How will the class of COVID-19 get into university? Using year 11 results is only part of the answer


Several Australian universities (Australian National UniversitySwinburne and the University of Western Australia) have announced they will accept students based on their year 11 results.

The rationale is that the disrupted 2020 year will affect year 12 results. So, it’s fairer to use their results from last year.

It’s clear finishing school in the midst of a global pandemic is tough. Students are facing escalating pressure from learning online and loss of vital connections to peers, extended family and the community.

Rates of mental health issues and self-harm among Australian young people have risen over the last decade. Easing the pressures they face is a priority.

But universities accepting students based on year 11 scores is only a small response in a world experiencing enormous changes.

Is using year 11 results a good thing?

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is a rank used by universities to select which students, out of high school, will be offered a place in a particular course. It represents the Holy Grail of school achievement for many Australian students and schools.

Its importance is reinforced by media reports of ATAR excellence each December. The decision to use year 11 results will likely be welcomed by many students concerned their ATAR is in jeopardy.

Some students have argued using year 11 results is unfair or flawed, as some students may have eased off in year 11 and planned to put in the extra effort to recover in year 12. But using year 11 results is unlikely to damage these students’ chances.

That’s because ATAR scores are strongly correlated with earlier school achievement, which means high achievers are unlikely to lose their position in the race.

Importantly, using year 11 results will go some way towards reducing the effects of the ‘”digital divide“ on student learning. Students with limited access to technology, or from less wealthy schools with fewer resources to cope with the sudden adaptation to online learning, will be further disadvantaged in the Class of 2020.

One downside is the potential for confusion for students who have been assured by education minister Dan Tehan that they will still receive an ATAR in 2020, with appropriate adjustments.

It’s not yet clear what these adjustments will be, and state differences in senior secondary assessments complicate matters further.

What else do students need?

Even before COVID-19, only around one-quarter of students entered Australian universities based on their ATAR.

Universities already offer a range of other entry pathways including interviewspreparation testsportfoliosrecognition of knowledge from paid or voluntary work, or pathways through vocational education and training to gain credit for university entry.

The post-COVID-19 tertiary education landscape will be a buyers’ market, as universities compete for students in a less globally mobile world.

Australian universities are experiencing massive drops in their numbers of international students. This means the university sector will be experiencing estimated losses of up to A$19 billion. A logical policy response would be to enable universities to open up access for domestic students to make up some of the shortfall.

So, the biggest question may be how to create fair entry pathways into tertiary education for the surge in participation the sector will need to survive – not how to cobble together fair ATAR scores for the relatively small proportion of university students who use it for an entry pathway.

Success at university does not depend on a high ATAR. This is especially so in courses like teaching and nursing where interpersonal skills and attitudes matter even more.

Calls to ditch the ATAR “straitjacket” and develop alternative assessments like learner profiles (student records that include academic and other learning) existed before COVID-19. Such calls are intensifying in the current environment.

This may be the perfect opportunity to rethink the ATAR as the main entry assessment for school leavers into university.

Not everyone goes to university

The preoccupation with ATAR scores ignores around half of school leavers who aren’t bound for university. Many of these students head to TAFE or other vocational education and training (VET) courses, which depend more on practical skills than academic achievement.

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the importance of practical, hands-on skills in the Australian economy. Many people in the occupations that have kept Australia going during the crisis – including nurses, aged care workers, early childhood educators and freight and logistics workers – have VET qualifications.

COVID-19 may have an even bigger impact on students in the Class of 2020 who prefer practical skills to academic subjects as students doing VET subjects are missing out on hands-on learning. Meanwhile, young aspiring apprentices are struggling to find work, as job adverts for new apprenticeships collapse.

Australia is notoriously bad at recognising the value of learning that does not lead to university. There is a risk these students will again be forgotten in the current focus on ATAR.

While university-bound students might begin to breathe a sigh of relief, many more are still waiting for solutions that keep their year 12 dreams alive.

Author Bios: Jen Jackson is Education Policy Lead, Mitchell Institute and Sarah Pilcheris a Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute both at Victoria University