Making university admissions process more transparent is important, but won’t help improve equity
This article was written by Shane Duggan
Universities are being urged to make their admission process more transparent following the release of a report by the Higher Education Standards Panel, which was set up by the government to help with reforming areas of higher education.
The rapid expansion of the university sector has led to a disparity of admissions practices, with equivalent courses at different institutions potentially having wildly different admissions requirements.
Earlier this year, a Fairfax media investigation revealed up to 63.5% of students at some universities were being admitted to courses of study below the advertised Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) “cut off” scores.
However, subsequent disclosure by a number of prestigious universities has illustrated that this practice tends to be isolated to particular institutions, and courses of study.
The review was careful to point out that offers to students with an ATAR of “50 or less” made up slightly over 2% of all offers in 2016 – and more than half of these students rejected their offer.
Across the sector, universities have been accused of being non-transparent about how they deploy “bonus point” schemes. The review found that almost all providers offer bonus points of some kind. These points are commonly allocated for:
- high academic achievement in particular subjects;
- participation in elite sport or arts;
- students facing social, geographic, or economic disadvantage.
The review suggests that the opacity is at least in part the result of successive waves of expansion and diversification of the sector that have gone relatively unchecked since the 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review).
The review highlights five key issues around the use of ATARs for admissions that it sought to address:
- a lack of common language used between universities
- unable to compare course admissions criteria between states and territories
- availability of information from admissions centres
- overemphasis on the ATAR as an admission requirement
- potential inflation of “cut-offs”.
In response, the panel makes fourteen recommendations focusing on four priorities: transparency, accessibility, comparability, and accountability.
Combined, the recommendations seek to improve clarity of information for young people and their families in the selection of courses of study, as well as for providers in assessing prospective student applications.
As was anticipated, a number of recommendations concern the publication of accurate minimum ATARs and clearer articulation of non-ATAR requirements.
The review calls also for the adoption of a common language around admissions processes across all higher education providers.
In a diverse system of relatively autonomous providers and discrete state and territory admissions centres (TACs), this will be difficult.
Third, the review calls for the development of a national higher education admissions information platform.
This aligns broadly with the Turnbull government’s advocacy of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website and was a key feature of the terms of reference for the panel to consider.
However, substantial research has shown that simply making information available does not necessarily address the challenges many young people face in completing secondary education and choosing higher education courses.
Too often, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are unaware of the options available to them. Commonly, they come from backgrounds with no history of higher education.
Is the ATAR still useful?
For many senior leaders, the ATAR remains an efficient and convenient tool for allocating Commonwealth supported higher education places.
However, researchers have suggested that the current policies contribute to “gaming” practices at some of the country’s most elite schools.
Research has shown how academic success concentrates in elite public and independent schools through subject and curriculum selection, intensive test preparation, and academic tutoring.
Data shows that four in ten students admitted to a course with an ATAR lower than 60 do not complete it.
Scholars have been at pains to point out, however, that ATAR performance and retention rates both correlate strongly with factors of disadvantage such as Indigenous, remote, part-time, and socio-economic status.
Transparency won’t necessarily help to improve equity
Equity of access to higher education remains an area of broad agreement between political parties.
Diversity schemes such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) are currently being reviewed in line with the government’s intended shake up of the higher education sector.
Over the next three years, HEPPP is marked for a A$152 million cut. Along with the shift to a demand-driven system, targeted HEPPP programs are thought to be partly responsible for the over 50% growth in low-SES participation in higher education since 2010.
More information needed for school leavers
The panel’s recommendations represent an opportunity to ensure young people have accurate information for making decisions about their intended courses of study.
They will not, however, address continued concerns about Year 12 completion rates. It is too late to begin the careers counselling process at the point of applying for courses, no matter how clear and accurate the information provided.
Helping students make an informed choice about higher education is critical. However, information about the admissions process itself is not enough.
Greater attention must also be given to ensuring that students are provided with the skills to navigate higher education.
It is increasingly likely that for the majority of young people, this engagement will be a lifelong activity.
Beyond this, helping students to develop a sense of belonging is key for boosting engagement and retention.
A successful reform must also include a more comprehensive approach to working with young people to identify a diversity of pathways and opportunities.
It must actively challenge and seek to redress the prioritising of university over technical and trade options.
It must be inclusive of broader questions of the benefits of having young people engage in education beyond school without reducing that discussion to one of “budget constraints”.
Despite recent concerns about the economic value of degrees, post-school qualifications are more important than ever.
These reforms must enshrine principles of student equity both in how young people are supported to access higher education, and in their experiences in those institutions once they arrive.