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You are reading: Building quality graduates from ALL backgrounds

Written by Mel Henry (Manager, Student Equity & Diversity, Curtin University) and Dr Caroline Gopalkrishnan (Project Coordinator, Access, Curtin University)

A spate of articles has recently emerged in the Australian media with several university and industry spokespersons expressing concerns over the presumed negative effects of lowering university entry ranks, in response to Government’s demand-driven model for Higher Education (see Hiatt, 2012; Lebihan & Mather, 2012; Norton, 2013; Thomas, 2013).

Many are concerned that widening participation and the lowering of Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATARs) will somehow compromise the quality of the programs delivered by universities, and subsequently their reputation, or to put it bluntly, ‘dumb-down’ courses in order to meet the capabilities of less academically prepared students. This argument is based on the following assumptions:

  • Universities and accrediting bodies do not already have quality assurance mechanisms in place to prevent ‘lowering of standards’  (which all universities do);
  • A high ATAR score is an accurate predictor of a student’s capacity to succeed in University (evidence suggests to the contrary (Murphy, & McDowell 2001;Dobson & Skuja 2005 ; Win & Miller 2005; Birch & Miller 2005).
  • All potential students have the same opportunities to enter University, and accrue the potential social, economic and health benefits afforded by a tertiary education.

The Bradley Review (2008) highlighted what many of us already know. Not all individuals or communities have the same opportunities to enter via traditional ATAR pathways. On the issue of maintaining high ATAR entry scores in universities, there is little evidence to suggest that students from non-traditional and low SES backgrounds, who enter via a lowered ATAR pathway, would not be successful in their completion of a degree (University of Melbourne, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, 2008).

In fact, research suggests to the contrary, that admission ranks and secondary school grades can be weak predictors of students’ performance at university (Moore, 2005). While the admission rank for highly successful students may be demonstrable of significant academic talent, and therefore correlates highly with subsequent achievement at university, low and mid-range ATARs tend not to hold such predictive value, particularly in fields such as Information Technology, Creative Arts, Humanities and Business.

Furthermore ATAR scores can be poor predictors of performance in Health and Education fields of study (Dobson & Skuja, 2005). For these reasons, it is important to acknowledge that there are a multiple factors which are likely to affect students’ performance and retention during their university studies (see Gabb, Milne & Cao, 2006) and students who gain lower ATARs can actually do as well, and in some cases better than their more privileged counterparts once they are at university (Dobson & Skuja, 2005).

Evidence clearly suggests that, measures such as the ATAR may have little bearing on students’ motivation and commitment during their university studies, two factors that more effectively predict student performance at university level (Moore, 2005). This raises further questions for discussion: If it is not reliable, why do we use it at all? What is the point of measuring students’ WACE performance? Can it be an informative (rather than selective) tool for us to understand the existing capabilities and potential diversity of needs for our incoming students?

For too long universities have had it comparatively easy. We have carefully selected our students according to an arbitrary measure of prior academic performance, in order to accept and educate only those most likely to succeed in a course. Our social, moral and professional responsibility as educators, however, should drive us to employ our expertise to also educate those most in need.

It is the role of universities to guide and assist students to develop and transform themselves into knowledgeable, experienced and capable professionals who will enhance our community; and for students who come to us with lower ATARs this role may be most pronounced.

Projecting into the future, it would seem that broadening the intake of students should in no way disadvantage students who achieve higher ATARs, or change the quality of graduates we expect to produce at the completion of a course. In lowering the ATAR, the range of backgrounds and abilities of students entering that degree will grow, and a focus on the quality of teaching and support will (hopefully) begin to improve and strengthen.

The broadening and enhancement of support services, to better attract and meet the diverse needs of our incoming students, would subsequently enrich students’ experiences.

It is true that by increasing the number of students with less academic preparation, we will likely need to build our capacity to support these students. It would be irresponsible to grant such students entry without ensuring they are given sufficient opportunity to succeed once they are in (Ross, 2009).

Nonetheless, enhancements to support student learning would benefit all students through increasing access (for all students) to learning and support; and increasing the diversity of our student body, thus facilitating cross-cultural understanding and respect for diverse perspectives and knowledge. The latter attributes really do have relevant implications, in that our graduates are more likely to be able to transfer and adapt their skills and qualifications according to the dynamics of globalisation, at the very least.

Providing a richer and more supportive student experience, which is demonstrable through the high quality of our graduates, would in turn actually increase, not detract from, our reputation as education providers. The only situation we foresee where lowering ATAR scores could jeopardise the quality or reputation of an institution, is where steps are not taken to assist and develop students, leaving them to rely purely on their pre-existing ‘capabilities’.

We need to find new ways of providing a quality of services which is measured in line with the experiences of our students and on the quality of our graduates, not judged on the prior academic performance of students who enter our courses. Universities need to acknowledge, not only the impact on the individual of significant life events, but also the impact of powerful global and domestic forces which make aspiration and entry to Australian higher education increasingly unattainable at this time (Tarc, 2013).

The importance of Government and community support, particularly in facilitating and establishing increased resources is therefore vital to successfully enhancing the education of non-traditional students.

It is also important to note that the ATAR pathway is only taken up by a proportion of aspiring university students. A great number of our students enter via alternative pathways, such as demonstrated work and life experience, portfolios and interviews, which may well enable us to better estimate their capacity to thrive in the university environment and/or adjust the support that may be required to assist them to do so (such as enabling programs). The effect of lowering ATARs is therefore unlikely to cause the dramatic reduction in quality as suggested in recent media releases. Instead it provides an opportunity for universities to step up and enhance the services we provide to meet the real needs of our community. As universities, policy makers and community members, we all must all accept responsibility for enhancing both the access and support that will enable more people in our community to achieve their educational aspirations.

The decision to lower ATARs taken by many universities in recent times is about increasing opportunities for individuals in our community to complete an undergraduate degree, and putting Australian Higher Education on the global map. Lowering the ATAR allows more students to enter their chosen degree via the traditional ATAR pathway. This is particularly important for those who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to do so, but are nonetheless capable of succeeding in such a course, such as those from non-traditional university backgrounds.

Aspiring university students can face multiple disadvantages, which may lead to inaccurate measures of their true capacities, calculated as an ATAR at the end of secondary school (for applicable students). Financial difficulties, family and employment situations, living arrangements, school structure, medical conditions, disability, cultural and linguistic wealth, (or lack of), can all have flow-on effects for students’ academic performance and their access to academic opportunities, resources, support network and coping strategies that might have enabled them to achieve a higher ATAR.

Increasingly harsh global and domestic living conditions are making it virtually impossible for those who are experiencing socio-economic (and other kinds of) hardship, to aspire toward and enter higher education. Bunda, Brennan and Zipin (2012)  present strong arguments for moving away from previous ‘deficit’ equity models to work from an embedded framework which enables universities to offer more appropriate ways of attracting and retaining all students. This is particularly evident in the case of Indigenous students and staff who continue to remain disproportionately underrepresented in Australian higher education and in many other areas of public life (Bunda et al 2012).

These are tough challenges ahead that call on universities to take responsibility for aligning their roles more closely with the needs of our local communities and the wider world.  Unless we begin to diversify admission practices, the process of granting admission to universities will have the (intended or unintended effect) of ‘gate-keeping’ rather than providing access and opportunity for all.

Curtin University offers several initiatives to ensure students are given sufficient opportunity to succeed, including  alternative pathways, generic and field-specific enabling programs, mentoring and targeted support opportunities for specific cohorts , as well as academic, social and wellbeing support for all students. Many such programs specifically offer additional support to non-traditional students, including those entering the University with a lower ATAR.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles published on this webpage/site are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), or Curtin University. NCSEHE and Curtin University assumes no liability for any content expressed on this webpage/site, nor does it warrant that the content and links are error or virus free.


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