Is the uni admissions system in ‘crisis’?

According to today’s lead story in the SMH:

THE universities admissions index system is in crisis, with many fee-paying students qualifying for places with HSC scores well below official cut-off marks. ….

Until now the UAI was regarded as a national standard to determine university entry,

This is fanciful. The newspapers obsess over the school leavers, but less than half of commencing students are admitted based on their Year 12 results. The latest published figures are 2003, when 43.24% of bachelor degree commencing students entered based on their school results. A quarter started their course based on previous university results, about 8% based on ‘mature age or other special provisions’, and 6.5% on tests prescribed by the university (such as the test the ANU is now using).

This is nothing novel; I have a table (in a pre-Internet publication, sorry) showing school leavers were a minority of commencing students in the late 1970s. So obviously universities have had to use many different ways of assessing who should be admitted. The great virtue of the UAI (or ENTER, as it is called elsewhere), from the universities’ perspective, is not that it creates a ‘standard’ (let alone a ‘national’ one) but that it is cheap, outsourcing most of the costs to the schools and enabling selection by computer.

The correlation between Year 12 results and first-year university results is, in the few published studies, around .3 or .4, making it only a moderately good predictor of how well an applicant will do in his or her university studies. Apparently, the correlation between previous university results and future university results is much higher, which would explain why so many applicants are accepted on this basis (especially now that the government is penalising universities for not hitting ther enrolment targets there is an incentive to take people with more predictable success rates).

Due to an ideology of equity and access, most universities (I have never come across one that doesn’t, but I have not checked them all) have long had schemes for admitting school leavers on less than the ‘official’ ENTER, particularly for students from low SES backgrounds. There is evidence that the ENTER scores of students from government schools understate their academic ability. Usually universities have follow-up on these kids to check on how they are going, and these programs have been very successful in giving people opportunities they would not otherwise have had.

The full-fee places are a sensible recognition that the quota system excludes people perfectly capable of completing their chosen course successfully. It should be seen as just one of many mechanisms used to match students with places. If we only used the quota-driven UAI for admission we would have a ‘crisis’, excluding thousands of capable people. Fortunately, this is one area in which universities show far more sense than newspapers.

3 thoughts on “Is the uni admissions system in ‘crisis’?

  1. Actually, I think the correlation in many — perhaps most — courses based on high school results is likely to be even less one you get rid of the left and right outliers because

    a) It is hard to report non-significant results in many areas. Thus there are probably piles of .1 and .2 correlations floating around.

    b) No university is going to want to say that their admissions procedure doesn’t predict performance at all.

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  2. I imagine that it is certainly true that if you reduce the variation in the sample, then you will find it harder to get significant correlation between school marks and uni marks. But why would you want to do this? If people with very high school marks do very well at uni and people with very low marks do very poorly at uni, then this tells you something useful. It is not caused by a miscoding of the data or some irrelevant extraneous factor, which would presumably be the basis for getting rid of an outlier.

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