Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Universities under fire for lowering the bar: what do students think?

Almost half of university students surveyed by Hatch did not achieve the ATAR required for their course – confirming “alarming” revelations this week about a nationwide drop in admission standards.

A Fairfax Media investigation found that a startling number of students across the country are getting accepted into some of the top tertiary degrees, including business, teaching and engineering, with ATARs up to 40 points under the advertised cut-off.

In one of the worst examples, figures released to a Senate inquiry revealed one Victorian university accepted a student into a teaching degree with a score of just 17.9. Education Minister Simon Birmingham called the statistics “alarming”.

In a Hatch survey of 30 undergraduates from a number of universities, almost half had not achieved the ATAR required for their course.

The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) is the mark given to students when they complete high school, and is used by universities to set a “minimum standard” required for admission to various degrees.

However, despite pressure placed on students, it seems the mark may no longer be holding as much weight as it used to.

The revelations come just six years after the cap on student numbers was lifted by the federal government in 2012, and suggest universities may be taking advantage of the move to recruit large influxes of undergraduates to boost their income rather than considering students’ best interests.

“At the end of the day, universities are a business,” says one University of Western Sydney nursing lecturer

“But if universities allow people that clearly aren’t suitable for a course, there is no doubt they will fail and be left burdened with debt.”

However, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson told Australian media that admitting students with low ATARs was not a regular occurrence, and that many such students had suffered some sort of disadvantage that meant they could not perform to their best ability during high school.

Of those surveyed by Hatch, almost one-third said they didn’t think it was acceptable for students be accepted into a course if they didn’t reach the ATAR requirement, while just over 40 per cent didn’t think that was a problem.

The former said they think the ATAR requirements are the best way to decide whether a student is suitable for a course, and should be followed.

“ATAR or something similar is one of the only ways to determine if students have the determination, intelligence and application to their studies to warrant being accepted into a degree,” observed one undergraduate.

As well as this, some highlighted the fact that it was not in students’ best interests to be admitted into a course that might be too difficult for their abilities, with more than one-third of those who didn’t achieve the ATAR for their course stating they have felt behind in their studies.

And university drop-out rates across the country suggest this may be a legitimate point, with a report released this year revealing that one in three university students will drop out without finishing their degree – meaning that about 50,000 students who started a university course this year will not graduate.

Of those surveyed by Hatch, over half had either changed or dropped out of courses, and almost 40 per cent had failed a unit at some point.

Those who thought entry requirements should be flexible agreed with Ms Jackson, stating that a person’s future shouldn’t be determined solely by their ATAR, and that in some cases they might be better suited to a career than their higher-scoring counterparts.

“People’s abilities shouldn’t be based off the mark they get on an exam that they may have been unprepared or nervous for,” one participant said.

“I think people try harder when they’re studying something they actually enjoy, instead of boring high school subjects,” another added.

Others suggested that entry should be dependent on the requirements of each degree, noting that the practical nature of some courses should be taken into consideration, whereas the ATAR may be less relevant for other, more academically-based courses.

“You could have gotten a really high ATAR from doing well in exam conditions but when it comes to a teaching prac, they may fail,” one student stated. – @taylaobrien13