Tyrone’s admissions

Alexandros Tsathas takes a closer look at ATARs, assumed knowledge and alternative entry schemes

Happily admitting. Happily admitting.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Tyrone Carlin is a man itching to tell his side of the story. When his secretary alerts him that my allocated interview time has expired, he ushers her out of his office with an emphatic “no, this is important”. We speak for another thirty minutes, on a topic that is Carlin’s administrative domain and one which he is clearly passionate about: university admissions.

Below the cut-off

The annual spike in ATAR dialogue was more pronounced than usual this summer. In January, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the extraordinary extent to which students are being admitted to university with ATARs below official course cut-offs. Generous bonus point schemes make this possible. USyd was the most conservative of all NSW universities in awarding bonus points, but still one-quarter of its admissions require them.

There was a considerable reaction from vice-chancellors, many of them claiming the ATAR is a poor predictor of university performance. The subtext was: ‘it doesn’t matter that my university admits so many students below cut-off, because the ATAR is an invalid metric. And those students can still do great at uni and in the workplace’.

The role of the ATAR was never to predict university performance. It was a way of solving the problem of too many students vying for too few spots. The University Admissions Centre (UAC) still paints a very ‘market forces’ picture of ATAR cut-offs. Its website explains “the interaction of three factors determines cut-offs: the number of places available in the course, the number of applicants for the course and the quality of those applicants”. No mention is made of universities’ influence in setting the cut-offs.

Their role is thus: faculties limit spots where there are resource constraints (such as the availability of qualified lecturers) and to satisfy their pedagogical preferences (such as small lectures). This has the effect of driving up ATAR cut-offs, a necessary coincident of restricted supply. Additionally, and crucially, faculties also consider what the minimum intellectual requirement of a course should be, elevating the ATAR cut-off if necessary.

Carlin thinks it irresponsible of universities to admit thousands of students below the cut-off if the universities themselves have established “evidence-based” minimum intellectual thresholds. He refutes the claims of other vice-chancellors, saying that USyd’s own analyses have found the ATAR to be “quite a strong” predictor of university performance. He believes the real question in the cut-off debate is: “how do those admitted below the cut-off fare at university compared to their peers?” This analysis is yet to be conducted, but the relevant statistics on attrition and progression “would be telling”.

Carlin is fortunate to preside over an institution that does not need to make many below cut-off offers. Its position and prestige ensure that a steady stream of high-ATAR candidates keep knocking on its doors. A bank of ‘Inspired’ alumni helps balance the books. Less well-established universities need cut-offs that still convey quality, but are understandably hungry for per-student government funding. They cannot afford to be too selective in their admissions. Though, as Carlin suggests, they may be aware of poorer student outcomes, they have little choice. The situation for their VCs is not as black-and-white.

I ask Carlin about the demand-driven university funding model, which was introduced in 2012. Are institutions jumping to boost enrolments without properly considering students’ suitability for courses? “Yes, I am certain that there is an element of gaming going on [on the behalf of universities].”

First preferences

Carlin’s background in financial regulation is an emplacement from which he shoots down the superficial statistics of an SMH article proclaiming UNSW is now “the number one choice for school leavers”.

“It’s a furphy”, according to Carlin.

Back “in the good old days, when I was a pup”, university admissions were a singular event. The main round was the only round. Nowadays, the process lasts from September through to February, encompassing six separate rounds.

Carlin says UNSW’s alleged victory came only in the main round. Forty per cent of offers are made after this, and after all offers are considered, USyd apparently comes out on top.

The article also claimed that university administrators secretly acknowledge that first preferences are vitally important. Carlin rejects this. A more important admissions metric is the first preference of qualified candidates, those with an ATAR high enough for their desired course. Otherwise, preferences are merely “aspirational” and have little meaning.

Carlin is justified in his clarifications; when taken into account, the state of USyd’s admissions seem much less dire. Though the article rightly attributes UNSW’s inaugural ‘victory’ to its guaranteed entry scheme, it does not mention that this was also the inaugural year of the generous scheme. As yet, it has no USyd equivalent.

Maths as a prerequisite

From 2019, 2-unit HSC mathematics will be introduced as a mandatory prerequisite for 61 courses at USyd, including B Commerce, B Science/M Nursing and B Design in Architecture. Previously, it was only ‘assumed knowledge’.

The change was spurred by declining participation rates in advanced mathematics (2U, 3U and 4U) and University research that showed a clear correlation between the level of mathematics studied for the HSC and academic success.

The proposal ostensibly enjoyed the support of USyd’s staff (who want university-ready pupils) and student bodies (who don’t want to see their peers struggle) at the final Academic Board meeting of 2015.

According to a past dean of the Faculty of Science, USyd has never before imposed prerequisites. This was because the University was conscious of high school students’ volatility when choosing a career, and thought it best to let them keep their options open.

It will be interesting to see if the historical reason USyd avoided prerequisites proves problematic for Year 12 students in the years to come.

Dux Entry Scheme

This year’s fresh crop of USyd students are the first to benefit from the Dux Entry Scheme. The scheme asks school principals to nominate a dux (before or after ATARs are released), who can then enter courses with higher cut-offs than they could based on their ATAR alone. The scheme effectively awards bonus points to school duxes.

Admissions Committee minutes bill the scheme as having two motives: nabbing the state’s best and brightest, and addressing socioeconomic disadvantage. Carlin reaffirms this in person.

The University has a fair claim to the former, but a more dubious one to the latter.

In the university press release announcing the scheme, Carlin justified it by saying “Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or rural and regional areas are statistically less likely to receive high ATARs, despite often outperforming their peers with higher ATARs at university”. Media coverage at the time also pushed this angle.

If the scheme has such a focus on disadvantage, then why was it rolled out to every high school in the state, including wealthy private schools?

Carlin then refers me to the scheme’s ‘best and brightest’ justification, telling me that the University is “utterly disinterested in whether your parents are billionaires”.

The University cannot have it both ways. There is nothing wrong with chasing the state’s best, but it is somewhat disingenuous to dress up this pursuit in the rhetoric of disadvantage. If the University were truly concerned with disadvantage, it would restrict the scheme to needy areas. The scheme is a brain-grab competing with UNSW’s equivalent, but older, Academic Achievement Awards.