The legitimacy of alternative entry pathways

Once we strip back the veneer of the media’s moral outrage, such admissions are far from dishonest or unjust.

Every year, the release of first round offers precipitates a litany of articles in the mainstream media criticising tertiary education for one reason or another. In 2016, many NSW universities came under fire for admitting students with ATARs significantly below that of the published cut-off.

This practice, which was exposed by Fairfax Media, has been roundly condemned by politicians as dishonest and non-transparent, with former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli warning universities that such behaviour placed institutions’ reputations at risk. In light of these events, we must ask, why are supposedly ‘sub-par’ students being admitted to the University of Sydney?

Overwhelmingly, the University’s admission of students who have not achieved the published ATAR is through alternative entry schemes. Once we strip back the veneer of the media’s moral outrage, such admissions are far from dishonest or unjust, but rather a justifiable and equitable means by which to level the playing field for disadvantaged students.

USyd offers eight alternative entry schemes, including E12, for financially disadvantaged students, Broadway, for those who have experienced long-term illnesses or disabilities, and the Cadigal Program, for indigenous students. Yet, despite the huge range of schemes offered, USyd is one of the most conservative NSW universities in its acceptance of students through non-traditional pathways, with 27 per cent of admissions occurring through non-ATAR programs.

Interestingly, such programs do not dent widespread perceptions of the University’s elitism. When speaking to alternative-entry students, a common sentiment emerges — recipients of non-ATAR places all saw USyd as overwhelmingly exclusive and prestigious. Seditha Chatfield, a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) and Project Management student who was admitted to USyd via the Cadigal Program said, “I believe that I did stereotype the University to be extremely elite … to be fully honest I still feel a bit out of my league to be studying at USyd.”

While this comes as no surprise given USyd’s longstanding reputation as a leading sandstone university, each alternative-entrant I spoke to also believes the University is still accessible to disadvantaged students. Beyond merely acknowledging the existence of such schemes, several of the students spoke glowingly of the University’s efforts to make education more accessible. Dale Lou, a commerce and law student from the E12 program, said, “I never imagined the University to be so generous and understanding of my situation,”.

It is this generosity that many educational commentators and politicians are concerned about. With reports from the Fairfax Media investigation alleging students with ATARs as low as 30 are being admitted into tertiary degrees, many worry these students are ill-equipped to cope with the demands of university life and may lower the standard of their courses. But just how ‘generous’ is Sydney University?

When examining admission statistics, it becomes abundantly clear that such fears are misplaced; most students who gain entry into their desired courses via alternative pathways do so with an ATAR that is only slightly below the published cut-off. Take, for example, the published ATAR cut-off for admission to a Bachelor of Arts in 2016, was 82.50. The median ATAR for those admitted to the course via alternative entry was 79.75 — a gap of just 2.75 points. In the Bachelor of Engineering (Advanced), the published ATAR cut-off was 97.50, and the gap between this and the median ATAR achieved by alternative pathways students was 2.90 points.

Not only are the marks achieved by these students almost comparable, but the University’s granting of alternative entry places is limited and hardly the free-for-all the mainstream media has suggested. For example, the Broadway Scheme — which is open to students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds with illnesses or disabilities and financial hardship — allocates 600 places for alternative entry students across all undergraduate degrees.

Moreover, many alternative pathway schemes exclude specific courses that may be particularly challenging such as medicine and combined law, thus guarding against the possibility of admitting students who are unable to satisfactorily complete difficult degrees.

When I asked alternative-entry students about the equity of admitting lower-performing high school graduates into demanding University courses, the response I received was nearly unanimous. The significant challenges and barriers many have faced on their path to tertiary education justifies adjusting entry requirements for some students. One student, Julianna Campbell, believes “Uni should be accessible to everyone, regardless of ATAR, because someone’s ATAR doesn’t always reflect their ambitions and goals in life.”

Alternative entry schemes are not the shady, back-door mechanism they have been painted as. Rather, such pathways into university are fair, equitable and necessary to ensure everyone has the opportunity for higher education. Sometimes, going through the back door is the only entrance a student has.