The ATAR wars entered another round yesterday, with Victoria University VC Peter Dawkins and Professor Yong Zhao responding in The Australian to my Grattan Institute colleague Ittima Cherastidtham’s op-ed supporting ATAR.
This debate can get confusing, because semi-related arguments are blurred together.
The most impassioned opposition to ATAR seems to be about its claimed effects on schools. As Dawkins and Zhao say,
“…it is a sad indictment of our education system that maximising ATAR is the primary focus for far too many students, rather than following passions and preparing for the future by developing their talents…”.
Even though they later question whether ATAR is a good predictor of success, they could accept that ATAR is useful in university admissions and still oppose it, on the grounds that the cost of ATAR to school education exceeds the value of its benefits to higher education.
I am sceptical of the idea that abolishing ATAR would let more students follow their passions (‘passions’ perhaps; but I prefer ‘interests’ as encompassing a wider variety of emotional commitments), or prepare them better for the future.
ATAR meets a university need that will not go away. Some kind of selection rank system is needed for distributing student places when demand exceeds supply for a particular course. So the question is not whether ATAR has flaws or some undesired consequences, but how ATAR compares to its likely alternatives.
The most obvious alternative to ATAR are general ability tests like the American SAT and/or additional exams related to course disciplines. While schools would maintain purposes other than maximising student results for university tests, the general effect of these would be to give universities more de facto control than now over curriculum, at least in the schools where most students want to go to university (this would lower the status of other schools, which would risk being seen as teaching a curriculum that lacked intellectual rigour, and as producing results that were not reliable or transparent).
By contrast, ATAR does not determine the curriculum. Its purpose is to, as much as is possible, create a selection rank for people who have taken different subjects (followed their passions?) and/or have been through different education systems (the states, the IB), which can emphasise different things (preparing better or worse for the future) or use different teaching methods. ATAR is more pluralistic and broader in what it can incorporate than the likely university-driven alternative selection methods.
The argument that ATAR-maximising is a major problem also has weaknesses. One survey did find that about a third of Year 12 students chose one or more subjects to help them get a higher ATAR. But surely there is no sin in pragmatically choosing subjects that contribute to other goals. Welcome to a life of such pragmatic choices. While it is good when students enjoy school, Year 12 is also a stepping stone to fulfilling more important passions/interests, university courses and the careers that degrees can lead to.
Surveys of university students show that, unsurprisingly, interest in a course is the most common reason for choosing it. While not every student has clear course interests to pursue, often career interests begin developing at a young age. In a recent Grattan paper, we summarise some of the research on interests and how they stabilise and cluster. While school leavers may want to maximise their ATAR’s value by picking the highest-ATAR course, that is usually within their cluster of interests.
The chart below uses the preference flows in applications to tertiary admissions centres and shows that students maximise their interests. Most lower preferences are for other courses in the same field, or in another field that is a common entry route to the higher-preference field (for example, medical, dental and veterinary science applicants preference science courses; law applicants preference commerce and arts).
In university selection, not maximising ATAR means that students are more likely to miss taking the course that interests them the most, are more likely to miss out on pursuing their ‘passion’.
In reality, I doubt the Year 12 incentive systems are too bad. Year 12 students might choose subjects that are not their favourites for strategic reasons, but they are unlikely to get high marks in a subject that doesn’t interest them.
Perhaps what we need more than an alternative to ATAR is some perspective. Some courses have very competitive entry systems, but the reality is that overall it has never been easier to get into university than it is now. The next post will look at this.