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The nonsense about ATAR

Truth is, it should only ever be one of several factors that help determine a student's pathway in life.

This year, the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) has put a welcome end to some of the nonsense about ATARs.

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For many years ATAR "clearly in" cut-off scores have been published and have been viewed by many as a measure of university and student quality. But this was a flawed idea.

First, it needs to be remembered that many students come to university as mature-age students, not as school-leavers and not the through the VTAC system.

Second, for many courses, most of the students who do come through the VTAC system are enrolled with ATAR scores lower than the "clearly in" cut-offs. As a result, this year VTAC has changed the practice in relation to the publication of ATAR cut off scores. Where more than 60 per cent of students enrolled in a course have ATAR scores below the "cut-offs", they are sensibly not publishing the scores. Even where this is not the case, they are giving universities the discretion to publish cut-offs or not.

Third, it is not as if ATAR scores are especially helpful as predictors of success, anyway. More and more evidence accumulates that it is much more important for us to make sure students entering universities get the support they need when they are there, rather than to have preconceived views of where we should set ATAR cut-offs.

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It is true that some low-ATAR students struggle. But evidence also shows there are many students with higher ATARs who do not succeed.

Recent analysis at Victoria University adds to this evidence. A study by George Messinis and Peter Sheehan examined how students at different ATAR levels performed in their first-year studies. It did find that on average those with high ATARs did better than those with low ATARs. But the variance in outcomes was enormous. Many students entering university with low ATARs did very well, and significant numbers of students entering with high ATARs did poorly. There are many more things than ATARs that determine student success.

Scores in exams cannot be the be-all and end-all for students or universities.
Scores in exams cannot be the be-all and end-all for students or universities. Photo: Craig Abraham

Another important finding was that restricting access to those with higher ATARs would discriminate against students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who tend to have lower ATAR scores. But once they get to university, low SES students do better than their high SES counterparts, with otherwise similar characteristics, age, gender, Non-English Speaking Background etc, with similar ATAR scores.

So, at Victoria University the ATAR score is only one of several factors we take into account in our student admission strategy. We see our mission as providing appropriate opportunities for as many students as possible, whatever their educational background.

Professor Peter Dawkins.
Professor Peter Dawkins.  Photo: Wayne Taylor

For some students vocational education and training is the answer. We offer this through Victoria Polytechnic. For some, it's a higher education diploma, which provides strong support in developing study skills, with a pathway to a degree. For some, going straight into a degree is the right thing to do, with an appropriately structured program with additional learning support, even if their prior academic achievement is modest. Depending on the course that a student wishes to study, whether it be a quantitative or a more language-based subject, it is often the prerequisites that are more important than the ATAR score. For these reasons, in most of our courses we welcome the discretion not to publish ATAR cut-off scores, because we do not see them as a critical measure.

There are, however, a limited number of our programs that are designed for already high academic achievers where we have decided that a high ATAR score is preferred for students entering the course from outside the university. These include Biomedicine, Biomedical and Exercise Science, Osteopathy and Commerce.

These courses are designed for students who are already academically well prepared, and it would therefore be unwise to enrol students with low ATAR scores, until they have proven or strengthened their academic ability in other courses. So, as well as school leavers with high ATARs, students entering Victoria University through other courses in which they then achieve highly can transfer into these courses, as can students who have performed well in other universities. We are happy to publish ATAR cut-off scores for these kinds of courses.

In a world in which it is increasingly important to provide tertiary education opportunities to a larger and larger proportion of the population, the focus of our tertiary education system should be getting people into the right course and giving them the right support, rather than on excluding students who haven't got a high ATAR score.

Peter Dawkins is the vice-chancellor of Victoria University.

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