OPINION: How do high school students choose a particular degree at a particular university?

When considering their options students usually first check last year’s Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) entry cut-offs. The cut-offs for each degree are published online annually by Tertiary Admissions Centres and by each university.

My university, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), has always published comprehensive information about entry criteria and pathways but in addition we are now also releasing our data on offers.

Our site shows the number of high school leavers receiving offers, the median ATAR and range (minimum, lower quartile, upper quartile and maximum) for each degree. We also detail how many offers we make to non-school leavers (including mature age students, those transferring between degrees, those who have deferred, students joining from other institutions such as TAFE, and others entering via targeted access and equity programs for specific under-privileged groups).

We think the data will help students find degrees that match their expectations. Prospective university students will see that the average student in each cohort typically has an ATAR a little above the published cut-off. So if a student wants to be with others with similar ATARs they should head for a degree with a cut-off close to their ATAR.

The information will also be of interest to students who fear falling just short of the cut-off for their degree of choice. They’ll be reminded that we don’t use the ATAR in isolation. We account for disadvantage via the Educational Access Scheme and we also value high performance in subjects relevant to the chosen degree using our HSC Plus bonus points.

That is, if a student has done well in mathematics, but their ATAR has been pulled down by poorer performance in history, the awarding of bonus points for mathematics may allow students admission to our Advanced Maths degree. We also have a scheme that rewards elite achievement in extracurricular activities or leadership. The UNSW Elite Athletes and Performers scheme recognises potential that a one-dimensional ATAR cannot capture. The details of all these schemes continue to be published on our website.

So even if a student’s ‘raw’ ATAR is just below the published cut-off they should not give up hope. But what does ‘just below’ mean?

Again our data now provides the answer. Typically students receiving offers to UNSW will have performed highly in certain subjects or had leadership experience and, on average, our students receive about four bonus points.

Other things also emerge from our data.

The maximum ATARs show, contrary to some expectations, that nearly all courses attract some very high achieving students who could have gained admission to a wide array of courses. It is great to see so many top students following their passions rather than simply opting for the most prestigious course available.

Publishing the minimum ATAR may provide hope to some prospective students but one must remember that the minimum ATAR will most likely belong to a student who has experienced significant educational disadvantage. Other students will also gain entry via non-ATAR dependent university pathway programs so in a small number of cases we will admit students with lower ATARs provided they have demonstrated their ability to succeed through these accredited pathways.

And our students are succeeding. We are proud of the fact that our success rates are high (around 90%) and we are very proud of the quality of our intake.

In conclusion, we don’t believe the ATAR is dead.

Just as students have to make choices about universities we have to make tough choices about whom we admit. The ATAR system is a foundation on which we build and it helps us to explain why we admitted some school leavers and not others.

If you are a student studying in year 12 our message is simple – keep studying and concentrate on the subjects you wish to pursue at university.

There is a perception in some circles that the expansion of university places via the ‘demand driven system’ means that ATARs are no longer relevant but this is not the case at highly competitive institutions like UNSW. One should also note that all the Group of Eight universities have come together to support publishing annual admission data on ATARs, bonus points, and non-ATAR dependent alternative entry pathways. Similarly Universities Australia has also called for greater clarity so that all students will better understand how things work.

We hope this information – along with our data on offers – will make life simpler for students as they navigate their futures post-high school.

One final message – getting a good ATAR is a major achievement and a big moment but missing out should not extinguish one’s educational aspirations. There are opportunities for students who have travelled many paths – TAFE, university transfers, or university preparation programs. Your ATAR is a start but it need not be the end.

Check the Future Students website for 2016 offers data

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at UNSW. 

A version of this opinion piece was first published in The Australian.