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EXCLUSIVE

NSW universities taking students with ATARs as low as 30

NSW universities are admitting students with ATARs as low as 30 into some of the state's top tertiary degrees, a Fairfax Media investigation into confidential university data has revealed. 

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Universities ignore ATAR scores

Up to 99% of applicants for some NSW university degrees have been admitted despite failing to meet the minimum ATAR score advertised for the course. Eryk Bagshaw reports.

Students with marks up to 40 points below the advertised course cut-off are being accepted in fields such as business, teaching and engineering, according to the 2016 admissions figures from the University of Sydney, UNSW, Macquarie University and Western Sydney University.

An ATAR [Australia Tertiary Admissions Rank] is awarded to more than 50,000 NSW high school students in December each year. Universities set an ATAR cut-off according to what they believe is the minimum academic standard required to complete a course, as well as supply and demand for the degree. 

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Sydney University plans to streamline degrees into three "tracks": professional development, research and a more open track for broader education.  Photo: Victoria Baldwin

The admissions data, seen for the first time by Fairfax Media, comes four years after the cap on student numbers was lifted by the federal government in 2012  allowing universities to recruit as many students as they can fit. The majority of degrees are funded by the federal government through student loans paid to the universities. The loan, often worth more than $20,000, is later repaid by students when they earn over $54,000. 

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The figures show top Sydney universities are offering places to thousands of school leavers with marks significantly below the minimum entry standard. Up to two thirds of students offered places at Macquarie University had ATARs below the advertised cut-off – the highest share of the four universities. The University of Sydney had the lowest share, with 27 per cent of students scoring below the required mark.

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said that universities were putting their reputations at risk, and that there was no excuse for admitting such large numbers of sub-standard students. 

The University of NSW aims to be a top 50 university within 10 years.
The University of NSW aims to be a top 50 university within 10 years. Photo: Louise Kennerley

"I'm annoyed that universities are taking students with such low marks out of self respect for their own university," he said. 

"For universities that are concerned about their rankings internationally to be taking in students with such low ATARs is not a good look. I know they have funding pressures, but that is no excuse." 

The universities maintain that including students who did not get the required ATAR ensures disadvantaged students do not miss out on an opportunity for an education. 

One student whose applicant report has been obtained by Fairfax Media scored an ATAR in the 30s and was admitted to a combined Bachelor of Secondary Education and Arts at Macquarie University with a cut-off of 75. She had received up to 10 bonus points for being from a disadvantaged school in Sydney's west.

In one of the nation's most prestigious degrees, the Bachelor of Combined Law at UNSW, 91 per cent of offers were made to students who did not meet the ATAR cut-off of 99.7, including to two applicants who had scored only 67. More than 40 per cent of offers made to students to study a Bachelor of Combined Law at the University of Sydney were also below the cut-off of 99.5.

At Western Sydney University, 99 per cent of the 251 students offered places in its Bachelor of Construction Management program did not make the cut-off of 85. WSU undertook an extensive recruiting drive this year, offering a record 12,000 places – the most of any NSW tertiary institution. 

Individual university applicant reports show that students with ATARs as low as 46 have been offered a place in the Medical Science degree at Western Sydney University from next year, while Macquarie has invited students with ATARs in the 30s and who failed to score above a Band 3 in HSC economics to take up Commerce degrees.

The practice of offering discounted ATAR entry remains prevalent among teaching degrees, despite a recent NSW government stipulation that all incoming teaching students must score three band 5s in their HSC subjects. The restriction does not apply to students undertaking double degrees. 

At UNSW one in three students across all seven of its combined teaching degrees failed to make the minimum standard. More than 86 per cent of students admitted to Western Sydney University's combined Bachelor of Arts and Master of Primary Teaching degree did not make the advertised cut-off of 70.

Mr Piccoli said universities were using teaching students as cash cows to accumulate Commonwealth government funding through HECS debts. 

He said the federal government should set minimum entry requirements or cap the number of funded places. 

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said there were no current plans to reinstate caps for universities. 

"Universities must take responsibility for those students they choose to enrol and ensure they have the capabilities and support to succeed," he said 

All four universities declined to comment on individual student applications. 

A UNSW spokeswoman said students were validly admitted through "alternative entry schemes," and cited the ATAR as a far from perfect measure of academic potential, despite the university enthusiastically advertising their ATAR cut-offs last week.

A spokeswoman for the University of Sydney said that some of its students who were significantly below ATAR cut-offs were admitted through its Indigenous opportunity program, while WSU and Macquarie said that the admissions take into account a variety of circumstances that may have disadvantaged students during their studies. 

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