The revision has the effect of turning a stabilisation of demand between 2013 and 2014 into a 2.6 per cent increase. In 2015, total applicant numbers were a further 2 per cent up on 2014, reaching a record 331,460. That increase confirms the conclusion that whatever political impact the Labor/NUS/NTEU $100,000 degree campaign had, there was no discernible impact on market demand.


Growth in offers is more subdued now than it was in the early years of the demand driven system. It increased by 2.4 per cent between 2014 and 2015, compared to 4 per cent or more a year between 2011 and 2013. While universities have slowed their increase in offers, offers have grown at a higher annual percentage rate than applicants every year except one since 2010.


The report does not give us unique acceptances, which would be the strongest guide to first semester 2015 commencing undergraduate enrolments. But acceptance rates for people who applied through tertiary admission centres are up, from 70.3 per cent to 73.4 per cent. Unfortunately TAC time series remain hard to interpret, because this year shows that the long-term move away from TACs for non-school leaver applicants continues.

We’ll have to wait for the enrolment data to know for sure, but the boost in overall offers and the positive TAC applicant response suggests that commencing students will be up again. In one of those ironic policy twists, it might have made Simon Birmingham’s life a little easier if the $100,000 degree campaign had convinced more people that university would be too expensive. Growing student numbers just put more pressure on the system’s fiscal sustainability, and makes savings measures more necessary.

Public opinion on special admission standards for Indigenous university applicants

In the United States, racial preference in university admissions is a highly controversial issue. But in Australia universities have long had special admissions programs for Indigenous applicants, with little obvious controversy. So far as I am aware the latest ANU Poll, on Indigenous affairs, is the first to ask the general public what they think.

As the chart below shows, a small majority of respondents, 54%, favoured special programs and admission standards for Aboriginal people. This was lower than support for governments helping Aboriginal people find employment (69%) or who think the private sector should do more to employ Aboriginal people (66%).

It’s hard to explore the reasons for these results from within this survey. However there are common ideas around minimum entry standards (as seen in the annual January low ATAR debate), and using ranked prior academic performance to allocate scarce places, that would influence views on university admission more than staff hiring practices.


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

Is the prospect of higher fees deterring university applications?

The number of applications to university for courses commencing in 2015 has attracted more interest than usual, due to the controversy over higher education fees. Some data has already been released by individual tertiary admission centres, but it is now available in consolidated form. The figures are preliminary, reflecting applications made as of October 2014. Based on recent history, there will be tens of thousands more applications lodged after this date. I am still seeing plenty of university advertising aimed at that goal.

There is a particular complication this year in Western Australia. A change to the school starting age in 2003 has flowed through the school system, leading to a Year 12 cohort that was only about 60 per its normal size. This makes the WA figures hard to interpret, and the report presents trend data with and without WA.

Without WA, school leaver applications are up 2.2 per cent. Possibly this could be interpreted as saying that the fear of fees has had little or no impact on demand. That’s probably right, although the apparent upward trend may be due to people who would have taken a gap year starting in 2015, so that they get at least one year on the fixed student contribution rates. We also don’t know exactly how many students completed Year 12, so we cannot calculate an application rate.

Non Year-12 applications are down 6.5 per cent. However, this may not mean anything at all. For non-Year 12 applicants, there is a longer-term structural shift away from using tertiary admission centres and towards applying directly to universities. Since 2010, the number of TAC non-Year 12 applications has declined every year, while the number of direct applications has increased.

The report also raises the possibility that the demand driven system might have reduced a backlog of unmet demand for higher education. It is plausible that as people who had unsuccessfully applied to higher education in the past get admitted the pool of higher education hopefuls will diminish. And as more people get into university straight from school, there is a smaller potential market for mature-age higher education.

While these theories may be right, it is still possible that there will be no decline in overall non-Year 12 applications when we get the direct applications data later in the year.

If the demand driven system survives it will be our best yet test of theories in this area. Under the old system, the supply of places was always well below demand. Unless there was a huge decline in demand any price sensitivity would not show in enrolment numbers. We therefore had to use applications data to assess underlying demand. But applications are an imperfect proxy for a serious intention to pursue higher education. Large numbers of people reject the offers they receive, raising questions about whether some apparent demand for higher education is really just keeping options open, or contingent on an offer for a very specific course. Actual enrolments in a system without supply constraints will be a better guide to the true level of demand for higher education.

Will private schools suffer from university fee deregulation?

In The Australian this week, Buly Cardak suggested that university fee deregulation could undermine private schools. Under the current system he suggests that parents pay large sums to private schools to maximise their child’s ATAR, which in turn increases their chance of getting into their desired university course. However, this may become more complicated in future.

With fee deregulation there will be a shift from competition on ATAR only to competition on ATAR and tuition fees. This could well have a ripple effect on the fees charges by private schools.

It is certainly possible that some high ATAR students would decide not to pay the fees Group of Eight universities charge, and go for better value for money options at other universities. However, this does not necessarily mean that ATAR cut-offs at Group of Eight universities would go down.

The reason that ATARs may not change, or even go up, is that under fee deregulation Group of Eight universities could change their business strategies. To generate profits under the current system they operate high-volume/low-margin businesses for Commonwealth-supported students. But with fee deregulation, they could go for lower-volume/higher-margin business to generate the same or more profit on fewer students. Smaller intakes can allow higher cut-offs, even if some high ATAR students go elsewhere.

The Group of Eight are still likely to have plenty of academically strong applicants. For students interested in research or researchers, the Group of Eight will still be dominant. For students interested in prestige, the Group of Eight will still be dominant. They will still have well-located campuses. And for high-ATAR students interested in meeting other high-ATAR students, it is hard to imagine how the Group of Eight won’t still have the highest concentration, even if they don’t have quite the same total number as now.

So it will still be difficult to get into Group of Eight universities, and there will still be powerful incentives to maximise ATAR scores.

There are other assumptions in Buly’s article that give us further reason to doubt that private schools would suffer financially from fee deregulation.

His agument assumes that large numbers of families make financial trade-offs between school and higher education. Although some parents do pay their children’s higher education student contributions, most don’t. Upfront payments have been steadily declining, down to 16.4% in 2012, compared to 22.5% in 2005. Generally, parents pay for school and children pay for higher education through the HELP loan scheme.

We should also be cautious about the idea that ATAR factors are dominant in the decision to use private schools. Research into parental choice of schools has found that it is values, discipline and especially religious factors that are typically most important. The cost of higher education won’t change any of these factors.

If parents used private schools for university admission more generally, the demand driven system might have led to reduced need for private school ATAR-boosting. It’s still hard to get into Group of Eight universities, but it has never been easier to get in somewhere. But so far this is not showing in school enrolment data.

My best guess is that higher education policy will have little effect on private schools.

Update: This idea is popular with University of Melbourne academics: here and here.