The ambivalence of the ATAR

Plus nothing relaxed about casual staff numbers

The full bottle

Yesterday afternoon Deakin U was promoting its sponsorship of the Geelong Wine Walk on Saturday, as the media was full of floods in the city’s streets. CMM is sure the university will turn water into wine.


The incredible ambivalence of the ATAR

It must be university entry time, with another argument that low ATARs signal a collapse of standards. Given the Australian Tertiary Entrance Rank is a relative measure, dating from the days when UG places were rationed and which does not define any innate ability, capacity to learn, yet alone the emotional intelligence life-long learning requires, the ATAR is a guide, at best, to how young people will do after three plus years of undergraduate study. “It is more important than ever that indicators of a student’s potential to successfully complete a degree are taken into account alongside indicators of past performance at school. … With multiple entry pathways, mature age enrolments and diversity of backgrounds and experience, university entry processes and requirements have necessarily become more complex,” Universities Australia’s Belinda Robinson correctly claims.

But while an obsession with ATARs as a predictor is a nonsense it is one universities have brought upon themselves by banging on about their stratospheric entry scores on the one hand while running special entry schemes, or “our range of innovative admissions programmes” as La Trobe described them yesterday, on the other. Last week UNSW DVC Iain Martin said, “we’ve seen extraordinary demand from incredibly talented students wanting to study at UNSW,” in a university statement which focused on rising demand accompanied by higher ATARs. “Professor Martin said ATAR cut-offs had risen in 12 key programs including architecture, actuarial studies, commerce, science, and criminology. None had dropped,” the  university announced. But yesterday he wrote in an oped for the Sydney Morning Herald that “reducing six years of education to a single ranking is simplistic. We believe NSW should move away from the ATAR alone as quickly as possible.”

The South Australian VCs recognised the tension inherent in the ATAR and university entry in 2013 (CMM January 21) and have now reformed their bonus mark programmes but in other states it can easily appear that getting into university is readily rorted and that the standards coin is clipped so that universities talk up ATARs while accepting people with poor scores under other schemes.

As Labor’s Kim Carr puts it; “almost half of all students who go to university with an ATAR below 60 fail to complete their university studies and are being left with a debt and no degree.

“Labor has consistently said that universities cannot be content with just getting first-years signed up – they have a responsibility to support all students to succeed in their studies.”

Education Minister Simon Birmingham agrees, hinting on Tuesday that the government would require universities to act on 15 per cent first year attrition. “Universities must take responsibility for those students they choose to enrol and ensure they have the capabilities and support to succeed.” Senator Birmingham said he was consulting with the sector on “how to ensure more Australians who start a course, finish and end up in the workforce.” Sounds like something in the budget to CMM.

VCs assembled

Today’s collective noun for VCs comes from Edith Cowan U where an assembly of them is known as “an outrage.”


New ERA impact

So what will changes to allocations of infrastructure block grant funding do to the distribution of funds? With bureaucrats not releasing any modelling who knows, although the National Tertiary Education Union has had a guess.

“The more important question is how quickly and vigorously university vice-chancellors change the internal incentives for researchers to switch from excellence (as measured by publications) to engagement as measured by end user research funding,” the union’s policy wonk Paul Kniest adds.

But there is also ERA 18 to consider which will still measure research output but with impact and engagement added. Just how university managements encourage which research focus for it will require precise policy judgement. A pilot programme to measure impact and engagement is due next year.

No green anywhere

Researchers who look at ARC and NHMRC research funding rates under 20 per cent and yearn for greener pastures should keep yearning. New figures on the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme show 14 per cent of 30 000 full proposals were successful in 2014.

ANU Dec 15 3

Policy through debtors’ prism

Yesterday’s news that the supply of university places met demand last year changes the terms of the political debate on paying for higher education. It empowers Labor to argue that the pressure is now off Treasury to fund ever more growth and thus there is no need to jack up student fees. As Labor’s Kim Carr puts it; “excess demand for university placed has largely been absorbed and enrolment numbers are set to plateau, undermining the Liberals’ supposed rationale for 20 per cent funding cuts and deregulation.”

But that still leaves not many short of a million people running up FEE HELP debts now and as Education Minister Simon Birmingham argues, “while the demand driven system has provided unprecedented access and must continue to be protected it has come at a significantly higher cost to the taxpayer. The Turnbull Government is committed to ensuring the system remains sustainable.”

This sounds to CMM like a signal that there will be at least a reduction in the study debt repayment threshold in the budget – which will be much harder for Labor to reject than the 2014 Pyne plan to deregulate fees.

From deregulation to debt collection in a bare two years!

Nothing for casuals to relax about

There were 20 000 or so FTE casual staff employed at Australian universities in 2014, some 16 per cent of the total, according to new figures from the Department of Education. All up 79 per cent of staff are employed full time. The gender split for casuals is around 12000 women to 8000 men.

Overall most universities were within 5 per cent or so of the average, with even big casual employers like Deakin, UTS and QUT coming in around 20 per cent. Of course the overall number does not illuminate the cases where casual staff do a bunch of first year teaching. As the National Tertiary Education Union pointed out yesterday 20 000 FTEs translated into 100 000 actual people, “a large proportion of whom are responsible for much of the undergraduate teaching.”

“The increasing reliance on staff without any security of employment will undermine the attractiveness of working at our universities, which will ultimately compromise the quality of the educational experience,” the union’s national president Jennie Rea added.

Of course managements could respond that given the high cost of permanent staff using casuals will be essential if universities are to compete on price against NUHEPs and online providers. But what would you expect from management?

On their bikes

Clark Kerr’s First Law of University Administration holds that grievances over parking “hold faculties together.” CMM’s corollary to it states, every story about the cost of parking generates others. And so it is this morning with a Deakin reader advising that if you think parking prices are crook at Murdoch have a look a D U’s Burwood campus. It’s not the prices as much as the way formerly cheap spots were rezoned as expensive ones, at twice the price, the reader suggests. CMM checked this with the university and a Deakin representative replied, “there are no plans to re-zone or increase parking permit fees this year.”

A Monash veteran also weighed in on parking, rejecting CMM’s suggestion that the Clayton campus is remote from the rail. Plus the flat terrain makes bicycling a breeze for staff and even some students. What’s more the university provides lockers and showers for those who ride to work. Course that does not account for riders lost on the winter steppes of eastern Melbourne.


Low profiles

Training Minister Luke Hartsuyker has announced the five Skills Service Organisations which will work with Industry Reference Committees to “develop modern and relevant training packages.” CMM hears Hapsburg Associates got the contract to create antediluvian and useless ones. The SSOs will be run by Artibus Innovation, Australian Industry Standards Limited, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Skills Impact Limited and SkillsIQ. These are the bunnies, sorry bodies who will do the work but the overall supervisory Australian Industry and Skills Committee is where the power is. (CMM May 8 2015).

But other than PwC who are they? CMM thought it was just his ignorance that he had not heard of the others but a VET insider was also stumped suggesting, “perhaps the department could have done more than just list a business name.”


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