The ATAR debate: students need to be able to finish uni, not just start it

by Andrew Norton

Published at The Conversation, Wednesday 21 January

Controversies surrounding university courses with low ATAR admission requirements have become a January ritual. Once universities make their offers to potential students, debates start over whether widening opportunities to attend university are a sign of declining standards in Australia’s higher education system.

Statistics released last week show a steady increase in offers to lower-ATAR university applicants. In 2010, fewer than 2000 applicants with an ATAR below 50 received any university offer. By 2014, more than 7000 such applicants received an offer. If early reports of the 2015 offer round are a guide, that number will grow this year.

The policy trigger for the latest decline in ATARs was the full lifting in 2012 of previous caps on the number of undergraduate university places. While some universities set minimum ATARs based on academic requirements, most ATAR cut-offs reflect supply and demand. In this academic auction, the price of entry has dropped because universities offer more places.

Sometimes this trend is framed as evidence of falling standards. The main response to this is that what matters is how well a student does at the end of their course, not the start. Minimum ATARs would deny opportunities to people who could successfully complete a course.

Last summer, I worked with David Kemp on a policy review of the demand driven funding system that led to these decreasing ATARs. This was one of the most difficult issues in the review. While we rejected proposals for a minimum ATAR, we also found considerable evidence that there is a problem.

A study tracking students who started their courses in 2005 found that only a little more than half of students with ATARs of 59 or below had completed a degree by the end of 2012. Some were still enrolled, but the vast majority of the rest had dropped out. By comparison, for students in the top ATAR ranges completion rates were 90% or more. There is a clear pattern in the data: the lower the ATAR, the lower the completion rate.

Shorter-term attrition data gives little reason to believe that things have improved for later low-ATAR students. Nearly a quarter of students with ATARs below 50 are not re-enrolling for their second year, although some will come back after time off.

The dilemma here is not so much opportunity versus excellence as opportunity versus likely outcomes. We do not want to deny people a potentially life-changing chance at a degree and more interesting work. The argument has an equity angle, as students from disadvantaged backgrounds are over-represented among lower-ATAR school leavers. But nor do we want to waste a student’s time on a course that has a high risk of not leading to a degree, but a near certainty of leaving them with student debt.

So how do we fix it?

The first step to improved completions is better decision-making by prospective students. It would be wrong to think that lower-ATAR applicants are naive about their prospects. More than half of the applicants with an ATAR of 50 or less who receive an offer reject it.

But with data on the high rate of non-completion hidden in obscure government reports, people who do accept their offer may not realise the risks they are taking. With better information, they may make different decisions.

The second step is making universities more accountable for their admission policies. In theory, regulation of admissions has been tightened in recent years. Universities need to be able to prove that they:

… ensure that students have adequate prior knowledge and skills to undertake the course of study successfully.

They are also supposed to have measures in place to identify and assist students who are struggling academically. In practice, it is not clear how the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is enforcing these requirements.

Public reporting on attrition rates by basis of admission at each university, rather than just the aggregate numbers that are published now, would help. It would inform potential students, and if the rates are poor this could prompt regulatory action. Universities shown to have effective programs would get public credit for their success.

The third step is to think through our institutional provision of post-secondary education. One recommendation of the demand driven review final report was to expand the use of pathway colleges. These colleges typically offer the academic equivalent of first-year university, but taught differently. They aim to build some of the study skills that led to lower ATARs, and without which students are likely to fail at university.

The government accepted this recommendation, but the controversies surrounding fees and funding cuts look likely to sink the entire higher education reform package.

While institutional reform will probably have to wait for another time, improved information could be done fairly easily. It does not have to go to the Senate and would not cost very much money. It would save money if more lower-ATAR applicants decided not to accept their offers.

Reform needs to be geared towards not just increasing enrolments, but to what is in the best interests of students and prospective students. We want to give them a chance to complete a degree, not just to start one.

The Conversation