Opinion: The Australian test - uncapped student numbers

Opinion: The Australian test - uncapped student numbers

Uncapped student numbers creates opportunity for all, writes UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings.

Undergraduate numbers have grown by 23 per cent in Australia in the past four years. The beneficiaries have been students from non-traditional backgrounds and from disadvantaged regions of Australia. Every student in Australia receives a normalised score as part of the assessment of their school performance – the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. With the lifting of the cap, the median ATAR score for those admitted to university has begun to fall.

This shift has given rise to discussions about quality, which in the context of the Australian higher education sector is generally a reference to varying levels of student preparedness for higher study, and to the argument that expansion has benefited those with weaker Year 12 (final year) school results. Some commentators have rushed to the conclusion that more means worse.

But in Australia there is limited evidence for a strong correlation between entry scores and graduation results. In common with most Western higher education systems, there are excellent academic support and pastoral care mechanisms available to help struggling students. One consequence of the lifting of the cap on enrolment has been an increase in universities’ investment in these services in order to cater for a greater range of ability and school experience. In addition, some universities have built better pathway programmes to allow students with weaker ATAR scores the chance to build skills and progress to full degree programmes.

Universities have made two major changes in response to the shift in policy on numbers control. First, some have increased the number of students they recruit for popular degree programmes, such as teacher training, and allowed these to grow very quickly. However, such moves risk flooding the graduate job market in fields with limited job opportunities.

Second, many universities have stopped setting certain subjects as entry requirements – so, for example, at some Australian universities it is now possible to read engineering without having studied mathematics up to the age of 17 or 18. Inevitably some students lacking basic knowledge will struggle, and bridging programmes are now available at some institutions.

Such issues have opened up debate about the quality of students on entry to university rather than focusing attention on the quality of institutional policies. That is a shame, because the deregulated approach is a good thing. It creates opportunity for all and has the potential to enhance the skills of the population, which will need to be much more competitive in the coming years.

This article originally appeared as part of a larger feature in The Times Higher Education

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