There is considerable tension between the aspiration for a comprehensive post school, or tertiary, education system and the lingering idea that university education (and I do mean university not higher education) is, and should be, selective.

This means tackling the clunkiest part of the education system. We manage easily enough to get everyone into a primary school. Almost all then go onto a high school and the large majority complete Year 12.  The move from school to something tertiary is much more random. One part of the problem is the desire on the part of education institutions –universities notably – to choose their students rather than accept those for whom the institution is best suited.

It does not require that those most capable are not supported to do their best. Rather the system overall ought to support all to do their best, with no bias towards any subset.  Primary and then secondary education have faced this hurdle. I would not argue they have necessarily overcome it, but they assume it is their challenge to do so. They do not exclude those who make the task of education harder.

With many discriminations removed from our world, universities cannot pretend that they are primarily about the “best and brightest.”

This is driven by the economic and social advantages of most people being educated, not just the those at the top of the academic pile.  The air of urgency comes from the fear that achieving a broad tertiary education populace is necessary to hold onto current wealth, let alone see it rise yet further.

The Australian tertiary admission centre system was a mighty 1990s effort to perfect selection – each person would be algorithmed to the best remaining course for them.  It is most relevant for a hierarchy of courses and the need to exclude.

American sites, acting against its highly stratified system, are now being established where individuals list their ambitions and education achievements, allowing institutions to approach the person, rather than expecting the individual to know of all potential options. The system finds the good match for the person.

To some degree this is all image. For many if not most courses, universities are keen to attract all suitable candidates and offer them a place. But the public and marketing emphasis remains on selection and competition rather than completion of education.

The best response is to remove the need to ration – if that is not possible then we should ask what is the educational rationale for selectivity in such a future system?

This need not mean no selective courses. If there is an argument that bright minds are sparked by association only with other bright minds or that there is a minimum of entry level knowledge required then make those explicit and work to them.

The universities cannot pretend that they are primarily about the “best and brightest.”  It is important that those brightest are well supported, whether or not they are morally best.  But the large majority at university have never been the brightest, under any meaningful use of that phrase. Most are the “modest and middling.”  And if there is a set of “best and brightest” it rather implies a set of the “direst and dullest” whose needs also should be met.

Nor is there a simple bifurcation with vocational education.  Rather there is considerable overlap that has intensified as higher education has expanded.

The fuss about offering places prior to completion of year 12 needs some close analysis about why this is considered so wrong.  To encourage smooth movement onto the next stage of education having an offer prior to completion of the earlier education stage makes a lot of sense.  There seems less concern about offers to older applicants well in advance of commencement.

Concerns are twofold.  There are claims that school students will slack off if an offer to university is in the bag. Perhaps – but the school systems so far have not shown any evidence for this. That evidence would be a drop in the actual learning outcomes for Year 12.  The second is that it advantages those who can work the system best. This has more validity but is really an argument to make the practice standard not special.

At-school offers point to where we should be heading – a system that links individuals to the next point of study well in advance and expects to do so for every person.  Education institutions should be expected to cater for all those who needs their services. Exclusivity whose rationale is to create exclusivity should not be part of the system.


Conor King is Director of Tertiary Education Analysis


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