Letter from Australia: Speaking a blasphemy

I’ve had a few conversations with academics in the field of school education this week and have been amazed at how – unprovoked – they heartily endorse the recapping undergraduate places in teaching degrees.

This is a blasphemy in Australia. Not loving the demand-driven system is akin to not loving Bondi Beach or Steve Irwin. It’s simply unAustralian.

Vice chancellors in particular love the demand driven system. The deregulation of places has delivered vast increases in teaching revenues in recent years – more than 50% in just a decade. Or as former education minister Simon Birmingham put it “rivers of gold”.

The demand driven system has been good for students and universities alike. The economy has held up and graduates have been absorbed into well-paying jobs and unemployment rates among graduates are extremely low. But as we all know, and don’t like to talk about, there have been some negative consequences. Such as too many enrolments in courses that have too-low entry standards and too few jobs on graduation. High attrition rates, particularly among online and part-time students, are a blight on the sector with some universities willing to exploit vulnerable students for financial gain.

Teaching is the one field that has attracted the most criticism and the most scrutiny. That’s because entry standards plummeted as universities enrolled vast numbers of academically underprepared students into education degrees. Cash cows is a phrase that has been thrown around. Just last year, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership released data that showed nearly 40% of undergraduates in teaching degrees had a school leaving rank (ATAR) of below 70. By comparison, across all degrees only 25% of students had ATARs below 70. And, of course, some universities are worse than others.

How bad is bad?

A 2018 report from John Mack at the University of Sydney that was published against the university’s wishes, showed that in NSW and the ACT, more than half of offers into teaching degrees were to students with ATARs of below 50. (The ATAR is a rank that places all students on a scale of 0-100, so the mark indicates performance relative to all other students across the country. With the exception of Queensland – but that’s another story).

Anyway, Mack’s research revealed there were “28 offers made to students scoring an ATAR of 0-19, 29 offers to those scoring 20-29, and 73 offers to students with an ATAR of 30-39”, according to the ABC. Conversely, of the 4,075 offers to school leavers in 2015, only 292 scored a tertiary entrance score above 90. Just 14 scored above 98.

To give the impression that it is just school leavers who are going into teaching degrees is wrong. The low-ATAR situation is an issue, but the vast majority of students who enter teaching degrees do so not on the basis of their Year 12 results. Most are either mature age or have been made an early offer prior to their leaving results (which in my opinion is even worse than low ATAR offers given the lack of transparency and rigour in how these offers are made).

I also have to acknowledge here that the counter argument about low ATARs is that school performance is a very crude and inaccurate indicator of how good someone will be as a teacher. But I digress. A few years ago the government introduced a compulsory literacy and numeracy test for those completing their degrees. Around one in 10 fail (like yikes).

Once registered, attrition from the profession in the first five years is unacceptably high and suggests that graduates haven’t been properly prepared for the realities of life in a school. (Speaking of which, I spoke to an academic once who told me attrition in her university spiked in second year after students did their first practical experience. A case of theory vs reality).

Doff the cap

Labor has flagged it will recap places by putting an ATAR cap of 70 (or 80 – it’s confusing) on teaching courses.

As education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek puts it: “Labor wants the best and brightest Australians studying teaching. If universities don’t do the right thing and fix this themselves, a Labor government will make them.” But what impact that will that have if only 30% of students enter teaching degrees on the basis of their ATAR? Not much.

The Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton has flagged other hurdles for Labor, noting there is no precedent for a Commonwealth government setting entry requirements for university courses (although a couple of states – NSW and Victoria – have done so for teaching degrees in the past few years).

“Labor is hoping that a higher ATAR will raise the prestige of teaching and bring in more high-ATAR applicants. Perhaps it will in the long term, but in the short to medium term it is more likely that the number of school leaver entrants to teacher education would fall dramatically. A huge 12.5 per cent reduction in teacher education acceptances between 2017-18 could be NSW and Victorian government rules on teacher admission requirements biting. And these are not as tough as Labor’s plan,” he wrote in his blog.

Norton says another possibility is that universities could just ignore the ministerial directive. “They won’t genuinely believe that an 80 ATAR is required and won’t want to devastate their education faculties. Just giving in to ministerial demands, without the government having to put its policies before the parliament, would also set a bad precedent.”

We have this interesting policy paradox. While Labor is proposing to cap or limit entry to teaching degrees, it is also promising to reintroduce the demand driven system (which got capped at 2017 levels to 2020). It’s a juggling act of two opposing arguments. Whether Plibersek will be able to pull it off is the question.

In the meantime, there are education academics aplenty who want to see an end to the demand driven system – in their field of education at least. As one senior education figure told me this week: “There are Catholic and independent schools that will not employ graduates who went to universities with low entry requirement. There is a private black ban,” she said. “This is a major problem; setting kids up with huge debts, setting them up to fail, setting them up to drop out.” There is a reckoning to be had.

One response to “Letter from Australia: Speaking a blasphemy

  1. Schools of education could readily cut their intakes or set minimum entry scores within the demand driven system. Like many others, they are falling for the fallacy of composition: it is presumptuous and gratuitous for them to prescribe for the whole sector a policy which they believe is needed to solve problems which are distinctively theirs.

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