UWA today has become the first university in WA to make publically available its Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) entry data. Other universities in Australia who currently do so are the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney.

The information can be found on a new ‘Entry Standards’ page on the UWA website. It sheds light on the median ATAR for 2016 (92.9), and those for each of its specific courses. Prospective students and the curious can learn, for instance, that the lowest median ATAR admissions score this year was for entry into Arts at UWA’s Albany campus (84.4) and the highest was for Medicine with Assured entry via the Bachelor of Philosophy (99.9).

“Prospective students deserve to know the exact basis upon which their application for admission will be assessed, what they are required to demonstrate and some insights into the likelihood of their admission,” says Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson.

“Like any product or service, customers should have access to the information they need to make informed choices. In the case of higher education, we are providing a service in the form of education and our customers are our prospective students.”

The move comes as a result of the Federal Government and Universities Australia kicking the shins of universities everywhere to be more open about their admission process. In January, a Fairfax-led investigation had a poke around confidential data to discover that many universities are setting the bar far lower than the advertised minimum requirements, contributing to lower student quality, deteriorating professional standards, and burgeoning taxpayer debt. As reported by the Australian (who remain, by the way, crud), universities offering placement to students with ATAR scores of 50 has increased threefold in only five years. In hard numbers, this translates into a rise from 3607 in 2012 to 9723 this year.

graphs atarThe ensuring awkwardness saw the Higher Education Standards Panel get involved, and in May, the Group of Eight all humbled themselves in the agreement to publish the lowest, median and maximum ATAR rank required for entry into their respective institutions.

In making public these scores, UWA seeks to prove to everyone interested it is still the number one university in the state for prestige. “A safe space for smart people,” it purrs. “Elite, and proud of it!” screams abandoned Lawrence the Peacock mascot from a forgotten and unmarked grave.

UWA has a reason to tick the boxes. For all of its brand puffery (though bizarre video ad campaigns suggestive of a circus school in a void perhaps aren’t helping), UWA’s reputation has shown to be in clear decline. Where prospective student first preferences for institutions like Curtin and Murdoch have sloped up over the last few years, for UWA, their drop has been sharp, alarming, and embarrassing (check those graphs pulled from a 2015 Review of Courses, found here).

What the figures tell us is that UWA demands quantifiable high performance from young students in the state, right from the get-go. Maybe it can prove its own quality by having a good long think about the many ways it is dallying in self-sabotage, and failing to adequately serve the students it so selectively curates.

Words by Kate Prendergast

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ADDENDUM: DEMAND-DRIVEN FUNDING EXPLAINED

Since the Gillard government deregulated student placement in 2012 and replaced it with uncapped, demand-driven funding, ‘floodgates’ and ‘opening’ are two words that could fittingly be paired, with ‘oh crumbs’ the general feel. To this more accommodating model, there are positives. With less horrendous, life-determining weight on high school performance, more young people with aspirations to gain qualification through their institution of choice are no longer barred the opportunity, nor forced to take a more roundabout path. For those who have suffered educational disadvantage, it is without question a fairer deal. Year 12 becomes less doomy; the months following exams, less choked by the rivers of 17-year-olds’ tears. From an optimist’s point of view, it is a ‘second chance’ system.

Yet from a realist’s point of view, the system – as it stands – is dysfunctional to the point of being hugely damaging. It comes down to infrastructure – which (doesn’t everything) come down to money. Since the beginning of demand-driven funding, both Labor and Liberal governments have successively set about smashing up the piggy banks available to Higher Education. Teaching and learning resources have suffered (#The300), with many universities struggling under the higher volume demand. Currently, Australia holds the woeful title as the second-lowest funder of higher education in the OECD.

The system also favours less-costly courses like Business and Teaching, which universities groom and extol in their branding campaigns at the expense of other courses. Priorities are shifted; the future intellectual landscape of Australia is recast. Schools that require more resources per student head are overlooked. Meanwhile, millions are poured into rebranding campaigns in the desperate attempt to pull in new students.

There is a link to increased casualisation among staff too, as student numbers and subsequently supply/demand statistics fluctuate from year to year. Although casualisation rates at UWA have not vastly altered over the last few years, short-term contracts are rampant, and a leading cause of employee uncertainty and stress.

It’s also arguably exploitative. With recent graduates becoming Mi-goreng-eating ascetics in a savage and arid job market terrain (employment rates haven’t been this low since the 1993 recession), and one in seven students dropping out after their first year of uni, the scooping up of the young and pliable with the promise of a lucrative future career is, well, just misleading. Let us also not forget (though this Honours drop-out would like to): crushing debt – a burden to bear for students, and for taxpayers on unpaid student loans.

As Osman Faruqi wrote: “The ATAR was always a weak indicator of a young person’s future potential and students deserve to be supported while studying – not used as a revenue source and then discarded when they discover they can’t keep up.”

These words also happen to have been written by Kate Prendergast