Updating Results

New proposal calls for university entrance reform

James Davis

Beyond ATAR: A Proposal for Change, written by the Australian Learning Lecture, recommends using ‘learner profiles’ to accommodate different learning preferences and later inform university admission. 

These profiles are designed to recognise forms of achievement other than exams. They would be pathway-specific, offering proof of competency in skills relevant to any given career or interest. The end result would theoretically be a valid depiction of a student’s cumulative achievements as opposed to the current system. The authors admit that such a system may seem complex, but necessary for matching students with appropriate pathways, as well as helping them assess their current ability.

The proposal also seeks to identify discrepancies in learning speeds and styles between 15 - 19 year olds, providing targeted support wherever appropriate. It also seeks to emphasise ‘broad capabilities’, defined as critical thinking, ethical understanding, social skills and intercultural understanding. It will map their career pathways so they can make informed subject selections going into year 12 and beyond. 

The authors wish to adopt similar profiles to those employed by universities and countries already, such as Hong Kong. The latter uses academic results coupled with a transcript detailing awards earned outside of school and an essay reflecting on their learning and development. Harvard already requires a sample of multimedia materials detailing extra-curricular activities and personal characteristics. Yet the authors believe these are unable to compare students at a glance, requiring in-depth analysis of each candidate. Theirs may instead provide graphical representations of several capabilities alongside traditional subject grades. 

What a student profile could look like.
Source: Beyond Atar: A Proposal for Change, page 19.

The profile would be used by a variety of bodies, not just universities for entrance purposes. It would ideally be supported by standards like the Australian Qualifications Framework. The learner profile would need some means of validation to be better than or equal to ATAR in terms of efficacy. Once the system has been deployed, only then can new standards of university entrance be implemented.

The authors hope to rectify several persistent issues from early high school to graduate employment, such as ATAR being unrepresentative of academic achievement, allowing poor subject selection choices and unacceptable university attrition rates. It aims to further propagate current recruitment standards already employed for some degree pathways, which take into consideration extra-curricular activities and skill development via Special Entry Access Schemes or Education Access Schemes, or bonus ATAR points for disadvantaged students.

The finer details of what these profiles will entail are murky. The proposal outlines troubling statistics on youth unemployment, mental health and wasted VET training. It offers broad objectives to address them. But the authors don’t claim to know what each profile for each discipline ought to contain, suggesting a multi-disciplinary advisory committee consisting of education providers, industry and curriculum designers be responsible. 

This makes the entire proposal somewhat difficult to evaluate from a practical standpoint. Which criteria are most valuable for what discipline? How is this extra-curricular activity valued against this other? How do we adequately assess if students are fit for one profile or another, or if it’s even possible to sort students in this manner? Nobody has these answers yet, nor will they without sufficient cause. Namely, deciding student profiles are worth the effort. They don’t need to be perfect; just better than ATAR. So are they?

The ATAR system has been under fire for years. A Conversation article from 2016 described it as efficient, but not effective. The authors illuminate a number of flaws, aside from those detailed in the proposal. High socio-economic status is favoured while each student’s full potential is not quantified. The SMH reported that same year on ATAR-holders scoring in the low 30s were being admitted to top programs based on extraneous criteria (teaching degrees are one of the biggest offenders; read our piece on it here). ATAR cut-offs were inflated to increase demand among many institutions. Alternative entry pathways can vary from standardised tests to personality assessments, all outside the system itself, somewhat undermining the efficacy of the ATAR system as an exhaustive measure of student performance. A special ABC report from 2018 found universities admitting ATARs of sub 40 on the basis of unspecified extenuating circumstances, with roughly 100 offers being made in the education sector alone. Universities have already been turning to ad hoc systems to fully encapsulate each student’s cumulative efforts. Clearly there’s demand for a system with wider considerations. 

Whether that system could or should be student profiles remains to be seen. They may well be better than ATAR, but other alternatives have already been proposed. Dividing ATARs into irreconcilable subject grades would give universities more accurate predictors of student success by subject area and provide students with feedback the student profile system purports to supply. Only this would be far less time-consuming. Subject-oriented grading could also be combined with compulsory employment pathways training developed in tandem with industry. We have a list of problems that can each be addressed by separate systems, one unified system entirely different from student profiles or some combination thereof. Perhaps there are other ideas that serve the same purpose. We must explore further to find out. 

The student profile system has the potential to reshape university reform and higher education, even in its current state. It may serve future students with much-needed transparency in both academic performance and career pathways. Hong Kong is a case study in student profile success, albeit weighed down by the usual trappings of assessment. It’s entirely possible a ‘broad capabilities’ profile system will deliver what ATAR never good. But fully comprehending its value will ultimately be a test of both implementation and comparison to cheaper, sooner actionable alternatives. After all, we shouldn’t make our future wait.