Opinion: Do university admissions need a shake-up?

Opinion: Do university admissions need a shake-up?

by Mark Trayling

Much has been said about the general decline of youth (teenage) participation in sport in Australia. What has not been considered though, is that our shabby undergraduate admissions process could be partly responsible for the decline in sporting participation.

If you have a child or remember what it was like applying to most degree courses in Australia, you’ll know of the laser focus of universities just asking about that dreaded TER, or whatever name your state has given to their percentile ranking, or your average weighted percentage. Laser focus is maybe not the right phrase, rather obsession or lazy reliance, take your pick.

This teaches and sends a message that nothing else at school is important to your step into adulthood except your grade. Not your character, not your experiences, not your values, none of it. As a country we could not be sending a worse message to our young people, than being defined by just a number. It also has led to the widespread practice that you choose your degree to maximise the use of your result – not what you are suited for – which might partially explain why Australia has a dismal completion rate… only 31% of people who start degrees in Australia finish them.

In the US, by contrast, universities want to know their candidates intimately. What is their passion, what motivates them, do they have any life changing stories to tell in their development, do they have a heart, do they have leadership skills, what extracurricular activities do they participate in and what do they want to do after university with their degree. This system motivates students to be well rounded and encourages many not to drop out of extracurricular activities in high school so there aren’t “gaps.”

The recognition of extracurriculars in university admissions gives a nod to the power of learnings that we get through sport. Sport teaches us so many vital lessons such as the value of teamwork, perseverance, leadership, healthy socialisation, honesty and fair play (recall Adam Gilchrist’s walk, a great reflection on all of Australia at the time). It has even been seen to build and teach empathy in the case of equestrian sports, through the horse-human relationship. By encouraging children to stick with sports to present a portfolio of extracurricular activities and well roundedness, ensures fewer teenagers drop out of sport.

At the moment, a one-dimensional student who participates in no extra curriculars and might be a bit behind on their social development is always given preference if they have a few extra percentage points than say someone who had captained a sports team and learned important lessons in sport along the way.

The purpose of a university is not just to give out a piece of paper, despite what you may have heard about pressures on passing students who can’t even pass an IELTS exam. Universities have responsibilities not only to ensure students have thought properly about which course to undertake, but what sort of alumnus and type of person in life their students will become. For this, our universities must adopt a more comprehensive admissions system, which encourages well roundedness and participation in extracurriculars such as sport. At the moment, our universities are doing a grave disservice to sport and contributing to its participation decline, if not trivialising it. 

Mark C Trayling is the co-founder of Odyssey, a leadership programme in graduate business education.