Alarm over Aussie unis' low entry standards

Universities in Australia have been accepting large numbers of students who fall below the admission requirements, prompting concerns about a decline in the nation's education standards.

The falling entry standards came to light after figures were published last week by Fairfax Media showing that leading universities in the state of New South Wales have been accepting students whose high school rankings were well below the universities' advertised minimum.

These included Macquarie University, where 64 per cent of students who were offered places for this year had a ranking below the cut- off.

The figure was 46 per cent at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), 27 per cent at the University of Sydney, and 59 per cent at Western Sydney University. Universities in other Australian states reportedly had similar numbers.

The figures sparked a debate on whether universities were allowing standards to slip or whether the problem was with catch-all ranking systems that do not consider a candidate's other qualities.

New South Wales State Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said he believed the admission practices of the universities risked damaging their international reputation.

Australia has about 300,000 international university students, with six universities in last year's top 100 world rankings by Times Higher Education.

Mr Piccoli told Fairfax Media last week: "I'm annoyed that universities are taking students with such low marks... For universities that are concerned about their rankings internationally to be taking in students with such low (admission scores) is not a good look. I know they have funding pressures, but that is no excuse."

Most local undergraduates in Australia are admitted into university on the basis of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank - a percentile score that shows how students performed against other students.

The move to admit an increasing number of students with lower admission rankings followed the federal government's decision in 2012 to allow universities to offer as many undergraduate places as they like. The total student population went from 1.26 million that year to 1.37 million in 2014, an increase of almost 10 per cent.

Critics have accused the universities of boosting enrolment to increase their revenue, saying the decision to let in substandard students has drained resources and led to bloated class sizes.

But universities said admissions are not based merely on a catch-all ranking and take into account other factors such as a candidate's leadership skills, community contribution and where he went to school.

Professor Iain Martin, a deputy vice-chancellor at the UNSW, said universities have various schemes to add points to a student's ranking.

This could be based on a student's performance in subjects relevant to a particular degree, or whether he is socially disadvantaged.

A government study in 2014 showed that students with lower rankings are less likely to complete their courses.

Mr Andrew Norton, an expert on higher education at think-tank Grattan Institute, said it was important to ensure disadvantaged students have an opportunity to attend university.

But, he added, it was also important to provide support to students with lower rankings to help them complete their degrees.

"Reform needs to be geared towards not just increasing enrolment, but to what is in the best interests of students and prospective students," he wrote on The Conversation website on Jan 21.

"We want to give them a chance to complete a degree, not just to start one."

This article was first published on February 3, 2016.
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