The ATAR Disaster

I was once invited into a major university to lead a discussion on the Future of Education. I was excited by the prospect of exploring deeply and honestly what higher education is really for, and how it should look in the future. Ironically, I almost go chased out of the room by the same academics who invited me to challenge them.

The short version of the story goes like this: We started out by first workshopping what education was for. As expected we broadly agreed that it was for the enlightenment and betterment of society. To provide opportunities for people (students) to learn, grow and make a positive contribution socially and economically. They also agreed that purpose was more important than profit.

After this I then challenged them on why they even have an ATAR score? I continued, surely this is an outdated idea based on a model of scarcity which no longer exists? This is when things got ugly. They turned on me like I was the devil.

For those who don’t know the ATAR is a ranking system of students which is based on their academic performance in year 12. The rankings are then used to decide who gets into the ‘limited’ places Universities have for students in various courses. The more popular the course / university the higher the ATAR becomes to get into a course. To be clear, the ATAR requirment for courses is a popularity measure, not a minimum level of competence required to pass the University course. 

Back to my session at the University: After I asked about the ATAR, the attendees made lots of arguments as to why rankings and limiting numbers of students was absolutely vital. I remember this day like it has been carved into my brain with blood. So I thought I share some of the discussion which followed given that the ATAR numbers for 2019 were released just yesterday.

Academic Argument 1: Students with low ATAR’s wouldn’t be capable to pass the course they want to do.

My Counters: How do you know? Maybe the kids passion for the subject will motivate them more, maybe they are more suited to the independent study style and methods of assessment of Universities? If they do fail, so be it – why exclude them before they have a chance to prove themselves?

Academic Argument 2: We’ll end up with too many people in certain industries & areas of study.

My Counters: That’s fine – it’s a free market economy, why not let demand and supply sort out where things land, let the market decide. Economic incentives will naturally balance the market. In any case many jobs people will do 10 years from now don’t exist yet, and a large percentage of students never work in their area of formal study.

Academic Argument 3: Universities can’t fit every student that wants to study at it. Also, it would be too difficult to tutor the students, run ‘pracs’ and mark their work.

My Counters: University is like ecommerce now – we can run effective on-line versions of most courses. The size of the buildings is a limit in your minds, not our digital reality. Even so, why not have two divisions of study. On campus (those who got the ATAR) and off campus for those who didn’t make the cut. Most students don’t attend lectures these days anyway – it’s mostly done online and they submit work online. Surely a growing student base also creates employment opportunities for tutoring and marking? Why couldn’t we build new labs in alternative locations required for practical study as well?

Academic Argument 4: It’s not just the study, it’s the social element of the university, people learn from connections and being in the space.

My Counters: Let students self organise, provide forums for them to connect on, potential links with industry bodies. In any case, the environment might not be as important as you imagine.

Academic Argument 5: It would cost way too much to let every student who wants to go to University to get it.

My Counters: Expensive, yes. But hardly unaffordable. Education is our 3rd biggest export and our top 5 Universities alone have an endowment exceeding $10 billion.

You get the picture. This went on for the best part of an hour. It even got weirder at lunch, I had to sit at a table by myself, in fact some people got up and left the table I sat down at. I guess some people don’t like reality, especially when it may change how things might operate where they earn their living. I’m still glad I had the courage to do what I was asked. Mind you, I’ve had some terrific experiences presenting at Universities and even taught undergraduate students at Australia’s number 1 ranked University for a number of years. My views are not coming from some outsider who ‘doesn’t understand the system’.

Why this Matters

But here’s why I’m so passionate about the problems with the ATAR and its use for ultimate entry into Universities: It doesn’t just measure intelligence or effort. It’s really a measure of financial discrimination. The ATAR is a total disaster, designed to exclude, perpetuate false scarcity and maintain the power structure of higher education institutions.

No doubt, students with great year 12 results earn them. But the ATAR rankings by school look more like a rank for household income than anything else. In this country, we start the a process of financial discrimination from the first year of school. Just look at the top ranking schools for ATAR and the pattern is clear. Those with the most resources, get the best results. I don’t buy for a second that kids from less resourced back grounds couldn’t get the same results if they had the same access.

While we talk a lot about ‘A Fair Go’ in this country, we clearly ignore that when it comes to education. It’s a clear caste system, perpetuating generational advantage long before kids become independent economic agents.

My conclusion is that every single reason we restrict study isn’t for the students or the potential of society, but to maintain power structures in society and within educational institutions. Sadly, those with the power to change it are the beneficiaries of the existing system. If we really want to solve the massive problems we face as a society and ecologically, then we should probably aim to have as many educated people as possible and not restrict the opportunities to higher learning.