The Federal Government has implemented a policy to see 40% of 25-34 year olds in possession of a bachelor degree by 2025. That policy is now under review after concerns about the quality of the degree programs to be designed to cater for a wider market. In response, one of Australia’s top universities has decided to take matters into its own hands.
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has decided to set a minimum tertiary score for students wishing to study any of its degrees. Candidates coming from Year 12 will now need to achieve an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 80 before they will be allowed entry into UNSW, except for those cases where it will also take a portfolio of work into consideration.
I have already written a little about the Federal Government’s policy (‘Why the push for more degrees is a bad idea’) and also about whether entry requirements improve education, particularly in the field of vocational training (‘Do entry requirements improve education?’) but this is another take entirely.
First, the facts. UNSW Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer says the university decided to set the minimum ATAR for undergraduates because he believes too many candidates unsuited to study choose to pursue university education. He is correct. Many students enter a degree program because it is expected of them, or ‘the thing to do’ when they would be better off in the workforce or other learning pathways. These students often drop out with nothing to show for their higher education except a large HELP debt.
The issue is, not all suitable candidates are good at Year 12. The high school learning environment and the assessment a Year 12 student faces in high school does not always correlate with the university learning environment and its assessment methods. So tertiary education providers need to figure out a more accurate way of finding out who is likely to be comfortable studying at that level and therefore finish the degree.
In an interview with The Australian, Professor Hilmer said: "We talk a lot about the student experience, but the most important thing is the calibre of the cohort. If you are in an undifferentiated group of students and you are getting comments on your work, you get a lot of junk. But if you are in a selective cohort, it will lift the standard of everyone."
This is also true. By using ATAR as a cut-off, however, the idea of a ‘selective cohort’ is restricted to 'those who can achieve above an ATAR of 80', which is a narrow measurement. It excludes, for example, those who may excel in a particular area on which the degree is based (but may not be good at other subjects that have counted towards their ATAR) and those who may have a passion for the field. Both these types of students would be welcome in a class for their willingness to excel, but may not necessarily have an ATAR of 80+. The proof is the number of university students who have enrolled in university with ATARs well under 80 but who have excelled anyway.
What are some solutions to ensure suitable students are encouraged to enrol while sifting out those who may be inappropriate for university study? Here are just a few I thought might help:
Earmarking: This is where high school teachers could nominate candidates who may not meet general requirements (including cut-off ATARs) but who they think would nevertheless be suitable to study at tertiary level. This can be communicated through school principals to universities in letters of recommendation.
Bonus points: Bonus points may be awarded to students for excellence in areas not covered by the ATAR, including extra-curricular activities, or to compensate for disadvantage, for example poor school-wide results that may affect the individual’s ATAR.
Interviews: As with degree programs that require candidates to submit a portfolio for enrolment, interviews may be a good way to gauge talent in a way that an ATAR cannot demonstrate. Many high-demand courses such as medicine already have an interview as a mandatory part of the enrolment process to weed out those who are vying for a place in the medicine program for the wrong reasons. This is quite a time-consuming process, however, and may be best employed for students who are on the margins of general requirements.
Vocational pathways: All diploma and advanced diploma courses are pathways to a degree. Students who do not meet the general requirements can feasibly graduate from a diploma or advanced diploma program with advanced standing into a degree, worth anything from one to three semesters. This would show dedication in a specific area that an ATAR cannot.
The challenge is, with so much focus on ATARs, there is not enough support and championing of this pathway. Additionally, because of the ratio of the large number of training organisations offering diploma and advanced diploma programs to the relatively small number of universities, there needs to be a uniform, solid link between graduating at vocational level and how that might count towards a degree.
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