Illustration: Simon Letch
HEARTY congratulations to all students for their admirable results in the Higher School Certificate and the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank. Special plaudits to those who improved their performance during school without sacrificing their health, family life, friendships and passion for non-academic pursuits.
For those who worked hard yet feel somewhat let down, be proud that you took the journey. Learn from it. Realise there are myriad paths to educational and career fulfilment. But above all, know this: one number does not a good person make.
Rankings such as the ATAR are necessary evils in an education system torn between the laudable aspiration of individualised learning to reach potential, and the reality of competition for scarce funds.
To the academically driven, the ATAR is a challenge worth rising to, an incentive to push harder. We need all students to do their best and all families to imbue a culture of lifelong learning.
For many students, though, the dangerous temptation is to define themselves by one number at one point in time, rather than to see education as a process of self-improvement.
The good news is that the primacy of ATAR as a ticket to university has been sharply diminished. A minority of applicants for uni places in 2013 will be selected on ATAR alone. Some students enter after a gap year or a stint in the workforce, while most institutions are competing to attract recent school leavers with inducements of early offers, bonus points and even gifts. With funding tied to enrolment numbers, the incentives are often tailored to specific courses.
While justified as necessary for specialisation and capability, the bonus points for achievement in specific clusters of subjects risk steering students into narrow educational choices just to maximise the chances of university entry. This exacerbates the problem that some schools and coaching colleges teach for exams, not learning.
The bonus points system also suffers from being ad hoc. School careers counsellors struggle to cope with the red tape and some of the students who would most benefit from the schemes miss out.
That said, many of the incentives offered for uni entry do provide support for students whose family, cultural or economic backgrounds count against their educational progress. Fears that these incentives lower entry standards are largely misplaced because ATAR does not always predict the best person for the course or career path.
While ATAR is a good predictor of the university performance of higher-ranking students who have not suffered educational disadvantage, the link is weak at best for others. The chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, cites research that shows the correlation between ATAR and academic performance for students who scored 40 to 80 is in effect non-existent. Likewise, research suggests a government school student with an ATAR of, say, 70 will perform at uni as well as an independent school pupil who scored 75.
None of this suggests the ATAR should be disregarded. It should simply be seen for what it is: a device that rations students seeking admission to a limited number of places in university courses.
So ATAR entrance levels do not reflect quality of education. As Cathy Sherry, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW, has written on smh.com.au, some courses have ATARs 15 or 20 points below others that are no more intellectually challenging. Excessive demand inflates entrance scores for courses such as law, physiotherapy and commerce, "ironically from large numbers of students who, if pressed, would admit they do not really want to do the degree or work in the area for which it will train them".
Some of the skewing comes from unis creating ''marketable'' labels for some courses but not traditional general degrees.
The Herald welcomes policies that remove distortions created by focusing on one HSC or ATAR number. The International Baccalaureate does this in high school, and the NSW HSC syllabus, when not infected by the "final mark"mantra, offers a good general education.
Universities are on the right track, too, when they offer bonus points for students who have Duke of Edinburgh gold awards, been school captain or excelled at athletics and performance. Pre-admission interviews can be useful supplements to academic rankings as well. And unis that offer general undergraduate degrees for a broad education before specialised postgraduate study should be supported.
Education is a life's work. It did not end for any student this week and it won't end in three, 10 or even 50 years.
Doomsday prediction not all bad news
It is official. The world according to the Mayan long count calendar has not ended. Yet. You have another hour to prepare because central America is on daylight ending time.
In any case, many adherents to the December 21 Mayan doomsday prediction would have us believe that the apocalypse is a bad thing. Not so. Thousands of true believers (mainly in the media industry) have overwhelmed the French Pyrenees village of Bugarach in the expectation that hibernating aliens will awake and fly out of the mountain to ferry the journalists to another planet. That's a good news story.
Other believers have gathered at Mount Rtanj in Serbia and Sirince in Turkey where they expect the positive vibe to save them. Tourists south of Cancun in Mexico, near the heart of the Mayan civilisation, have similarly been writing positive thoughts on pieces of paper and placing them in PET bottles. The bottles have been laid down in the Pyramid of Positive Thinking in alternating rows with layers of soil so the positive vibe can grow and meet doomsday head on.
Australians have done so by travelling to Byron Bay for Uplift 2012, where "a unique opportunity exists to harness this global attention into an event that celebrates the essential unity of humanity, and of all life". They have nothing to fear in Byron. Nothing, that is, except the apocalyptic prospect of a KFC outlet gaining council approval.