Australian universities are continuing to admit students on recorded academic records long before they complete their studies, even though the normalization of Covid has erased a key rationale for this approach.
Thirty universities are accepting students on the basis of their progress in grade 11, guaranteeing them places months before the final exams that have traditionally guided university entrance.
Early entry schemes emerged years ago as universities sought alternatives to the Australian Tertiary Education Rankings (ATAR), which is used to judge students’ suitability for university and to ensure access to popular courses.
These programs have proliferated during the pandemic, which has severely disrupted school exams in 2020 and, to a lesser extent, in 2021. Universities have argued that it is unfair to rely on graduation results in many such circumstances, as students with access to effective online programs had a massive advantage over those without.
But with school exams now largely back to normal, universities show little sign of dismantling their Year 11 entry arrangements, saying they are easing the anxiety associated with Year 12 – often seen as a watershed. in the professional life of students.
Critics say that far from removing this pressure point, early entry programs simply accelerate it into a ‘race to the bottom’ fueled by heightened competition for domestic students.
“It’s unmoderated scrutiny that perpetuates disadvantage,” said University of South Australia Vice-Chancellor David Lloyd, whose institution is one of the few to have avoided this approach altogether. “There are no comparable results between students who walk through the door.”
Professor Lloyd said it amplified the inequalities between the wealthier pupils in the lower grades and their disadvantaged counterparts in the upper classes led by overworked teachers. Meanwhile, students with guaranteed entry into their chosen courses – and only required to pass their final year exams rather than achieve cut-off marks, under most entry programs early – tended to “sink” during their remaining time in school.
“The transition from year 12 to first year at university is difficult anyway,” said Professor Lloyd. “If you haven’t really applied yourself, the differential to first-year college expectations is phenomenal.”
Andrew Norton, professor of higher education policy practice at the Australian National University, said that as a measure of students’ raw abilities, grade 11 results were “probably not too bad”. and probably wouldn’t change much who ended up getting admitted to college. . But the approach risked leaving students underperforming in ‘core’ disciplines such as math and science, causing ‘core academic problems once they get to college’.
“If this continues, the problems that people have associated with Year 12 will just return to Year 11,” Prof Norton said. “For some courses, there are more applicants than places. This is inevitably going to lead to some method of rationing, whether in grade 12 or grade 11. You can’t remove the core issues that the ATAR is supposed to address – all you can do is put them somewhere else.
Daniel Edwards, a higher education specialist at the Australian Council for Educational Research, said universities that relied on Grade 11 for admissions risked finding themselves with unforeseen student support costs. “The less admissions tools you use, the less information you have about the abilities and abilities of the students you enroll,” he said.
“We need a more mature way of doing it right – a transparent, fair and rigorous admissions system that is also effective.”