University Standards In Freefall


There we were; happily sipping red wine when the vexed issue of university admissions standards raised its head. "I don’t think entry requirements are as important as the programs we have on offer and the support we provide through the university", said one of my former colleagues.

"So let me get this right", I ventured. "You’re saying that university entrance should be as open as possible, providing students get access to the right support and decent programs?" His gaze hardened: "What I’m saying Richard, is that the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank [ATAR] is not a great predictor of outcome and, in any event, it’s too broad a score to indicate what students are really good at".

About a month prior to this conversation, I stumbled across an interesting exchange in the pages of the journal, Australian Social Work. The protagonists, Professor Howard Karger at the University of Queensland’s School of Social Work and Human Services and Associate Professor Mark Hughes from Southern Cross University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences, argued the case for and against distinctive entry standards, in particular, the ATAR. According to Karger, the lowering of entry requirements has led in many instances to a dumbing down of higher education and apparently, an over-supply of social workers.

Hughes, on the other hand, maintains that entry scores are less important than the integrity of programs (including their capacity and commitment to fail students) and the learning support provided by each institution. Hughes is of the view that greater flexibility should be extended to entry standards and that the inclusion of credits, recognition of prior learning, early admission and tertiary preparation courses are all good things, especially if they enable increased student diversity in higher education.

Despite my own support for many of these initiatives, I wondered about the downsides of such variegated and highly flexible entry standards and what this might mean in terms of teaching and learning and, more broadly, academic workloads.

More specifically, I am perplexed by those like Professor Greg Craven, outspoken Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, who has asserted that: (a) there is no necessary correlation between ATAR scores and the final degree (a point on which he might be right, although I have yet to see strong evidence to support this contention); and (b) that those entry standards are merely economic indicators, subject to the same laws of supply and demand as free range eggs and Toyota Corollas.

This latter view was shared recently by the Dean of Science at UNSW, Professor Merlin Grossley, who argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that: "[ATAR] is simply a measure of supply and demand; of the desirability of a degree; and how many students can be accepted into it". Grossley cited medicine and law as courses where only a few students can enroll, hence they have "…always topped the ATAR tables".

If this is the case, then (by logical extension and through Grossley’s own admission) the ATAR is really nothing to do with intellectual ability per se and everything to do with the imperatives of the free market. There are several problems with the argument peddled by Craven and Grossley, and I will address these from the perspective of today’s academics — those who routinely deal with the realities of massification and questionable entry standards.

First and most obviously, if ATAR scores are reduced to a form of abstracted currency that is used simply for tertiary entry purposes, then what of the knowledge, skills and insights gained from several years of study? How do they figure in the reckoning of preparedness for higher education? Craven and Grossley’s market reductivism is surely one of the clearest indications of a way of thinking that is dictated not by the merits of scholastic achievement but by "economic" considerations.

The question of standards (difficult to discern at the best of times) is brought into sharp relief when we consider where we might draw a line in relation to ATARs. Thus, at what point does a low score become unacceptable for Craven and Grossley? Further, have they ever sought to ask academics what they think about entry standards in their institutions or if, how and when lines should be drawn? Hopefully, academics would be more concerned with having students enter university who are reasonably literate and numerate, who can articulate coherent lines of argument, and who do not require years of remedial educational support.

Second, if the ultimate arbiter of entry is a matter of supply and demand then, at least for the less prestigious institutions, this means that ATAR scores will (for obvious reasons) remain relatively low, amounting in some instances to a policy of open slather. Indeed, some institutions with high attrition rates pride themselves on the fact that they have the nation’s most "flexible" entry requirements, which again, in many instances, is tantamount to an open door policy.

Third, and relatedly, notwithstanding all the learning support specialists, preparatory programs and the rest, it is not possible to teach literacy skills in a short period to those who have underachieved at school precisely because of the protracted challenges associated with such problems.

As a consequence, low literacy levels explain, in part, why academics spend inordinate amounts of time marking scripts that are considerably less than perfect (and often beyond repair). Frequently, markers of written assignments find it difficult to get to the substance of an argument because the prose is so difficult to decipher, with the result that the academic’s attention is focused on remedial rather than intellectual concerns.

Fourth, students entering university with questionable literacy and other skills, create numerous challenges for which most universities are ill equipped to deal with by virtue of the small numbers of learning support staff. Many institutions have only sparse numbers of learning support specialists, who quickly burn out under the stresses and strains of excessive student demand.

Fifth, the lumping together of students with disparate ATAR scores (as often happens in less "prestigious" establishments) also has deleterious effects on, let’s call them the more "capable" students, as well as on academic staff who often find it difficult to pitch their lectures and tutorials at a median level.

While variation among student cohorts has always occurred, massification has certainly exacerbated differences chiefly because low scores invite a more disparate range of applicants. This can make the design of course content, the setting of assessment items and the rest, a very arduous business, especially when one also considers the tyranny of bell curve distribution and what amounts, in some cases, to the institutionalised minimisation of fail grades.

Sixth, given the vagaries of supply and demand, universities which suddenly experience lower enrollment numbers may, as often happens, trawl for and accept applicants with significantly lower ATAR scores. For those students with less than proficient literacy and other skills entering, say, law courses, can significantly ratchet up the workloads of academic and support staff, as well as cause great angst for students themselves. To be sure, some students will, despite the odds, come good, but many will not and university may for them become a terribly grueling experience.

Seventh, many overseas students struggle with the demands of university education, mainly because of poor English language skills — a reality known to many academics but consistently denied or played down by university management. Additionally, according to Australian employers of Australian-educated overseas students, many graduates lack the ability to communicate effectively, whether orally or in written form.

Not uncommonly, universities will, quite understandably, do everything in their power to ensure maximum support for this group of full fee-paying students, although the slippage into "soft assessment" for the same purpose raises concerns about the integrity of some courses.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably in a sector so diverse in terms of income, prestige and reputation, the sandstone G8s are almost always in a preferred position when it comes to attracting students. While difficult to avoid, such exclusivity brings with it the tendency of the system to splinter into different parts with those institutions on the margins experiencing high attrition rates forced, by dint of market forces, to absorb students with often very low entry scores.

Ultimately, the major question here is whether "the university" has, in the post-Dawkins era, become too much of an all-inclusive institution, ill-prepared to meet the complex needs of a disparate student population, and unwilling to consider other educational approaches better suited to students needs and aspirations.

It is ironic that in a market-based system that prides itself on "consumer choice", so few alternatives exist within higher education and that tens of thousands of students are funneled into a system of university education that, at best, struggles to meet their disparate needs. But, as Craven and Grossley might argue, the hidden hand of the market has a way of dealing with such things. Time will tell.

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