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Education students are being accepted with low ATARs, but does it matter?

James Davis

Students with extraordinarily low ATARs are progressing into the field, but what does this mean for the profession?

Universities have allowed students to transfer into whichever degrees they please after one year of satisfactory performance for a long time. This has yielded high quality students who’ve gone on to fulfilling careers in many professions. However, for many of the top universities, there are minimum barriers to entry for any given course. The overall median ATAR cut-off for bachelor of arts students at the University of Sydney, which is a comparatively low-requirement program, had an 82.50 cut-off in 2016. The 2018 minimum ATAR for a University of Melbourne equivalent was 85.00. Of course, we’re cherry picking some steep requirements compared with the national average.

Before we go any further in discussing whether or not this matters in the grand scheme of things, we need to answer a few questions since many of us have been out of school for a while.

  1. What is an ATAR and what does it represent?
  2. Does it matter?

Broadly speaking, the ATAR is a figure from 0 - 99.95 that represents the cumulative efforts of high school students around the country. Each full-credit subject can award a maximum of 20 points, whereas part-credit subjects can award 10. It factors in performance during coursework and major exams in their final two years, with significant emphasis on year 12. Universities offer ‘bonus points’ to incentivise going into specific high school disciplines. For instance, taking ‘English Studies’ in Year 12 will often boost a student’s score by six or seven points just for taking the class. Taking chemistry or physics will have a similar effect. Although these bonuses aren’t direct additions to the student’s final score, universities will calculate for adjusted scores when they receive an application. Students who complete the International Baccalaureate Diploma and achieve a minimum of 24 points are assigned an ATAR based on similar measures.

In theory, a high ATAR is the mark of a good student. Getting one requires students to apply themselves by managing their time effectively and completing each task to a high standard. Universities scale the minimum entry cut-offs (the point at which a position in the course is guaranteed) by popularity. For example, law degrees are coveted across Australia, so entry cut-offs are often at the maximum (99.95). ICT and business degrees follow closely, with the University of Sydney Bachelor of Commerce weighing in at a 95 minimum ATAR requirement for 2018. This is why students mark multiple preferences for university courses. If they don’t meet a cut-off requirement and don’t get accepted, they’ve got other options.

So what’s the issue and what does it have to do with teaching?

Those low ATARs accepted we mentioned at the start of this article? An ABC report late 2018 discovered this to be a regular occurence, not an anomaly. The confidential report found that half of all education students in NSW and ACT were in the bottom 50% of their cohorts, with 73 offers made to students in the 30 - 39 ATAR bracket alone. Other universities around country admit students with ATARs of 19 or even 1 in some cases. Queensland doesn’t even factor ATAR into its admissions process. It’s here the problem becomes apparent. Remember how we said there were ‘cut-offs’? These are far from hard entry requirements. In a vacuum, it’s possible for a 0-ATAR student to enter a law degree. You can enter any given program in the absence of sufficient competition.

So then, could this purely be an issue of insufficient competition? Not quite. Universities are free to simply close vacant positions rather than fill them with sub-par applicants. In this way, they’re partially responsible, but there’s also another problem afoot. The cut-off requirements themselves for education degrees are pretty lenient for many institutions. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a few big offenders in 2018, with some institutions offering adjusted cut-off scores of 69.25, 61.35 and even 60 in one case across all teaching specialisations. The confidential report found some institutions offering staggering unadjusted cut-offs of 36, 35 and 22 in 2018. What’s stopping a year 11 student from reading these requirements, stacking bonus points and coasting on minimal effort and choice of year 12 subjects? Even if no student’s actively looking to abuse the system, it does open doors to students who may not be ready for university. This is before we even consider the alternate ATAR-independent methods of university entrance.

Despite all this alleged doom and gloom, there are some important variables to consider. Graduation doesn’t happen as soon as you enrol. Students have to adapt to university rigour or they simply won’t make it through. Those who graduate will have needed to display sufficient organisation and time-management skills to a standard comparable to or higher than what’s required for a strong ATAR. In December 2018, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes even announced a credit GPA minimum to work in NSW public schools combined with passing a psychometric test. Similar measures in others states would go a long way to amending the problem at the end of the funnel. In addition, ATAR isn’t necessarily an indication of academic ineptitude. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who must care for siblings, pay bills or other circumstances simply don’t have the time more privileged students do. Their perseverance in other aspects of life is taken into consideration by selection committees, which isn’t reflected in a broad condemnation of university offers to low ATAR students.

Performance in the classroom or on an exam doesn’t necessarily reflect how a student may perform in the varied atmosphere of a university practicum or on the job. Although we shouldn’t discount ATAR entirely when it comes to education degree offers, it pays to remember that each student is more than the sum of their grades. Specialised tests of aptitude would be stronger indicators of potential performance in an education degree, similar to how prospective medicine students require the GAMSAT. Even without them, the degree itself should go a long way in filtering. Above all, let’s not let the elegance of quantified potential exclude qualitative excellence.