Opinion //

The myth of the ‘well rounded’ student

Kishor Napier-Raman is not impressed with ANU’s new proposed admissions system

After decades of terrorising year 12 students across the country, the ATAR’s reign may be coming to an end. ANU’s recent decision to abandon the ATAR as a sole entry requirement for its undergraduate programs is part of a broader backlash against the inadequacies of the four-digit score.

According to Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, ANU aims to “lead the country” by considering “co-curriculum and community contributions” alongside grades. With several other VCs taking a strong stand against ATAR, it may be only a matter of time before “holistic” admissions systems become the norm in Australia.

Despite its noble intentions, however, attempts to consider “the whole student” may lead to a troubling Americanisation of the admissions process. In the US, college applications are a tiresome labyrinth of paperwork, admissions essays and tests. Rather than create more diverse campuses, they tend to reinforce existing social hierarchies by privileging those with money and connections.

A system like the US one, that prioritises extra-curricular and community achievements, is already stacked in favour of the rich. The reality is that not everyone had the means to take an ‘interesting’ gap year building schools in India, or create an innovative app in their year 11 software class. The time and resources spent each year on academic hot-housing in tutoring colleges are likely to be redirected towards various forms of CV-building. As such, “experiences”, “opportunities” and other highly exclusive vagaries are likely to replace intellectual merit and hard work as the metric for university entrance.

This system is unlikely to foster uniqueness. Rather, it requires conformity to a mythical notion of the “ideal student” that is both vastly inaccessible, and a reflection of the subjective values of those on admissions boards. In much the same way that job interviews typically privilege those who can best perform the traits of society’s dominant groups, admissions systems would likely benefit people who best align with the board’s own internalised ideas of what a University student ought to look like.

For minority students, this means grappling with the kind of subconscious racialised perceptions through which they are viewed by mainstream society

The widespread image of Asian-Australians as purely academically-focused unable to “think for themselves” or thrive outside the classroom is likely to hinder their prospects in this new admissions system.

Again, turning to the States, we see a long history of racial exclusion in college admissions. In the 1920s, Harvard effectively created the current system as a way of stealthily reducing numbers of Jewish students. Last year, a group of 64 Asian-American students brought a lawsuit against Harvard and other Ivy League schools alleging anti-Asian bias in admissions processes. There is a palpable sense of frustration at a system in which so-called “model minorities” have been held to a higher standard. Admissions officers, despite their best efforts are not immune to these subconscious biases. This proposal would therefore only serve to make G08 universities even whiter and more privately educated than they already are.

Whist a holistic system is, therefore, riddled with problems, the ATAR’s value lies in its simplicity, giving students a more clearly definable goal.  Such a system is not incongruous with addressing structural inequalities. Rather, increasing accessibility schemes for students from underprivileged backgrounds is a better way of improving representation without resorting to a wholly subjective and exclusionary admissions process.

The reality today is that those who struggle most to get into university are not the “well rounded” young men and women from Balmain, but rather those without the opportunity to become “well rounded” in the first place. This system would create a façade of reform and equality, whilst continuing to leave them behind.