Category Archives: Higher education admissions

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.

What do high-ATAR students study?

The Australian‘s Higher Education Supplement ran a story this week on how high-ATAR Victorian students chase a narrow range of courses and unis. It was based on research by La Trobe’s Andrew Harvey.

The national applications data shows how this produces a counter-intuitive outcome: applicants with ATARs above 90 are persistently less likely to get an offer than students with ATARs of 80-90 or 70 to 80. The 2012 offer rates were, respectively: 91%, 97%, 96%.

It means that a few per cent of the 90+ students take all or nothing gambles. Even though there are hundreds of courses that would accept them, they only apply for one or a small number, and some of them end up missing out. Presumably most of them learn a lesson about hubris and put in a more realistic application the following year.

Andrew H also comments that “the progression of elite students into a narrow range of courses and universities arguably has a distortionary effect on the workforce and society.”

While I partly agree with this, data I received from DIICCSRTE (I hope this name will soon change) on the ATARs of first-year students suggests that the top-performing school leavers are more spread across the disciplines than the applications data might suggest.

The figure below has the 2011 ATAR for a student admitted at the 90th percentile of everyone taking that subject, or in other words with just enough to put them in the top 10%. It just shows those where the 90th percentile is at 98 or above. Surprisingly, radiography is at the top and maths is second (though there are few specific maths courses). From the arts, language and literature is there. If we drop down to 97, politics, history and the performing arts are all there.

90th percentile admissions

Teacher education has a 90th percentile of ATAR 90, with a median of 75. Not spectacular, but far from the very low cut-offs at some unis that attract so much attention.

The launch of My University

The government’s My University website launched this morning.

Overall, I think it is a good start in giving students more information to help with their higher education choices. There is information by university and field of study on student satisfaction with teaching and generic skills development, attrition rates, employment rates, staff qualifications, student:staff ratios, and other things. The meaning of these numbers is often contested – the methodology section suggests caution on some matters – but overall it is better than general impressions or historical reputation.

Here is an example of how the information is presented, for Macquarie University business.

There is also information on general campus facilities. Here is an example for Murdoch University.

Some suggestions for future versions of the site:

* How to get to the course performance information is not intuitive. ‘Course search’ will provide a list of courses in the field of study of interest, but the comparison tool only gives ATARs and cost. The latter will be useful if fees are deregulated, but under the current system the student contributions will be much the same. To find course performance information, users have to go to ‘university search’, and then choose the field of study. Comparison between universities will be difficult without printing out results for each university.

* For non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs), their courses can be located through ‘course search’ but not ‘university search’. No information on admission requirements or cost was in any of the results from random searches. Nor is there any information on course performance, though some NUHEPs are in the relevant surveys (there may be sample size issues). To get a proper market, we need to include the NUHEPs as fully as possible.

Should low ATAR students be admitted to university?

Over at Catallaxy, Judy Sloan is having a go at low ATAR university courses.

I just want to have the bridges identified which are designed by civil engineers with cut-off points of 62.

And I also noticed that the cut off score for entry into Primary Education courses is in the 50s – pity the poor children in a few years time.

As Judy hints at, ATAR (or its predecessors: ENTER, UAI, TER) is only moderately predictive of future academic performance, and even then only for higher ATAR students. This overview paper on Victorian university selection practices summarised some of the research:

Their … work at Monash confirmed the correlation between high ENTER and strong university performance (r=0.38 for ENTER over 80). Importantly, however, they found little correlation between ENTER and university performance for low to middle ENTER bands (r=0.04 for ENTER below 80). This finding supports that of Murphy et al. (2001), who found in their study of RMIT students that the strongest correlations between ENTER and university performance were at ENTERs above 80, with no correlation between 40 and 80 and variable correlation below 40.

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