Understanding Aussie rules admissions

How do university applications work in Australia? Ant Bagshaw knows, and he's here to tell you.

Ant Bagshaw is a management consultant at Nous Group based in Melbourne

The first time you watch the Australian Football League (AFL), you’d be forgiven (unless you’re living in Victoria) for wondering why there are so many people on the pitch, why physical violence between players seems actively encouraged, and why the throw in looks like a bit the bride tossing the bouquet on her wedding day.

But as with many same-but-different features of life on the opposite sides of the globe, it’s really just another footie variant. When it comes to admission to university for domestic undergraduates, it’s also broadly the same game but with a few local rules to spice things up.

Talking TACtics

Most of the states and territories have Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs) which operate akin to UCAS, and which are owned by the universities in their respective jurisdictions. Prospective students make their selections via the TAC which covers the universities that they want to apply for. Applicants prioritise their choices and they’ll receive at most one offer in each of a few rounds of offer-making. Once they have an offer for a course they won’t be considered by the institutions lower down their list.

But many applicants apply directly to the institution and don’t go via the TAC. For admissions officers, the TAC provides a standardised route with efficient processing of batches of students at regular times of the year. Many direct applications to universities need to be considered on a case-by-case basis looking at factors including educational attainment across academic and vocational courses, and experiential learning. It’s also possible for applicants to take a separate standardised test as the basis for entry, typically for those returning after a break from education.

How many points for an ATAR?

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is one of the main systems used for university admissions. High school students are ranked by performance against peers in their state or territory, with their rank position considered comparable between the jurisdictions. This spits out a number between 0.00 and 99.95 (in increments of 0.05) with an average around 70, taking account of the fact that not all students complete high school.

ATAR is based on a basket of subject-based examinations with scaling to control for the difficulty of securing an equivalent level of performance across subjects, one of those ‘mutant algorithms’ we’re so fond of. Results are available to students in the summer holidays, in December each year, after which institutions make their offers. For students who don’t take standard school exams, taking instead the International Baccalaureate or foreign qualifications, they can get an ATAR-equivalent mark so that they can be compared easily by universities against students taking their state’s or territory’s curriculum.

Universities use ATAR to make selection decisions by ranking the candidates they receive. But they might not just use the ATAR rank on its own. Some institutions will assign ‘bonus points’ which have the effect of contextualising offers. Bonus points might be given for studying in a particular region, at a given school, or participating in an access scheme. While there is significant variation by institution, admissions are closely regulated with recent action to improve transparency.

The form guide

Only around 40% of offers received by prospective undergraduates are made on the basis of ATAR rank. The system is used more commonly at the research-intensive Group of Eight universities, as would be expected given more teaching-focused institutions’ recruitment of more mature-age students and those with more varied educational backgrounds including pathways or vocational courses.

The upside of ATAR is the comparability between applicants and the efficiency with which decisions can be made. But there are detractors disappointed by the way a diverse educational and personal experience is boiled down to a single number: it’s as if A-level tariff total were the one factor with no concern for the mix of subjects. And just as with A-level results there is evidence that ATAR correlates with socioeconomic status, and also that more disadvantaged students outperform their similarly-ranked richer peers when they reach university.

There are reports that students may choose their school subjects based on what they think will optimise their ATAR score rather than what they might enjoy or benefit from more in other ways, and research which indicates widespread belief that the system is unfair. While it determines only a minority of admissions decisions, ATAR’s place in the national psyche is significant.

Kicking goals?

Given the recent disaster of trying to award A-level grades by algorithm, it seems implausible that the UK’s higher education systems might consider a ranking approach to reform university admissions. ATAR might be an efficient tool but it doesn’t solve the problems of inequality in educational attainment, though the bonus point system can help, nor the challenge of how to admit the full diversity of students who aren’t coming straight from school.

For university admissions, just as with AFL, it’s likely that Australia and the UK will agree to disagree on how best to play the beautiful game.

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