By Marcia Devlin
The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR, a numerical, relative ranking derived from senior high school performance, is a source of angst for many Australian school leavers hoping to become university students. Many assume, understandably but incorrectly, that the higher the ATAR needed to get into a course of study, the ‘better’ the quality of the course. There is no independent evidence to support this assumption.
However, there is evidence that just under half of the university places offered in Australia this year were made to students who do not have an ATAR. Almost fifty percent of new university students in Australia are mature age, international, vocationally qualified or will have come to university through a myriad of alternative entry schemes. None of these students have the magic number that automatically makes the course ‘better’ quality. It makes one begin to wonder about the point of the ATAR.
The ATAR used to be more important when supply of university places was limited and demand for these exceeded supply. ‘Cut-offs’ were a useful strategy for allocating too few places. In our current demand driven system of university places in Australia, where there are few limits on the number of students a university can enrol, the ATAR is used primarily as a marketing tool.
While it would not be accurate or fair to take away from those students who receive high ATARs – and no one is interested in doing so – an ATAR rank is not in itself a measure of intelligence, motivation, diligence, aptitude or ability. We do have evidence that the ATAR rank a student receives is closely correlated with their socioeconomic status and that the higher the socioeconomic status and capital, the higher the ATAR is likely to be. What we should be focused on as a society is what happens to students, regardless of their entry method, during their university study and after graduation. Many students who have very high ATARs come unstuck at university when the intensive support and guidance to which they have become accustomed at school falls away.
All university students should have the best possible start, experience and outcomes we can provide. As Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education says, what Australian universities are meant to do is educate people and create a quality output, not validate a quality input. He also notes that if we strangled supply of university places, ATARs would skyrocket and we could claim we have the highest quality universities in the world. We could also exclude many, many more students from contributing to national economic growth, innovation and social cohesion through being university educated. And yet our obsession with the ATAR continues.
Marcia Devlin is an SRHE Fellow and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Age newspaper.