ATAR is rising in relevance, new report finds

ATAR is rising in relevance, new report finds

Despite persistent calls to scrap the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) as a guide to university admissions, new Centre for Independent Studies research shows it remains the main pathway for post-school study and that higher ATAR-ranked students achieve the highest completion rates.

In a new CIS paper, ATAR’s Rising Relevance: Exploring admission standards and the falling completion rates of school leavers at Australia’s universities, data scientist and education policy analyst Rob Joseph says smart admissions policies are especially important today, with more school leavers failing to finish their university degree on-time or dropping out entirely.

“Ongoing debate about the ATAR has questioned its suitability and future, but this is misplaced, particularly since proposed alternatives generally create more problems than they solve” he says.

For this reason, Joseph argues policymakers, educators, and administrators should be more, rather than less, focussed on the ATAR’s role in university admissions.

But he says that while the ATAR should be here to stay, there are ways it can be better used.

He calls on the federal government to address problems in admissions, completions, and attrition by reforming transparency and financial incentives for universities.

“When school leavers drop out of higher education, universities should be required to pay a share of the government’s contribution to those students’ tuition costs,” he says.

“This would correct the distorted financial incentives for universities — to enrol as many students as possible and teach them as cheaply as possible — and encourage them to invest in making their admissions process more rigorous and to improve support for students at risk of attrition.”

Joseph examines past research and recent data with respect to university admissions, completions, and attrition, with a particular focus on the growing category of students admitted on a non-ATAR basis — a share that has increased from 15% in 2016 to at least 25% today.

“Non-ATAR based admissions are almost twice as likely as ATAR-based admissions to drop out of university in their first year,” Joseph said.

“Additionally, completion rates are falling faster for non-ATAR based admissions than any other ATAR band, declining by 4.9 percentage points over the decade, over twice the drop for all school leavers.”

Joseph also argues limiting access to university to those with higher ATARs would undermine higher education policy objectives, but better safeguards are needed to support low- and no-ATAR students to prevent high levels of attrition and to promote educational opportunity.

“That requires early intervention measures from universities, including procedures to identify students at risk of attrition, and providing either remedial support well in advance or else remind them of the option to drop out earlier before incurring financial debt.”

The original version of this article appeared as a media release from the Centre for Independent Studies.