Key to dysfunction of university mess about ATAR levels is lack of knowledge

Congratulations to the many thousands of young Australians who are about to begin university. Many of the best years of my life (and what fun!) although thankfully I emerged without a huge debt to be going on with. But then again, it will be a long time before anyone starting out as a journalist today ever earns enough from wages in the media to be forced to pay it back. That's the thing about the future – everyone has a different vision of how things will turn out.

Our education system's shaped by the interaction of three stakeholders: students, universities, and government. The difficulty is that all the spending is happening today in the hope of some kind of pay-off somewhere in the future. It's education on lay-by and, just like most borrowing arrangements, sometimes it works out and other times it doesn't. The key is knowledge, which is, hey; exactly what education is all about.

Except when it comes to the sector itself. Universities are quite happy to publish the top ATAR cut-offs. What they're somewhat more reluctant to have publicly disseminated are the figures at the bottom. That's because of the quite intelligent assumption that if everyone knew exactly how low the requirement to enter some of their courses actually is, it would trash the product, both in the eyes of other students (who've managed to get good marks) and for potential employers. After all, it doesn't say much for your exclusivity as an institution of higher learning when you boldly shout, "anyone who applies is accepted!"

Naturally this wouldn't matter if universities did believe they actually do transform students. Perhaps some do, but the emphasis is all too often placed on the quality of the entrants rather than the exceptional brilliance of the transfiguring experience occurring within the hallowed halls. Maybe the reality is a bit too much like Harry Potter's sorting hat. It chooses, arbitrarily, the houses in which new pupils will end up because it "knows" where they fit best. And this is the unfortunate thing about our tertiary system, too. It seems as if the power is vested with students because they're the ones who choose where they'll go and, in our demand based system, this gives them the whip hand. The reality is otherwise. The free market thrives on knowledge. Unfortunately that's exactly what the system isn't offering the kids who are attempting to make informed decisions about their future path in life.

Anyone can quickly discover a course's ATAR cut-off. The thing is that it turns out there are all sorts of special reasons that this isn't a strict limit after all. That's good. If someone who wants to do law has, for example, like Deng Adut, come to Australia as a refugee but is desperate to learn, graduates from the University of Western Sydney and serves as a role model for us all, that's something to celebrate. Such stories are exactly what education's all about. But if 99 per cent of the kids entering the same uni's construction management course didn't meet the supposed ATAR cut-off of 85 and the average entry (that's average, not lowest) was just 63, then intending students should know it. So should taxpayer footing the bill. True knowledge comes from an understanding of where the average is as well as where the edges lie. We don't need to know why a university has admitted someone, what particular reasons have given them the confidence to take a student in, but remember, we are footing the bill for all this.

The key to the whole dysfunction of the current mess is (rather ironically for a sector committed to disseminating information) a lack of knowledge. If we're to have confidence in the tertiary sector we need to know, as soon as possible once the uni year begins, what the highest, lowest and average ATAR entry marks were for any particular course. No problem if they're low, nobody cares why that particular university has accepted a particular candidate, but the information should be out there.


Another vital piece of information that people need if they're to make informed choices is the drop-out rate. How many people decide to leave courses and at what point? This is a vital piece of information, however the universities have absolutely no interest in publishing it because it reflects directly on the quality of their teaching. This leads to the final issue; who pays for the waste?

It's quite OK if a university decides to take a chance on a student and offer them a place in a course for which they may never graduate, however where's the downside? The taxpayer funds the place so it's in the university's interest to take people in and that's good. The real issue is that up to a quarter of the people who are about to begin so enthusiastically this year won't ever graduate. According to the Grattan Institute this debt has blown out to more than $7 billion. It would be nice to see universities offering to foot the bill for people who drop out.

If they have such confidence in their entry procedures surely this is the least they can do.

Finally, and proceeding from nothing more than anecdotal evidence, I'm sure we get good value from, for example, medical courses. Not many drop out and there's work once they graduate. But these outcomes are certainly not replicated for other degrees, such as journalism. It's all very well to insist that former students may have gained valuable skills, but if they never get the chance to practice such expertise how worthwhile has their study been? There is a need for government intervention. We need knowledge.

But the way it's currently structured, the only guaranteed loser out of the entire higher education system is the taxpayer.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer