The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Universities would be better quality – if only we could get rid of the students

Written by Dr Tim Pitman

In 2012, the eight fastest women in the world lined up for the 100 metre final at the London Olympic Games. Few would argue that this was an event of the highest quality. But what if there had been nine lanes available instead of eight? As the next fastest qualifier, Norway’s Ezinne Okparaebo would also have sped down the track and in doing so she would have, statistically speaking, lowered the quality of the race. Her qualifying time of 11.10 seconds would not only have lowered the average running time for the final, it would also have meant one more loser would have competed.

Of course, this is ridiculous. The race – and runners – would still have been brilliant. Yet this is the very logic that is applied each year, at this time of year, to Australian universities. Media commentators work themselves into a frenzy about the academic scores of students entering our universities. With the implementation of the demand-driven system in 2012, there are significantly more places available to students – about 25 per cent more, in fact. More supply means students with lower academic scores will be offered places. But does this mean that the ‘quality’ of Australia’s higher education system is suffering? Statistically? Yes. Really? No. Here’s why.

First, what is meant by ‘quality’? Despite what some believe, quality is subjective. Right now, the media is defining quality in higher education by assessing the standard of one thing, relative to others of the same kind. The ‘thing’ being measured is a student’s Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) which, as a percentile published to two decimal places, exudes authority, definitiveness and finality. However the ATAR is a rank, not a score. It has some function when supply is restricted and a decision must be made whether to give a place to Student A or Student B. In a demand-driven system, it no longer serves this purpose. Instead, prior academic achievement should be used to determine whether the student can handle the coursework. There are many ways in which this can be demonstrated besides the ATAR.

Which leads to the second point. This year (like last year and the year before that), almost half of all students being made an offer will not have an ATAR. An ATAR is derived from Year 12 exams and increasingly students are using other forms of prior learning to demonstrate competence. These include vocational qualifications, alternative admission/aptitude tests and even work and life skills. If the trend continues, then before long ATARs will be used in the minority. So its use as the metric for quality is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Which leads to the third, most important point. Using an input to define quality in our universities makes no sense, when you consider quality in terms of fitness for purpose. That is, if something does what it is meant to do, it is/has quality. What Australian universities are meant to do are (a) educate persons (b) create knowledge and (c) apply knowledge. In other words, create a quality output, not validate a quality input.

The numbers paint a very different story. Overwhelmingly, our students complete their studies successfully. Only about one out of eight drop out in their commencing year and student progression rates (i.e. the ratio of units passed to units failed) average well over 80 per cent. It is true that both these numbers have dropped since supply increased. But the decrease has been miniscule. In 2008, the average attrition rate was 12.81 per cent; the most recent figure (2011) is 12.82 per cent – an increase of only one-hundredth of one per cent. Over the same period, progression rates dropped from 85.38 to 84.35 that is just over one per cent. Statistically, that’s the same effect on quality Ezinne Okparaebo’s inclusion in the 100 metre final would have had. It still would have been a fantastic race.

If policy makers insist on continuing to use prior academic achievement as the primary proxy for quality in higher education, then maybe they should also close all but eight of our universities and just leave one for each state or territory, like we had 100 years ago. By using a back-to-the-future approach to educational policy, we could strangle supply and guarantee skyrocketing ATARs. Such an approach would severely damage national economic growth, innovation and social cohesion – but we could argue that we had the highest quality universities in the world.