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Rocket science takes off as universities battle for the brainy

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Josephine Tovey, Amy McNeilage

WELL, it is rocket science.

A Bachelor of Engineering (Mechatronic) (Space) at the University of Sydney had the highest Australian Tertiary Admission Rank cut-off of any of the degrees in the main round of offers, which were released to students on Wednesday night.

Offers were made to more than 55, 000 students by the University Admissions Centre (UAC) in the main round. A tiny fraction will gain a place in the highly competitive space engineering degree, which required a minimum ATAR of 99.8.

''It's more engineering in an extreme environment'' ... PhD candidate Angela Lui at the Marscape exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum.

''It's more engineering in an extreme environment'' ... PhD candidate Angela Lui at the Marscape exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

The only one of its kind in Australia, the degree covers areas including orbital mechanics and space robotics, such as the Mars rover, and has prepared graduates for work at NASA and the European Space Agency.

Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the university's School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, said only 15 or so students were admitted to study the elite course each year.

''They say there are three things that attract kids to science - dinosaurs, space and robots, and we've got two of the three,'' he said.

The University of Sydney had the highest average ATAR cut-off, followed by the University of New South Wales and the Australian National University.

ATAR cut-offs are determined by the demand for a course and the number of places available, with cut-offs for the same course sometimes varying across separate campuses. For example, a Bachelor of Education (Primary) at the Australian Catholic University's Strathfield campus requires an ATAR of 86, while the same degree only requires an ATAR of 59.3 at the same university's Canberra campus.

''People associate a high cut-off with prestige or difficulty, which is all a load of baloney,'' said Kim Paino, director of information services at UAC. ''A course that has a cut-off of 60 is not necessarily an easier course than a course that has a cut-off of 99.''

But one of Professor Sukkarieh's PhD students, Angela Lui, said the depth and complexity of the undergraduate space engineering content makes it a very difficult degree. ''I think you would need the 99.8,'' she said.

The 25-year-old said she is often asked if she is a rocket scientist. ''It is rocket science but that's only some subjects, not the whole degree … It goes beyond rocket science. It's more engineering in an extreme environment.''

Some courses do not have an ATAR cut-off listed as part of the Main Round because they have special entry requirements such as a portfolio of work or interview.

A combined medicine degree at the University of Sydney requires students to sit an interview as well as gaining the highest possible ATAR of 99.95.

UNSW's combined Bachelor Music/ Bachelor Science (Advanced) also has a high ATAR cut-off of 99.25, but requires students to audition as well, so was not included in main round offers list.

More than 16,000 students have already received offers in early rounds.

Important information from UAC about main round offers, ATAR cut-offs and late round offers.

For a full list of university offers see Thursday's print edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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