Is ATAR still widely used?

The recent Mitchell Institute report on ATAR created an impression that ATAR is no longer widely used as a basis of admission to university. Based on figure 3 in their report, it said that only a quarter of students are admitted to undergraduate courses based on their ATAR.

That figure is correct in itself, but easily misinterpreted.The standard university practice is to admit students based on their most recent relevant academic results. For many applicants, their most recent relevant academic result is not Year 12, but previous university studies or vocational education. These applicants have been trending up as a share of all newly admitted students.

For school leavers, their Year 12 results are generally still their most recent relevant academic results. For them, ATAR is used not in one-quarter of cases, but three-quarters, as the chart below shows.

For other commencing students using previous higher education as their basis of admission, their ATAR is no longer their most recent relevant academic result. But often it was used to admit them to the university in the first place.

The chart below shows that when we take 2016 commencing students back to their original admission to university, 46 per cent were first enrolled based on school education with a recorded ATAR. For the under-25 year olds, 56 per cent were admitted based on their school education with an ATAR.

So while it is true, and increasingly true, that low-ATAR students can find other routes into university, ATAR is still the major selection tool for young people.


Source: Department of Education and Training, Higher education data collection


How predictive is ATAR of university results?

In response to my Grattan Institute colleague Ittima Cherastidtham’s op-ed supporting ATAR, Victoria University VC Peter Dawkins and Professor Yong Zhao argue in The Australian that

“The focus on maximising the ATAR through Year 12 exams, however, tends to lead to coaching of exam technique, so students memorise answers to questions that are designed to promote critical thinking.”

Coaching can boost student results. I suspect it is one reason that students from private and selective government schools tend to slightly under-perform at university relative to students with the same ATARs from non-selective government schools.

If it was just coaching that explained ATARs, they would not have any predictive value for future academic performance at university, which does not offer school-level hand-holding, and at which students take sometimes quite different subjects. But ATAR does have predictive value.

As the chart below shows, as ATARs go down students become more likely to fail half or more of their subjects in first semester – a fail rate that will send them to the unsatisfactory progress committee unless improved.

low ATAR fail rate

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How big an obstacle is low ATAR to university admission?

In response to my Grattan Institute colleague Ittima Cherastidtham’s op-ed supporting ATAR, Victoria University VC Peter Dawkins and Professor Yong Zhao say in The Australian that

“…good universities should be able to reduce the impact of ATAR on students’ futures by providing education opportunities to those who, for all sorts of reasons, did not achieve high ATARs in school. When universities simply continue the trajectory set by ATAR, they fail their mission to change lives, to alleviate the impact of inequity and to lift people out of the conditions they are born into.”

There is no doubt that people with high ATARs are much more likely to be at university than those with low ATARs. To a substantial extent, this is because they are more likely to apply, as the chart below shows.

application levels

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Is ATAR bad for school education?

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. Read More »

Should HELP debts be capped?

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations has a paper out today opposing the government’s legislation that would cap HELP debt at $104,000 for most students, or $150,000 for students taking the high-end health courses. A media summary is here.

There is already a similar cap for students borrowing under the full-fee student HELP program, FEE-HELP.  The legislation would count HECS-HELP borrowing towards the total – this is the loan scheme used by the vast majority of domestic undergraduates paying student contributions for Commonwealth supported places.

Contrary to the impression given by the media article, adding in HECS-HELP would be prospective, only applying to debt accrued after 1 January 2020.

CAPA is right that a cap will tip more students into an at least partial up-front fee market. But given HELP’s overall design, this is not a knock-down argument against it.

As I have long argued, HELP has substantial costs in doubtful debt. And although the big debtors tend to be in fields with relatively good earnings prospects, the more someone owes the greater the risks for taxpayers – both because of the total amount owed, and because of the danger that the debtor will not spend long enough earning an income above the repayment threshold to repay in full.

Especially when it is hard to control costs by reducing repayment thresholds or abolishing the deceased estate HELP write-off, that creates pressure to reduce high-risk debt by limiting what students can borrow. The government can’t lose what it doesn’t lend. We are already seeing this in other parts of the system.

Loan caps can also usefully serve as soft fee caps in the fee-deregulated parts of the system. CAPA notes that even the current FEE-HELP cap isn’t enough for some JD courses. But if some universities are charging exorbitant fees for law courses that isn’t something public policy should encourage, especially when the fees end up being subsidised through HELP debt write-offs. There are plenty of much cheaper law courses out there.

There is room for debate about exactly what the cap should be. But $104,000 would allow most students to do an undergraduate degree and professional development postgraduate courses. In an amendment proposed by the government, debtors could replenish their cap by paying off some of their existing debt.

If we completely re-worked HELP, we could take a more actuarial approach to lending at higher levels – allowing it for low-risk borrowers, declining for high-risk borrowers. But that would be a radical conceptual change to HELP, with discipline, age, and gender all likely to significantly influence actuarial risk.

Staying within HELP’s current conceptual basis, we need general rules that support reasonable amounts of study but protect taxpayers from courses with excessive fees and from perpetual students. A cap on outstanding HELP loans is one such rule.





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 »