The promise of equal opportunity has always been the driving force of Australian education policy. Deliver the promise of education to as many as possible, the logic goes, and you offer the daughter of a labourer the chance to join the professional class. Since the end of the WWII, that logic has gone unquestioned. It was with equal opportunity in mind that, in 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set the nation’s newly-deregulated universities a challenge: to ensure that, by 2025, 40 per cent of young Australians would have obtained a Bachelor’s degree.
To this end, the Australian tertiary sector has since opened its doors to a generation of students for whom university would once never have been an option. But recent studies have shown that the predominant characteristic of these students is not, unfortunately, that they are Indigenous, come from low-SES backgrounds, or grew up in rural areas, but simply that their ATARs are substantially lower than those of students who would have been admitted under the old, capped system. Since 2012, for example, there has been a 153 per cent increase in the number of students who have enrolled in university with ATARs below 50.
Your ATAR, of course, can say next to nothing about your intelligence or ability to complete a university degree. In my time at Sydney University, I’ve met enough GPS alumnae with higher ATARs than IQs to be able to confidently attest to that particular fact. But your ATAR can, and often will, provide a pretty solid indication of your willingness and preparedness to write essays, sit exams, and feign enthusiasm in tutorials. It’s for this reason that, if you got into uni with an ATAR of 70 or below, there’s a one in three chance that you won’t make it to the end of your degree. If your ATAR was below 60, that chance is one in two.
In a world of less finite budgets or more progressive governments, we would offer all students who wanted it enough support that they could obtain a university degree. But, unfortunately, our current government is totally unwilling to offer the struggling amongst its citizens anything other than directions to their nearest set of bootstraps.
The Kemp-Norton Review has recommended the abolition of the 40 per cent target to ensure that Australian universities are better able to contend with changing needs and circumstances. Currently, what these universities are contending with is shrinking pools of government support and rising tides of students in need of extra resources. Their circumstances are untenable.
It may be well be that under-resourced and over-populated universities need to close their gates for a while. If that is the case, the government should let them.