University should be much more than a numbers game | OPINION

MORE than 250,000 people last year applied for places in the hundreds of degrees on offer at Australia’s 39 universities.

So it stands to reason any admission system has some sort of metric, a ranking device.

Enter the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank — that set of four digits ranging from 30 to 99.95 that obsesses year 12 students and frustrates educators.

Some independent school principals recently described the final school years as “a game to secure the highest scores”, pushing some away from what they should be studying.

And they see the national curriculum review as a chance to overhaul entry, allowing students best express themselves.

A lot of research has gone into the ATAR’s pros and cons. Here’s what we think we know.

ATARs are a reasonable predictor of “group aptitude”. A group of arts students with ATARs averaging 90 will outperform a group with ATARs of 75. On an individual basis, things get cloudier.

Students in supportive environments can be nurtured to an ATAR that overstates their academic ability. Evidence suggests if two students enter the same degree with the same ATAR, one from St Blah Blahs and the other from Knuckle High, the Knuckle High public student most often outperforms his or her privately educated colleague. But does the student from Knuckle High get that shot in the first place?

Then there is alarming talk of students being encouraged to avoid subjects they love for safer, ATAR-boosting courses.

A recent forum heard tales of many “ducking” year 12 calculus for easier general maths to get them an ATAR to study science or engineering at tertiary level. No high distinctions for guessing how hard they found first-year physics.

A number is no indicator of qualities crucial for some professions — like bedside manner or a passion to teach youngsters.

But perhaps the greatest issue is ATARs are assigned to courses which often do not reflect an ability for the course, but a supply-and-demand that balances the popularity of that degree with the number of places available.

The ATAR becomes a “price” or “status ranking”. Hence the absurd refrain of HSC students: “I want to do med. If I miss out, I’ll do law, or be a vet” — three degrees with little in common, eyed off simply because of their comparative ATARs.

And why would a top student want to “waste” so many points and choose to study education?

As one of thousands of law students who never practised, I know of the ability of a high-rated course to so sparkle in the eyes of a school-leaver that they fail to look at the bigger picture.

Some of my best friends are lawyers, but I wonder how many would-be great scientists, academics and teachers are lost to law’s siren song every year?

The ATAR is not such a good tool at getting the right students into the right degrees.

Rumours abound of universities using ATARS as marketing tools by over-inflating first-round cut-off marks. The can attach an ATAR of 90 to, say, an economics degree, but admit up to 80 per cent of those they take on ATARs less — perhaps much less. That university can then still talk of the perceived quality of its student cohort and popularity of its course by boasting “our ATAR was 90” when this is clearly not the case.

Similarly, they regularly offer “bonus points” to some — a boost of, say, five on their ATAR to compensate for disadvantage, or perhaps representing Australia internationally at sport or an extracurricular activity for periods of their final year.

An admirable process, until you hear suggestions students receive up to 40 such bonus points, for universities to prop up artificially high ATARs.

The education sector must “fess up” and find a more transparent way to give our young the life-changing gift of a uni education.

Adam Spencer is Sydney University’s science and mathematics ambassador.