Let’s be clear, anything that demystifies the complex processes of choosing and enrolling in tertiary education is a good thing.
With this in mind, the Federal Government today launched the My University website. It is described as a “one-stop shop” to help students make the “right choices” about which course and tertiary provider is right for them.
But does it live up to its claims?
The site has a clean, professional look. Comparisons can be made across both courses and institutions. A potential strength of the website is that it has attempted to develop a common language for comparative purposes.
If one purpose of the site is to contribute to the widening participation agenda, MyUniversity provides a great source of information for non-traditional students who don’t have the received wisdom that middle-class students inherit.
So the site is a positive step forward, but it needs to be less overwhelming if it’s going to help potential students maximise their tertiary choices.
Testing the site
There is clunkiness and a lack of consistency in the search functionality. I did a course search on “International Studies, undergraduate”. I first selected “all universities” and got 200 hits.
When I went back and refined the search to only Victorian universities, I still got 200 hits, even though the institutions from the other states were no longer included in my search. When I went out and then re-entered that same search without changing any parameters, the order of courses and institutions differed.
It is not clear on what basis the search is listing its hits. In the interests of fair play for all students and institutions, the rationale for sorting should be made explicit.
So much data can be intimidating, particularly for newcomers to tertiary education. Which statistics matter? What should a parent, student or careers counsellor be looking for? There is little explanation on how to navigate through the site.
For non-traditional or first time university aspirants, the site will be daunting and data fatigue will set in quickly. When I did my earlier search, I gave up looking after the third screen and I may be more persistent than most.
Given the idiosyncratic nomenclature providers have for naming courses, it’s not clear that a user does get an “apples for apples” comparison given the lack of filters to refine a search.
Playing the ATAR game
Up to half of Victoria University’s higher education enrolments do not come through VTAC but through alternative pathways, and many of these are mature-aged students.
Similarly, up to 80% of vocational education enrolments do not come through VTAC. All universities are working to provide more inclusive entry pathways. Finding information on MyUniversity about alternative entry pathways is not obvious. As a consequence, many non-traditional university aspirants may be discouraged from seeking further information.
The big piece of information that is missing for non-traditional university aspirants entering university via ATAR scores is how to play the ATAR game.
How subject scores are scaled and how choices need to be made early in secondary school to maximise ATAR scores is critical. It would be helpful for this website to make some of that information more transparent.
Some of the current problems caused by the bluntness of tertiary data indicators are in the website, for example, attrition is not always attrition. Sometimes, students transition or pathway from one institution to another as they work out what’s right for them.
It can be argued that the original institution was a successful stepping stone in preparing the student to continue their studies elsewhere, and yet it can be at risk of appearing a poor performer. There is still an overall gain to the country’s knowledge economy when the student completes a course, so to acknowledge all providers in a student’s successful completion is desirable.
Then there is the usual dilemma around the front page image’s ability to be socially inclusive. There is a lack of ethnic balance and no Indigenous or disabled students are pictured. A lack of mature aged students in the image implies that MyUniversity (and by association university itself) is predominantly for school leavers.
Making the ‘right choice’
While the data itself may seek to provide users with the capacity to make objective comparisons, there is an obvious risk that universities will produce de facto league tables from the site to suit their own marketing ends, particularly because of the capacity to do rough comparisons across institutions.
To some extent, their ability to do that will depend on the ways institutions choreograph their own data. There may be unintended consequences to the long-term survival of some institutions to which the website may unwittingly contribute.
Many students don’t really know what the “right choice” is for their university studies until they actually sit in their first few lectures. The first point of entry to tertiary studies is likely to be just that: a starting point.
Many will be lifelong learners entering, exiting and re-entering tertiary courses several times over the span of several careers. If the website can convey that message, we will all benefit.