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ATARs & the quality issue

As the season turns and the days get shorter, overcast, colder and wetter, people often express surprise.  Why?  You should be surprised if that happened in February or July (or didn’t happen at all) rather than that it happens about now, as usual.

A report by the Australian Council of Educational Research analysing university admission data seems to have created a similar sort of “the weather has changed” surprise.  The report says that Australian Tertiary Admission Rank entry scores – which are used to determine university placements by ranking academic performance relative to every other Year 12 student – “on average are declining”.

The ACER report comes hot on the heels of the release of data that shows a marked improvement in “equity” with offers of university places to applicants of low SES background up by 18.9% since 2009.

Why should any of this be a surprise?  The whole point of the reforms arising out of the Bradley Review process is to

  1. increase higher education attainment in the general population
  2. increase higher participation by poorly represented population groups (low SES, regional, indigenous).

To the extent that you achieve one goal, all things being equal (for example, #2 isn’t achieved at the expense of some other group) you also achieve the other.  And the overall effect must be that, “on average”, a lower ATAR than had hitherto been necessary (or no ATAR at all) will get some more applicants into a university course than had previously been the case (though not into any  university course at any  university).

As Chris Evans, the Commonwealth minister, observed “growth is, in part, being driven by increasing numbers of young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds… Until the Gillard Government removed the cap on university places the benefits associated with higher education have eluded many Australians. ”   And in comments to The Australian, he said he doesn’t agree with the argument that somehow, by creating opportunity by creating more places, that comes with lower standards.”

Plenty of analysts will agree that the average decline in ATARs will necessarily lead to a decline in quality.  In his recent report on the state of Australian universities (Mapping Australian Higher Education), the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton observed that “… ATAR is at best moderately predictive of future academic performance.  Below 80, ATARs have little predictive value for future grades…(although) there is a stronger link between ATAR and eventual completion of a course.”

There seem to be two relevant issues.

As the ACER report says, one issue” is identifying the extent to which a decline in scores is likely to compromise quality.”

Now ANU v-c Ian Young had a crack at this when he was v-c at the dual sector Swinburne (Building better pathways to higher education).  He observed that ATAR is a measure of academic preparation rather than academic potential or ability.  Hence, if in the future an increasingly large percentage of school leavers, with inevitably lower mean ATAR, are to progress to higher education (as is occurring now), alternative means will be necessary to ensure this group of students are not excessively disadvantaged by their backgrounds.  On the basis of data collected at Swinburne, he concluded that students with lower ATARs (below 60) who enrolled directly into higher education tended to struggle (at least in terms progression).  Students with similar ATARs who took a pathway into higher education through Swinburne’s TAFE division had progression rate comparable to students with higher ATARS (70-80 plus).

This leads to the second issue: the level of resourcing necessary to remediate “under preparation” for higher education.

The Commonwealth has certainly recognised this as a serious issue and tipped in $433 million over the four years to 2012-13.

But, as the ACER report notes, the Commonwealth seriously underestimated the kick up in enrolments through the transition period (2010-2011) to the actual uncapping this year (predicted as early as 2009 in The report advising on a tertiary education plan for Victoria).  At the announcement of the new funding arrangements in 2009 (Transforming Australia’s Higher Education Future), the budget forward estimates predicted 458,000 domestic Commonwealth supported places (equivalent full-time student load) by 2013.  In the 2011 budget this estimate had been revised up to 507 000 – over 50 000 more places than initially anticipated, or an 11% increase over three budgets.

While the Commonwealth is to be commended in funding this unexpected growth, the point is that funding is at the historical base funding rate, with no adjustment to equity funding.  That’s probably not enough, given that a substantial part of this unexpected growth has come from “equity groups” who need much greater support given, in Ian Young’s terms, their general lack of preparation for higher education.

Anthony Welch (University of Sydney) summed it up nicely:

There’s not much point taking in students with (low ATARs) if their prospects of success are low.  Either support them during their studies or don’t accept them.  It’s wrong in my view to just take them, and then let them sink or swim.

A lot of folk in the sector are basing “hopes” on the Commonwealth taking up recommendations of the Review of Base Funding which proposed that the average level of base funding per place should be increased to improve the quality of higher education teaching and to maximise the sector’s potential to contribute to national productivity and economic growth.  Remarks by the Commonwealth Minister suggest that an across-the-board increase in base funding is not likely in the near future.

The focus might better be on equity funding, which expires in 2013 (presumably ahead of the next Federal election).

A pedantic note: while the growth in supply of higher education places has outstripped the growth in demand, this is not quite the same as the suggestion that the “number of student places is outstripping demand”.  After years of rationing, the uncapping of places this year means that supply is approximating demand (it’s a demand driven system).

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