Two decades ago, vice-chancellors went to war against the incoming VCE. The most vocal demanded that students be ranked on a single measure so that the "best and brightest" could be identified simply and reliably. Reporting achievement was not enough. Students had to be ranked. The subjects they took would be treated differently, depending on how universities viewed them.
The Kennett government rewarded the vice-chancellors for their bellicose behaviour. Ranking was restored, study scores rescaled to make hard subjects count more than soft options, and internal assessment given less weight. All these changes, which dragged the VCE back into the past, had one objective: to make the school curriculum an engine of academic discrimination and institutional distinction.
Universities hide behind their students.
Today we have ATAR, a national ranking. Like its forerunner, it predicts success at university. It does not measure achievement, but how well students will do, given how universities are. Selecting by prediction of success tries to ration places fairly. But with 2000 tertiary courses on offer, tens of thousands of school-leaver applicants, the approach smacks of simplification and arbitrariness. It is too concerned with elite school graduates and the reputation of elite institutions.
As a tool to send the most competitive students to the most selective universities, ATAR hits its mark. For of the top tenth of undergraduates in 2013, Melbourne and Monash universities together cornered 80 per cent. Of the top 5 per cent of students, they enrolled 86 per cent.
However, scored selection is far from equitable. ATAR parades as the mark of an individual's gifts and hard work. But students owe much to their schools. The greater the academic training, individual support and organisation, the higher the ATAR. Students attending well-resourced, mainly private schools have an advantage in their access to "hard options", marks and ATARs. Academic training in the practice of different school subjects is the key. Private school students, on average, have higher ATARs and therefore muscle out the competition. The search for the best and brightest thus ends up finding an abundance of well-heeled representatives. Very few of the meritorious poor — about six in 100 — make up the elite in the elite universities.
Is it mere vanity that drives universities to prefer students most likely to succeed? Why would a teaching institution of high calibre be so wedded to predicting success when its mission in life is to produce success? Schools are expected to produce success. But young people arrive at university unequally prepared. They are greeted by academics unequally prepared to deal with them. These expect schools to have done their work for them so they can get on with research. By enrolling only students with a high prediction of success, they can focus on the research league ladder. Predicting success relies on what schools do: producing success relies on what universities do. Which is better?
Firstly, the best and brightest are not necessarily the intellectual adventurers who climb Law Quad walls (as in Melbourne's recent publicity). ATAR aristocrats are highly trained students. This does not make them geniuses. They are the survivors of academic practice in the drill hall of the VCE. They know how to manage the dull lecture, the obscure lecturer, the dud course, they ransack past papers, exchange notes, write assignments together. How they got their marks is far from a roll of the genetic dice.( Very good point. Consider the plethora of 'near perfect score' stories we have had over the last week now and some of the students they have praised)
Universities inflate scores in upmarket subjects and deflate them in downmarket ones. Since there is no intrinsic measure of the relative difficulty of subjects, universities upscale what strong students do and downscale what the weak do. Students should indeed be rewarded for tackling difficult subjects. But the difficulty of a subject is relative to the intensity of support available to manage it. ATAR ignores the input of schools. Scores for all students doing Chemistry or French are upscaled, regardless of whether students attend a small country school, a severely disadvantaged high school, or a wealthy private school that caps VCE classes at 15 and gives every Year 7 class two teachers. How is this picking the best and brightest? ( Very good point)
Second, selection based on prediction of success at university produces many unhappy undergraduates.( It would be valuable to follow-up on the 99.9 students well into the university time to see how they are really going. Did their private school hot-house environment used to be their ATAR score work when they were left to their own devices at uni?)
Third, the deal in which students entering the top universities trade off their right to good teaching, transfers resources (which they fund) to research. The emphasis on research productivity encourages universities to select by score, because students who don't have to be taught translates to teachers who don't have to teach. ( How many lecturers really teach and how many leave it to their senior students?)Since the growth of knowledge depends on making existing knowledge widely accessible and engaging, we neglect good teaching at our peril.
Fourth, selection by score has done nothing to reduce failure at university, merely distributed it unequally among universities. Unfairness lies in the heavier burden on teaching and support placed on the newer universities. These have done most to widen access. But taking many students with a mixed experience of school exposes them to adverse performance assessments.
Universities hide behind their students. Predicting rather than producing success, they transfer pedagogical responsibility to schools, claim immunity, and funnel teaching funds into research. The oldest institutions drain more successful students from the catchments of the newer universities and thus buttress their own performance, while damaging their competitors.
It is time we raised our expectations. We should reward universities which have wide community reach, enrol students with a poor prediction of success, and perform beyond what student attributes predict. We should insist that all funds for teaching be applied to teaching, that universities which must provide more teaching support are paid more, and that government and industry fund the full costs of research.
By Emeritus Professor Richard Teese is the author of For the Common Weal: The Public High School in Victoria 1910-2010.( I bought this book for our parent library at school)
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