Will extra-curricular admission requirements improve low SES access to the ANU?

The Australian National University has announced some big changes to the way it admits domestic school-leaver students.

Although there a few hints in their public statements, it’s not really clear to me why they are doing this. Despite the current anti-ATAR bandwagon, my view is that generally using ATAR-based admissions sets a high benchmark  that alternatives need to meet or exceed.

At the ANU end of the student market, one benefit of ATAR, of identifying students at high risk of failure and attrition, is not highly relevant. With a floor ATAR of 80 for most students the risk of not completing is low.

What ATAR is used for in the more selective institutions is as a fair and efficient way of rationing places in high-demand courses. ATAR is meaningfully linked to the course; it is an academic measure for an academic project. Prerequisite subjects, and performance in those subjects, are good rationing tools.  Specialised aptitude tests are also a relevant way of choosing between otherwise similar applicants.

The main new academic requirement under the ANU plan is that from 2022 all students will need Year 12 maths as well as English to be admitted. That might be designed to encourage more students to do maths, but in practice it will limit the pool of applicants.  It’s hard to see how maths is essential for must humanities or writing-based subjects.

The main new information that ANU applicants will have to provide is information on their extra-curricular activities. VC Brian Schmidt seems to think that this is an access measure:Read More »

The uses of ATAR

In the last few weeks, the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has come under renewed criticism. A paper from the Mitchell Institute started this, and Swinburne University VC Linda Kristjanson followed up with an op-ed on one of their alternative entry systems.

These critiques have a history. More than 20 years ago, then education minister Amanda Vanstone gave a speech attacking the ‘tyranny of the TER’, an ATAR predecessor called the Tertiary Entrance Rank. ATAR’s decline has long been championed. But despite what the Mitchell paper suggests, ATAR is still used in the vast majority of school leaver university admissions (Mitchell’s numbers are due more to the rise of other academic results, such as past higher or vocational education, than non-ATAR school leaver admissions, although these are also increasing).

Some form of ranked school results has been used for university admissions since the 1960s. Previously it was enough to ‘matriculate’ (complete Year 12), but demand for higher education was exceeding the places available, and so school results were used to allocate places to applicants. But this history shows that there is an alternative – admit everyone who meets some basic threshold, and then cull them. University policy reviews from the 1950s and 1960s report fail rates that are very high by today’s standards.

There is something to be said for this admit-and-attrit approach to selection – let applicants try university and see how they do. It avoids proxies based on an imperfectly-analogous environment such as school, or admissions tests that can potentially be gamed or only measure some attributes needed for success at university. To a substantial extent, as a forthcoming Grattan report will show, trial-and-error selection after enrolment is still a major way of deciding who gets a longer-term university place.

But issues of fairness, efficiency, and student protection work in favour of retaining an active role for universities in selecting students. Read More »

Higher education inequality: how well has Australia limited differential access levels by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that higher education has substantial inequality-generating features. This post is the first in a series looking at how well Australia’s higher education system does in this context, starting with access to higher education. Essentially, this is about how well the higher education system can foster social mobility.

The potential of the Australia’s higher education system is constrained by the potential pool of students, which largely comes from people who have successfully completed school. Before the 1980s, that was a minority of the population. Don Anderson and A.E Vervoorn’s interesting book Access to privilege reports that in 1980 overall school retention to Year 12 was only 34.5 per cent, and 28.4 per cent at government schools. It was already a massive 88 per cent at the non-Catholic private schools, favoured by many higher SES families. They were setting up the basis for the next generation’s educational success.

In the 1980s, school completion rates increased, so that about half of low SES students finished school by the end of the decade. Low SES Year 12 completion is now at 73 per cent, compared to 80 per cent for high SES students (with the caveat that dividing the population into three groups misses likely much larger difference in the lowest and highest deciles).

ATAR results by SES are rarely published, but some Victorian data I published in a book chapter a few years ago shows the highest SES quartile by postcode substantially over-represented in the 90+ group, and the lowest SES quartile substantially over-represented in the below 50 group.

University enrolment data by definition doesn’t include Year 12 students who never apply, but we know that almost all high-ATAR school leavers put in an application. Using a parental education measure of low SES, we can see in the chart below that there are many more students with an ATAR reporting parents with a higher education qualification than we would predict based on the education levels of people old enough to be parents of undergraduates (notice the different scales).

Further, when one or both parents have degrees (the chart shows the parent with the highest qualification, but frequently both parents have degrees) the ATARs skew more markedly to the higher end, producing higher medians.

atar_parent_dist (003)

The annual NAPLAN reports show that, again, the high SES students, whether measured by parental occupation or parental education, do significantly better across all the literacy and numeracy tests, although consistent with meritocratic hopes there are – as the enrolment data also suggests – high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds. So even though Year 12 completion has improved, we still have substantial issues with inequality of school-level academic achievement.

I don’t feel competent to judge to what extent university education faculties are to blame for this situation – although the early childhood research suggests that schools, also, are working within the constraints of the student pool. I will assess universities and higher education policy on how they deal with this academic achievement situation as they find it.

From the earliest days, universities and higher education policy (which was originally a State responsibility) have been concerned with access, offering students subsidies and scholarships. But that really only mattered in the post-WW2 era, since very few people before then went to university and it was not needed for most jobs. Hannah Forsyth has written about university admission policies in the post-war era. The Commonwealth government offered merit-based scholarships.Read More »

Was higher education ever likely to reduce inequality?

Next week I am a panelist in a discussion on whether Australia has an equitable tertiary education system. The promotional blurb says:

Australians believe we live in a fair and egalitarian country. We believe in a fair go: in equality of opportunity. We also believe that accessible education and training is a fundamental right and it facilitates prosperity, social mobility and a richer and more engaged economy.

Are these beliefs about who we are based in fact? While access to higher education has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, income and wealth inequality is also on the rise. This seeming contradiction challenges our most fundamental beliefs about intergenerational mobility. Is the education system a cure or a curse? …

When I accepted the invitation to be on the panel I told the organisers that I did not know the answers to their questions, but I could offer some observations. I am going to try a few of them out on this blog.

Starting theoretically, I think social mobility and income inequality are distinct issues. It was always more plausible that education would promote mobility in personal status than that it would reduce snapshot-in-time income inequality figures. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking that higher education is more likely to increase than decrease income inequality.

Higher education can increase individual income inequality by facilitating a more unequal labour market. Higher education provides the training to support an increasing number of highly-skilled and highly-paid professionals. In a 2017 paper, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli have some interesting charts showing growth in demand for the kinds of cognitive skills that a university education aspires to teach. Consistent with this, numerous papers have shown substantial financial ‘returns’ to higher education. This Deloitte report from last year summarises some of the local literature and adds its own estimates. Read More »

Have you ever not finished a university degree?

At the Grattan Institute, we are nearing completion of a report on not completing university degrees, one of the measures that could be used in the new performance funding regime.

We’ve got lots of interesting new data on how much time students spend enrolled before they leave, how much they have spent, and the risk factors that can help predict who will complete and who will drop out.

But the data and literature on how people feel about incomplete qualifications is very sparse, and so we decided to run our own online survey.

It’s obviously not a random sample, but with over 800 responses to date we are able to identify some general themes. With more respondents we could start to see whether reactions to not completing differ across student categories.

The survey is going to close in a few days, so if you have dropped out a degree yourself, please take it. Or if you know someone who has dropped out, please forward the link to them.

Our report is going to focus on people who have left university without any degree, but we are also interested in people with a complete degree as well as a complete one.

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.

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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.